UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, left, and Conor McGregor face off at a UFC 229 news conference at Radio City Music Hall. Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Conor McGregor will challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov for his UFC lightweight title at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
It already is being called the biggest fight in UFC history. That’s a moniker we’ve heard plenty of times in the past. But this time, it’s probably not just hyperbole. McGregor, from Ireland, is the sport’s biggest star. Nurmagomedov, from Russia, is the unbeaten champion.
Here’s a look at how we have arrived at Conor vs. Khabib.
Tony Ferguson, the UFC’s interim lightweight champion, pulls out of his fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in Brooklyn on April 7 with a knee injury. Nurmagomedov uses this opportunity to call out the reigning lightweight champion Conor McGregor. His tweet is met with no response from McGregor.
A video surfaces of a verbal confrontation between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Artem Lobov, a friend and teammate of Conor McGregor. Nurmagomedov and Lobov exchange words at the hotel in Brooklyn as both were in the hallway during fight week. It is unclear what was said or what caused the confrontation.
At the pre-fight news conference, UFC president Dana White says McGregor will be stripped of his lightweight title after never defending since he won it on Nov. 12, 2016.
After the UFC 223 media day concluded, Conor McGregor and a group of his people, including Artem Lobov, storm into Barclays Center and run into an elevator. Shortly thereafter, McGregor and friends run out of Barclays Center and into a waiting SUV. In between, however, McGregor is captured on video (Watch here. Warning: strong language used) attacking a bus full of UFC fighters. On that bus is Khabib Nurmagomedov. McGregor throws a hand truck at the bus and shatters a window, with parts of that broken glass injuring Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg and preventing them from fighting that Saturday. Lobov is removed from his fight that weekend. Just before midnight, McGregor turns himself into police custody.
“This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company,” UFC president Dana White says.
Conor McGregor is arraigned in a Brooklyn criminal court, along with teammate Cian Cowley, for his actions in the melee at Barclays Center.
At the UFC 223 press conference after the ceremonial weigh-ins, Khabib Nurmagomedov has to answer questions about the incident as well as his new opponent, Wantagh’s Al Iaquinta. “Send me location,” Nurmagomedov says about wanting to face McGregor. It becomes something of a tagline for Nurmagomedov fans and headline writers.
Khabib Nurmagomedov wins a unanimous decision over Al Iaquinta to become the undisputed UFC lightweight champion. After the fight, UFC president Dana White confirms that Nurmagomedov is the promotion’s sole champion at 155 pounds.
Conor McGregor, along with Artem Lobov, attends the FIFA World Cup final in Moscow as a guest of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “This man is one of the greatest leaders of our time and I was honoured to attend such a landmark event alongside him,” McGregor wrote on his Instagram account.
Khabib Nurmagomedov also attends the World Cup final and posts this photo on his Instagram account.
Conor McGregor accepts a plea deal that dismissed felony and misdemeanor counts stemming from the April melee at Barclays Center. McGregor pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct violations and must perform community service, attend anger management classes and pay damages for the bus. The plea keeps McGregor out of jail and maintains his ability to fight in the United States.
Speaking to media at UFC on Fox 30 in Calgary, Khabib Nurmagomedov said of fighting Conor McGregor: “I want to change his face.”
At the UFC seasonal press conference in Los Angeles, the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov fight officially was announced in dramatic fashion to close out the event. Ticket pre-sales begin Wednesday, Aug. 15.
Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov faced off (without a bus in between them) for the first time at a news conference at Radio City Music Hall. The scene was chaotic, even without any fans allowed in the building. McGregor was his usual boisterous self, with targeted personal attacks that showed he did his homework mixed in amid the insults he hurled at Nurmagomedov. Was the champion from Dagestan rattled? If so, he didn’t show it. Oh, and McGregor used much of the news conference to promote his new whiskey.
In the least shocking bit of news of fight week, Conor McGregor showed up late to the pre-fight press conference. Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t care. “I have a schedule,” Nurmagomedov said. “I have to make weight. I have to worry about myself. If someone is late, it’s not my problem.” He answered questions and left the stage before McGregor showed up. UFC president Dana White later called the move “brilliant.”
After all the back-and-forth comments about “mauling” and “devastating KO” and the like, and amid thousands of amped-up fans, things got a little chippy at the ceremonial weigh-ins between McGregor and Nurmagomedov.
Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov finally entered the octagon to face each other in the “biggest fight in UFC history.” Nurmagomedov submitted McGregor in the fourth round. Then things got interesting. Months of insults turned into a melee as Nurmagomedov scaled the cage and jumped to the arena floor to go after Dillon Danis, a close friend and cornerman of McGregor who was yelling at the lightweight champion. Two members of Nurmagomedov’s entourage then climbed into the octagon and started throwing punches at McGregor.
