After Don Lilly left his military service, and his athletic pursuit as a wrestler on the Navy team, a friend's interest in a growing new sport led him to his current passion.
For the last three years, Lilly, 35, has been coaching people in "mixed martial arts" at his gym, Victory Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness on the second floor of North Tonawanda's Sportsplex.
The sport, which features fights in boxing-ring-sized cages, has athletes fighting against each other using arm locks, leg locks, neck holds and a mix of disciplines -- from wrestling to Jui Jitsu, a Brazilian-influence, Japanese-originating martial art to Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, that incorporates kickboxing-like moves.
Now Lilly is working to get the word out about the sport and promote and set up matches between skilled fighters. This year he organized his first in a new series of amateur MMA fights at the Rainbow Rink on Oliver Street. The first match last month went well. Almost 1,000 people bought tickets -- $50 for front row, $25 for the rest -- and no one was hurt.
"It truly is athletes that compete in this sport," he said. "It is not a backyard fight."
Still, it frustrates him that New York joins Connecticut as one of the only two states to ban professional MMA fights: Some of the best fighters are from New York. They include John Jones, an Endicott native, and Rashad Evans from Niagara Falls. Yet their local fans have to go out of state to see them.
So the ban dates back to the early 1990s when the sport was getting started and seemed unsafe to some?
The sport basically evolved with weight classes, and they implemented rules and sanctioning bodies. Other states came up with rules. New York, for whatever reason, hasn't really addressed what the changes are to mixed martial arts.
So it's safe?
The sport's been around for about 12 to 15 years. There has been no sign of major repercussions. They're saying it's such a barbaric sport. I would beg to differ.
In the boxing ring, the only objective is to hit the guy in the head In MMA, you can take them down in other areas besides the head. You can hit a guy in the leg. You can hit a guy in the arm. You can hit an elbow. In MMA, you can take them down and submit them and never even throw a strike throw a punch.
Describe how it works.
These fights are nine minutes in length. They're practicing a martial art or technique. Wrestling, boxing, kickboxing.
Muay Thai originates in Thailand. It's almost like kickboxing, but they incorporate knee strikes, almost what kickboxers will do.
Jui Jitsu. It originates from a couple of different countries: Brazil. Japan. And there's also