Conor McGregor wants a rematch. He begins the next round of verbal sparring on Monday on social media. The “battle” reference also may indirectly relate to the fact that McGregor received his full purse from the Nevada State Athletic Commission while Nurmagomedov has his purse on hold pending NSAC’s investigation and potential charges.
Gian Villante discussed two very different sets of hiccups ahead of his fight at the UFC’s Long Island debut on Saturday.
First up, those irritating ones he was unable to shake in the days leading into his last two fights.
The second set, however, belonged to the New York State Athletic Commission, which is in its first year regulating mixed martial arts.
“It’s difficult, they do some things differently, but they’re new at this, so you can’t blame them for having their hiccups in the beginning,” Villante said. “They’re going to have their hiccups in the beginning and stuff like that but they’re still early on.”
NYSAC has made its share of mistakes in these initial months, most notably Daniel Cormier’s towel on the scale trick and the confusion over replay, referees and what’s a legal strike in the Chris Weidman vs. Gegard Mousasi fight. But, with each event, things seem to be improving.
New York became the final place in North America to remove its ban on MMA when the State Assembly passed the bill in March 2016. A month later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill at a Madison Square Garden ceremony. In November, the UFC hosted its first New York show at MSG, setting attendance and live gate records for the venue and promotion.
NYSAC has overseen no less than seven major professional MMA events in total, and UFC on Fox 25 last Saturday at Nassau Coliseum went off without incident. It was the fifth trip to New York for the UFC, and regardless of previous missteps, the promotion has no qualms about continuing to bring events here.
“Yeah, there’s little things with the commission, whether we just need to coordinate it all, but each show has gotten easier and easier and they’re running fine,” said Marc Ratner, UFC vice president of regulatory affairs. “I’m very, very pleased with it.”
In the beginning
As weigh-ins and medical checks for the UFC’s first show on Long Island wrapped up Friday morning, Ratner sounded comfortable with how the state has embraced the sport in the first year.
“There was a pent-up awareness and people wanted to see it,” said Ratner, who led the charge for MMA legalization. “It took us eight years to get OKd here. We can tell from the television ratings, the number of pay-per-view buys, this is a great area for us to promote in. When we finally got here, we had the biggest show we’ve ever had here.”
In an email ahead of Saturday’s event, NYSAC spokesman Laz Benitez said the response to legal MMA in the state has been positive.
“Fighters want to fight in New York, the world’s biggest stage,” Benitez wrote. “As for promoters and fans, the State has already hosted six at-or-near capacity cards, so the demand is there and the reaction has been tremendous.”
As positive as the numbers and responses have been, all sides acknowledge the unique challenge of building a new operation.
“The biggest inherent challenge was indeed just that, starting a new product from scratch, although our experience with boxing was helpful,” Benitez said. “The Commission began from the ground floor to develop a game plan that would be fully executable once the sport was legalized.”
Ratner believes any issues are part of a learning curve and that even the little things take time to pick up.
“First of all, we’re doing an early morning weigh-in, this is different,” Ratner said. “We’ve got to see if they’re going to use a digital scale, if they’re going to use what we call a meat scale. Doctors, how long’s it going to take to do every medical. Little small things, nothing extraordinary.”
UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden broke promotional and arena gate records as Conor McGregor won his second UFC title against Eddie Alvarez in the main event. That card on Nov. 12, 2016, was monumental for many reasons. But it also highlighted issues a new set of regulators can face.
“Fighter safety and the integrity of combative sports in New York State are our top priorities,” Benitez said. “And after exhaustive work, preparation and consultation with a multitude of industry experts, the commission put together a framework in time for the sport’s debut last November at Madison Square Garden that achieved those goals.”
The commission’s work resulted in a set of regulations unique to the state, causing some confusion at the start. Under New York’s rules, fighters who don’t make weight still must be within a certain range for the fight to be held. This rule was partially responsible for the cancellation of a bout between Kelvin Gastelum and Donald Cerrone last November. It also forced Jim Miller to come in above 156 pounds for his lightweight bout after opponent Thiago Alves missed the limit by more than six pounds.
When the UFC visited Albany last December, Ratner said a miscommunication left the fighters without a doctor on site who could perform stitches, a typical fixture at UFC events.
“We pride ourselves in having one of the doctors stitch and in Albany, we couldn’t get a doctor to stitch there, we had to have [fighters] wait in the hospital,” Ratner said. “It’s a big convenience for the fighters to not have to wait in the hospital. We always ask for one New York licensed doctor who can stitch. We pay for all that stuff, there was just a miscommunication and we couldn’t get the person there on time.”
Following February’s UFC 208 at Barclays Center, Holly Holm filed and lost an appeal after referee Todd Anderson did not penalize Germaine de Randamie for strikes Holm deemed to be thrown after the round ended. There also was scrutiny of the judging in de Randamie’s win, as well as Anderson Silva’s win over Derek Brunson.
But at UFC 210 in Buffalo last April, the miscues reached their pinnacle. The event nearly lost a fighter over the state’s rule banning female boxers with breast implants from competing. NYSAC reviewed Pearl Gonzalez’s medical records and cleared her to fight that afternoon.
More notably, it was the site of Cormier’s infamous towel grab. After first weighing in at 206.2 pounds — over the 205-pound limit for a light heavyweight championship fight — Cormier weighed in again a couple minutes later. That is allowed under NYSAC guidelines for a championship fight, but not a non-title fight, a fact expressly stated in a boxing guidelines memorandum but not spelled out in the state’s MMA guidelines posted on their website.
A couple minutes later, Cormier put his hands on the towel covering his naked body from view while weighing in for the second time. He was 205 pounds.
“We learned that if you’re going to have a towel around a fighter to make sure that he doesn’t have his hands on it,” Ratner said. “That may have happened before, but this was pretty crazy that it did happen. And sadly, it was tough on the commission.”
In a meeting five days after UFC 210, NYSAC amended language in its guidelines to state a fighter “shall not make physical contact with any person or object other than the scale.”
UFC 210 also put Long Island’s Weidman at the center of controversy. Weidman’s fight was paused after he took two knees to the head from Mousasi originally deemed illegal by referee Dan Miragliotta. But after the use of video review, the strikes were deemed legal and Weidman was ruled unable to continue by doctors. Weidman was handed a TKO loss.
Weidman and others were under the impression replay wasn’t allowed in New York, but it wasn’t strictly banned. NYSAC officials later said the use of replay was justified.
“There was a question of did they have replay or don’t they have replay in the Weidman fight,” Ratner said. “The commission told me they didn’t, then they said they did afterwards.”
Benitez did not comment on specific incidents, but said the NYSAC is learning from each event it oversees.
“As with every new venture and opportunity, there have certainly been instances that the commission has learned and grown from,” Benitez said. “The commission also tapped into an existing pool of established referees, judges and inspectors with MMA experience, making the transition more seamless.”
Improving with time
NYSAC took a publicity hit for these incidents, but there have been some notable improvements, especially at weigh-ins. At Bellator NYC’s weigh-ins in June, Sergio Da Silva repeatedly tried to shift his balance and fool the scale to come in on weight. Three different NYSAC officials told Da Silva to stop the antics, step off the scale and start again.
The commission also was quick to stop Eryk Anders from touching the towel during his weigh-in for UFC Long Island last week.
For the most part, fighters appear understanding of the learning curve.
Villante, who fought in Albany last December, thinks the commission would be smart to seek guidance from New Jersey, the first state to adopt unified rules for the sport back in 2001.
“If they can learn a little bit from (New Jersey State Athletic and Control Board counsel) Nick Lembo over in Jersey, I think that’s one of the finest-run commissions. If they can learn a little bit from those guys, maybe, the next state over, I think that’d be a great thing,” Villante said. “But they’re learning on the fly, which is tough to do, but they’re getting it and I think, in time, it’ll get better and better.”
Benitez said NYSAC consulted numerous commissions in drafting their plan and remains in contact with other states as well as the Association of Boxing Commissions.
Patrick Cummins fought in New York for the second time on Saturday, defeating Villante by split decision. The Pennsylvania native was on the Buffalo card but had no issues getting ready to fight.
“I felt good with the commission. I know there were a lot of problems, especially during that Buffalo card,” Cummins said. “But, me? It didn’t affect me much, so, I don’t know. I don’t know whether to be thankful or to say that, yeah New York’s doing a great job.”
Darren Elkins, who defeated Dennis Bermudez in Saturday’s co-main event, said he understands what New York is going through after fighting in the early days of legal MMA near his hometown.
“I’m back in the day when there was no commission where I came from in Indiana, Chicago and that area. When we first got the commission, they had a lot of snags and they had a lot of things going on, too,” Elkins said. “It’s just working out the kinks, that’s what they’ve gotta do. When they figure that out, it’ll go all smooth. We’re so used to these commissions that have been around for a long time that we’re just not used to seeing something this new.”
The insurance issue
Still, the newness of it all has caused some fighters to pause. New Jersey’s Jim Miller fought in New York twice. Those will be his last fights here, he said.
“I think they’re just trying to reinvent the wheel,” Miller told BJPenn.com Radio in April. “It’s not that they’re doing things that are unsafe or anything like that. They’re trying to take really good care of the fighters. But they’re kind of being really overbearing with it, and a lot of these rules you don’t hear about.”
NYSAC requires additional neurological and blood examinations ahead of fights compared with other commissions such as New Jersey.
Ratner doesn’t see anything wrong with adding new protections, but he does hope to see commissions come up with a universal rule set to help ease confusion here and elsewhere.
“One of the problems, whether it be boxing or MMA, and I’ve been advocating this for 25 years or more, we don’t have standardized medical testing or standardized rules in every state,” Ratner said. “Now we don’t even have unified fight rules, but standardized medicals are extremely important. And I’m a states-rights guy, but we should be able to have the same blood tests, licensure, same hepatitis, HIV, same kind of stuff about MRIs, license calendar year. And every state is a little bit different, and there’s no reason for that.”
Ratner also noted that each show NYSAC oversees is high-visibility due to a $1 million life-threatening traumatic brain injury insurance requirement set by the state legislature, leaving few learning opportunities on smaller stages.
“They don’t have small fights. Every fight is a big fight, whether it’s us or it’s boxing,” Ratner said. “I know that the commission is working on the rules now to make it better insurance-wise. Whether they can do that or not, I don’t know. But what you want is small fights, too, to work on things.”
Benitez said the commission is continually assessing all policies and procedures, but any change to the insurance requirement would need to be approved and passed by the state legislature.
“This is unique coverage in the combative sports world,” Benitez said.
New York may be among the strictest states, but Ratner has not yet heard of fighters turning down fights here.
“I’ve had fighters tell me they don’t want to fight in certain places like in Mexico because of the altitude or something like that, but no, it’s fine here,” Ratner said.
Benitez said the state also is not aware of any licensees shying from New York because of medical guidelines.
For some fighters, thinking about where they compete goes against their fighting mentality.
“I never think twice about taking a fight. As soon as something’s offered, I take it, that’s my style,” Cummins said. “I feel like just because it’s so new to New York, it’s going to be tough, but I’m hoping they have things figured out now. No towel blunders this time around.”
Elkins said he leaves it to the people who sign his check to make those decisions.
“Honestly, I’ve seen some of the things that are going on there, but all you can do is move forward,” Elkins said. “When they ask you to fight somewhere, it’s work, man. It’s either that you work or you don’t work, and I like to work and I like to compete. So, I took it. Is there concern? A little bit, but hopefully I keep things in my own hands and I don’t have to worry about anything.”
Bermudez believes fighters who do things the right way should have nothing to worry about.
“Everything I do, I just show up and do me,” Bermudez said. “I’m not a panicky, worrying kind of guy,” Bermudez said. “I don’t cheat the system in any way, shape or form so I have nothing to be concerned with.”
Gastelum was back in New York for a main event after his weight issues and NYSAC rules forced him off UFC 205 at the Garden.
“There was a little bit of hesitation, but at the same time, this was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Gastelum said.
Even Weidman, Long Island’s biggest star who defeated Gastelum in Saturday’s main event, had people close to him telling him to avoid fighting in his home state. But, fighting at Nassau Coliseum was too much to pass up.
“Definitely a little hesitation, more hesitation with, like, my team, the people around me who care about me, they don’t like the way the New York commission dealt with a lot of stuff,” Weidman said. “Behind the scenes, with me, with the way the fight went down, with that and other things. There were some people that were like, ‘You’re not fighting, I don’t care, you’re not fighting in New York.’
The PinPoint Muay Thai gym in Lynbrook was long and narrow. The overhead lights were turned off. The only illumination came from the sun’s rays shining through the windows in both the front and back of the gym.
Two students were learning various striking techniques. While putting together an eight-punch combination, one student confused the order and paused out of frustration.
An instructor, in glasses and a black bandanna with orange flames printed on it, offered insight to his discouraged student.
“Life lesson for martial arts: Don’t give up,” Luke Cummo told the student. “If you mess up, don’t show it. Just keep at it.”
This is just one metaphor Cummo, a former UFC fighter, tries to instill in the young martial artists he instructs.
“You don’t want to teach people that they’re going to tap out in life,” Cummo, 37, said. “To me, martial arts teaches determination, endurance, perseverance.”
Cummo never was submitted or knocked out by an opponent in his six-year professional MMA career (2002-08). He was the last fighter picked on Season 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” then surprised everyone by reaching the final. There, he lost to Joe Stevenson by unanimous decision.
Cummo was 6-6 overall, and 3-4 in the UFC. He lost his last fight at UFC 87 to Tamdan McCrory on Aug. 9, 2008.
Cummo, who grew up in New Hyde Park and now lives in Lynbrook, is developing what he calls Master Lukey’s League of Champions, a form of mixed martial arts that he believes will lessen the chance of injury.
League of Champions does not allow any head strikes. Competitors are fully padded. There are no finishes allowed. Submission moves are called “power holds” where a person can hold a position for a period of time without trying to injure the person.
“Some people have told me, ‘Oh, people like violence.’ I think people like action,” Cummo said. “The best fights are when two guys or two girls are going at it. I think that’s why my system is going to be a success. It is action-packed. When you have two people who are going to battle and they’re not worried about getting injured, they actually let loose a little more.”
Scoring is done on a points earned system based on moves executed, as opposed to the standard 10-9 scoring in boxing and MMA. Think more video game, less typical combat sports judging.
“To me, you put the time in, you’re automatically a champion, that’s why it’s the League of Champions,” Cummo said. “But we have to have somebody with a high score to make it interesting.”
Cummo said he’s planning his next League of Champions event for September. He is aiming to have 20 competitors, ranging from children to adults, each in their own division.
Cummo’s interest in finding a safer way to compete in mixed martial arts stems from his own experiences. He said he was treated for a brain injury in California for four months a few years ago and that he is now fully recovered.
He recalled his mindset from his fight against Jonathan Goulet at UFC Fight Night 5 on June 28, 2006. It was a series of three strikes to his head while he was on the ground.
“At that very moment, I said I don’t want to do this anymore, I just want to get out alive,” Cummo said. “I was crying in the cab on the way to the hospital.”
But as the weeks would pass and things settled down, Cummo would think about the money he could earn from another fight, and sure enough, he’d find himself back inside the octagon four more times before retiring in 2008.
Cummo was arrested for driving under the influence in October 2008, paid a $500 fine and performed 75 hours of community service. He and his wife divorced in 2009. They have two children, ages 8 and 10. He also faces a July 26 court date on two vehicle violation arrests from September 2015, according to Nassau County records.
Cummo remains focused on making his League of Champions a success. He spoke of touring all the gyms in the area to drum up interest in “the safest way to do MMA” as well as taking it national and setting up satellite schools, training manuals, moves lists, etc.
“I thought about getting another job,” Cummo said. “I’ve been doing martial arts so long, I don’t know anything else.”
Keith Trimble watched Gregor Gillespie boxing in the gym one recent afternoon. Gillespie moved well and threw crisp punches as he shadow boxed and hit the heavy bag.
Then, Trimble recalled a different sight in a different time.
“The worst,” Trimble said.
He remembered the first time he held pads for Gillespie, a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion.
“He almost broke my elbows,” the longtime trainer at Bellmore Kickboxing said.
That was a few years ago on the calendar and a few light years earlier in Gillespie’s development from wrestler to a more complete striker for mixed martial arts.
Gillespie, who lives in Massapequa, now moves better than ever with his hands. The transformation isn’t complete — it seldom is in mixed martial arts — but the rounding out of Gillespie’s skill set grows smoother by the day.
That was evident in his most recent fight last April at UFC 210 in Buffalo when he knocked out Andrew Holbrook.
Gillespie (9-0, 2-0 UFC) clipped Holbrook with a perfectly timed stepback left hook. He followed it up with several strikes to the grounded Holbrook to win the fight in 21 seconds.
It was the first knockout in the UFC for Gillespie, who had three wins by technical knockout while fighting his way to the lightweight title in Ring of Combat.
Add in three submission wins and that’s seven finishes for a growing MMA fighter with an impressive wrestling pedigree. He won two New York state titles while at Webster Schroeder High School and was a four-time All-American wrestler for Edinboro in Pennsylvania.
“If it’s stand-up, if it’s gritty takedowns, if it’s ground and pound, if it’s submissions, you’re going to see a lot of persistence,” Gillespie said. “I’m resilient and I’m a workhorse.”
Gillespie is awaiting his next fight booking. He indicated that he’d like to get on the UFC 25 card scheduled for Sept. 7 in Edmonton.
Gian Villante’s Long Island credentials are as strong as he is.
He won Newsday’s Thorp Award as the top football player in Nassau County when he was a two-way star for MacArthur High School in 2002. He won two county wrestling titles and is one of five active UFC fighters to have won a New York State high school championship.
Villante then went to Hofstra University where he became a three-time All-American football player.
He prefers the sleeves on his shirts go no further than where his shoulders stop and his arms start. And, there’s a burger named after him at Sal’s Place in North Massapequa.
So, of course he’s all kinds of fired up to finally fight at home when he faces Patrick Cummins on the UFC Long Island card at Nassau Coliseum on July 22, right? Well, yeah, but he brings the perspective of a 22-fight veteran.
“Business as usual, go in there, get a win,” said Villante, who grew up in Levittown and trains at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. “The only thing different is I’ll have a lot more people to celebrate with. I don’t have to rush home to celebrate with all my friends and family. I can do that 10 minutes away now, I’m good.”
There are perks to fighting across the street from where he starred in college (and across a few streets from where he often works with training partner Chris Weidman). No airplanes, no passports, no extra travel expenses for his cornermen, plenty of familiar voices in the crowd supporting him.
Again, though, Villante compartmentalized the significance of being one of the six Long Island-based fighters on the first UFC Long Island fight card.
It’s a familiar refrain for the 31-year-old Villante.
“My last fight was against [Mauricio] ‘Shogun’ Rua, a world champion. The fight before that was my first time ever fighting in New York, so every fight, there’s some sort of ‘Why this is the biggest fight of your life?” Villante said. “And I talk about it all the time. No matter what, your next fight after this, it’s going to be the biggest fight. It’s going to be way bigger than when I fought at Nassau Coliseum. The next fight is always the biggest fight of your career, so I just try to think of it like that. It’s nothing new, just another huge fight. They’re all huge at this point. You never want to lose any fight you’re in.”
Villante (15-7, 5-5 UFC) is ranked 13th in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, a class that, even with the return of former champion Jon Jones, isn’t the jewel of the promotion that it once was. If Villante can string together a few wins in a row, he could quickly move up the ladder. A win over No. 11 Cummins would be a good rebound after losing to No. 5 Rua last March.
Villante also appreciates the lifestyle of being a professional athlete, a job he always wanted growing up. He found his niche with mixed martial arts.
“The good thing about MMA, there’s no coach out there telling you, ‘Hey you gotta do this better, that better,’ or ‘It’s your fault this happened,’” Villante said. “In MMA, it’s your fault anything happens. Wins and losses, that’s it, it’s just on you, there’s nobody else to blame.”
There’s freedom in such a lifestyle, even with the grueling regimen of training camp for a physical and full-body sport. Villante was able to be a guest bartender on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen, work with Dana White and Matt Serra on an upcoming episode of “Dana White Lookin’ for a Fight” and cook with Lidia Bastianich.
“I’m my own boss,” Villante said. “All my other friends with these jobs waking up early and this and that. I wake up when I want, I do what I want, I have fun and then all I gotta do is go in there, get punched a couple times and punch the other guy even harder. It’s fun to me. It’s not a real job. One day I’ll have to get a real job, this ain’t it. I fight because I love it and it’s fun. One day I know I’ll have to grow up, but hopefully, that ain’t any time soon.”
GIAN VILLANTE’S UFC FIGHT HISTORY
April 27, 2013
Ovince Saint Preux
Lost by majority decision (doctor’s stoppage), Round 3, 0:33
Chris Wade almost got onto the UFC’s Brooklyn card last February as a late addition. Didn’t happen. He almost landed a late spot on the UFC’s Buffalo card in April. Didn’t happen.
“I’ve been healthy, I’ve been raising my hand, ‘pick me! pick me!” the Islip-raised Wade said earlier this month.
This, of course, was after he already secured a spot on another New York-based UFC fight card, one slightly closer to home.
Wade will battle Frankie Perez in the first fight of the night at UFC Long Island at Nassau Coliseum on July 22. Just after 4 p.m. that Saturday, he’ll be the first fighter to enter the UFC’s octagon in Long Island, what with this being the promotion’s first event here. He’s also one of six Long Island-based fighters scheduled to compete inside the renovated venue.
“Fighting at Nassau Coliseum means the world to me,” said Wade, a former state wrestling champion at Islip High School. “This is like our little mecca of sports and entertainment, so to fight there is a real validation that you’ve made it in whatever path you’ve chosen.”
Ten months will have passed since Wade last fought in September when he lost a unanimous decision to Islam Makhachev. It was his second straight defeat, both of which came against Russian-based grapplers.
“I was starving for a fight,” Wade, 29, said.
Both competitively and financially.
Healthy the entire time, the competitive spirit inside Wade needed to be set free upon someone besides training partners. Plus, he’s a homeowner on Long Island and has a daughter to support.
Like most up-and-coming MMA fighters, Wade teaches classes at his gym (Long Island MMA in Farmingdale) and gives private lessons. He also helped open a second Long Island MMA gym in Islip. Wade also has a stake in Island Strong, an apparel business focused on taking pride in Long Island and all it has to offer.
“Not having fought in New York yet, being that outside guy looking in, I’ve been looking to jump in any way I could,” Wade said. “So to hear Long Island, my ears perked up, I’m like I gotta have this.”
Wade (11-3, 4-2 UFC) has four career wins by submission and seven by decision. Two of his four UFC wins came by submission. He and the New Jersey-based Perez (10-3, 1-2) fought once before in Ring of Combat, with Wade winning by split decision to defend his RoC lightweight title. It was the first career loss for Perez.
He wants his Long Island debut to be something fans all over the world will remember. Not only to secure his immediate UFC fighting future, but to help stand out amid a crowd of lightweight fighters each trying to make a name for themselves with the work inside the octagon and their sound bites on a microphone.
“I definitely need to make a statement this bout, considering the way things have kind of been going,” Wade said. “I’ve watched it creep from a true sport, like, just get your hand raised, to this almost WWE-esque entertainment entity where they want to see promo videos, they wanna see the trash talk, they wanna see the whole nine to bring the fan in.”
In Brian Kelleher, the MMA world found an excitable guy who in the hysteria of winning his UFC debut against a Brazilian fighter in Brazil, with the adrenaline flowing, worked the microphone like a promo-cutting veteran looking to sell his next fight.
The regular world knows a different Kelleher.
“I’m very low-key,” said Kelleher, 30, of Selden. “I like nature, I like going out to the beach, just hanging out and keeping it low key. I don’t really go out to the bars or anything like that. That’s not my style. I’m more of a homebody.”
With his euphoria on display during his post-fight interview, which aired live on FS1 last month during the UFC 212 prelims, both worlds saw the next step in Kelleher’s pursuit of his singular dream. He submitted Iuri Alcantara in the first round via guillotine choke.
Kelleher then called out UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby for a $50,000 performance bonus, asked to be fed more sharks and informed the Brazilian crowd that he just beat one of their hometown guys.
Rather gutsy approach for a guy with 108 seconds of time spent in the UFC’s octagon.
“I have one vision and that’s to become the world champion,” he said after a recent training session at Long Island MMA in Farmingdale. “All I do is think about my next training session. While I’m training my first session, I’m like, ‘What am I going to do the next session?’ That’s all I’m thinking about. I’m just dedicated, disciplined and ready to take this to the top.”
Kelleher takes his next step against Marlon Vera (9-3-1) at UFC Long Island at the renovated Nassau Coliseum on July 22.
Kelleher (17-7), who fights out of Maxum BJJ in Centereach, was born in Oceanside and grew up in Selden. He never wrestled in high school, something of a rarity of American mixed martial arts fighters – even more atypical for a fighter from Long Island. Team sports were big with Kelleher growing up.
“Once I got into fighting, the feeling of victory after all the hard training, it was unexplainable,” Kelleher said. “It was like no other sport I’ve ever been in. I think that kind of kept me going and now it’s my life.”
Kelleher hadn’t fought in more than a year before his June 4 UFC debut. He knew his sport’s top promotion eventually would contact him for a fight, a high-risk play that certainly brought its share of rewards in the past two months.
One fight into his first stint in the UFC and he gets booked on his hometown card, which just so happens to be the UFC’s first event on Long Island (and its fifth in New York since the state legalized MMA in March 2016).
“I’ve always been booed, I’ve always fought the hometown guy, I’ve been the away guy,” Kelleher said. “But finally we’re coming home to fight in front of my friends and family. It’s going to be a surreal feeling. I think it’s going to be even more special than my debut, just for that fact that everyone that’s been supporting me over the years is going to be there in attendance.”
To the passers-by, mixed martial arts may look like a throwback to a less civilized and less cultured society.
But, for those men and women willing to put their bodies in harm’s way, it is far more than just two people punching, kicking and contorting each other until one person is stopped from doing so.
“One of the appeals of fighting is not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Dennis Bermudez, the No. 10 ranked UFC featherweight fighter from Long Island MMA in Farmingdale. “You can only prepare and hope that you’ve done everything correctly and that you’ll execute everything correctly while you’re in there. But when everything goes your way and you dominate another man against his will, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Bermudez knows that feeling 17 times over. He also has seen that same feeling expressed by six other fighters at his expense, including his last fight against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung.
Bermudez, who grew up in Saugerties, New York, and moved to Long Island in 2010, takes aim at the good feeling on July 22. He’ll fight Darren Elkins in the co-main event at UFC Long Island at Nassau Coliseum. It is the promotion’s first event on Long Island and the fifth in New York since the state legalized MMA in March 2016.
“Walking into the Coliseum is going to be like another day walking in the gym,” Bermudez, 30, said. “I’m going to wake up in my bed, I’m going to drive 25 minutes to Nassau Coliseum and I’m going to throw down.”
He is one of six Long Islanders on the card that night, a group including LIMMA teammates Ryan LaFlare and Chris Wade, plus Chris Weidman, Gian Villante and Brian Kelleher.
For Bermudez, MMA became something of an extension of athletic goals he didn’t accomplish in high school and college. He wanted to be a state champion in high school, he said, but he never qualified for the state tournament. In college at Bloomsburg (Pennsylvania), he wanted to make the NCAA Tournament and make a run for the title. That didn’t happen, though he was a freestyle wrestling All-American.
When he began MMA in 2009, Bermudez set his next goal: get into the UFC. After nine pro fights, with seven wins, Bermudez earned a spot on Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” He reached the final, losing to Diego Brandao in 2011.
“It’s kind of like I’m making some headway on some goals,” Bermudez said.
Indeed, along with the next one.
“My goal was to get into the top 10,” Bermudez said. “I’m in the top 10, so now we’re trying to climb up and be a world champion.”
A seven-fight win streak from May 2012 to November 2014 pushed Bermudez to as high as No. 7 in the rankings. Back-to-back losses to Ricardo Lamas and Jeremy Stephens moved Bermudez down a few spots. He won two of his last three fights, though, keeping him in the top 10.
“I’ve got a win over Max Holloway, who’s the current UFC champion of the world,” Bermudez said “and I want to climb back up there and meet up with him again.”
There are times when UFC lightweight fighter Al Iaquinta gets recognized by a potential home buyer. Not so much because they’ve seen him in the Home Smart Realty office or his face in an ad, but more so from the years spent knocking people out inside the UFC’s octagon.
“‘Hey, you’re that fighter guy,'” Iaquinta said in describing what clients say. “It’s funny when that happens. It’s a talking point. If anything, it helps.”
One night last March inside Longo and Weidman MMA in Garden City where he trains, the 30-year-old Iaquinta opened the calculator app on his phone. Time for some quick math. Give or take a couple of bucks, if Iaquinta sells four “middle class” homes on Long Island, he would earn approximately the same as the $26,000 show money the UFC was paying him to fight Diego Sanchez in April at UFC Nashville. Iaquinta won that fight by knockout in 98 seconds, so he also earned another $26,000 in win money. That’s eight houses to be sold and zero punches to the head or kicks to the body to be received.
Iaquinta wasn’t awarded one of the four performance bonuses by the UFC that night, which would have sent Iaquinta back to Long Island with another $50,000. That didn’t sit well with the man they call “Ragin’ Al.” He put his feelings into words – a few of them choice, too – on social media that night. Naturally, they became headlines that night and the next day.
Iaquinta followed it up with an explosive interview that Monday on MMAFighting.com’s “The MMA Hour.”
“The whole bonus thing is just ridiculous,” Iaquinta said in that interview about how the UFC rewards top performers on fight night. “The fact that they’re giving $50,000 bonuses, it’s like their little way to control everybody.
“I don’t understand how everyone just thinks that’s normal, $50,000 bonus. A bonus is like a little something extra. Fifty-thousand dollars is like three times some of these guys’ pay. That’s not a bonus. That’s like life-changing stuff. And oh, it looks great. But guess what? That’s their little way to control you.”
Much else of what he had to say isn’t printable here. But it had people talking … and laughing … and writing.
It also helped turn “Ragin’ Al” into something of an instant favorite among MMA fans. There’s something about hearing a person hammer their bosses about money and other perceived injustices that resonates with the everyman. The little guy standing up to the big bad wolf without fear. MMA fans, as highly critical a group as any in sports, always appreciate a good laugh. Iaquinta provided that.
He also has provided some sparks in the octagon. Iaquinta won his last five fights dating to 2014, including knockouts of Sanchez, Joe Lauzon, Ross Pearson and Rodrigo Damm. He won a split decision over Jorge Masvidal.
A knee injury, combined with his contract dispute, kept Iaquinta out of the octagon for two years before the Sanchez fight.
Will he fight again? Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends on how he feels.
He said recently that he might try to get onto the next card at Madison Square Garden, believed to be this November although not officially announced by the UFC. Iaquinta was supposed to fight Thiago Alves on the first MSG card last November, but he decided not to sign the bout agreement because of monetary concerns.
Instead, Iaquinta went about his way in the real estate world.
With a backpack full of goodies, Aljamain Sterling went to work.
“I’ve been a hustler ever since I can remember,” Sterling said.
Dollar candy bars, two-dollar king size bars. And those Capri Sun drinks that were frozen at the start of the day?
“By third or fourth period, they’d be like a slushie,” Sterling said.
Those went for a buck.
Not a bad gig for an enterprising young kid in his primary education years.
Sterling, a top-ranked UFC bantamweight fighter, has 19 siblings. He lived in Roosevelt then moved to Uniondale. He wrestled at Uniondale High School and in college at Cortland.
“They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere and I truly do believe that,” Sterling, 27, said. “I think there’s something about it, in this atmosphere, where you develop that go-getter attitude.
“I grew up in Roosevelt, I grew up in Uniondale, right next door to Hempstead and all these places that people don’t really like to go to. I never shy away from going back to those places because I know those are the places that helped mold me. That’s me. That’s who I am at the very roots of everything.”
Who Sterling is in the mixed martial arts world is a talented fighter with a skill set that many people say translates to future tight contender.
He began his career with 12 straight wins, including a title in Cage Fury and a 4-0 start on his UFC resume. After back-to-back losses by split decision to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao, Sterling beat Augusto Mendes by unanimous decision last April.
“When you get to a pinnacle of the sport where we’ve reached, you become really appreciative of anything you get and really appreciative of the background you have,” Sterling said. “I’m a product of my environment but I never let the environment define me.”
Sterling is next scheduled to fight Renan Barao, a former bantamweight champion, at UFC 214 in Anaheim, California, on July 29. That fight will take place at a catchweight of 140 pounds since the California State Athletic Commission won’t license Barao at 135 pounds because of past issues with weight cutting.
Regardless of the contracted weight of the bout, Sterling sees the bigger picture. He knows a win over Barao carries a certain cachet. At one point, Barao had a 33-fight non-losing streak (one no contest) and was among the pound-for-pound best in the sport. It would mark the next step in Sterling’s career.
“With MMA, I haven’t gotten that financial stability and satisfaction yet, but there’s something you just can’t really trade for the experiences and I think that speaks for itself,” Sterling said. “I think that’s worth more than money. There’s a couple more things I want to experience before I hang ’em up and be content with what I’ve done in the sport. Right now I’m going to keep this gravy train rolling and keep pushing toward the top.”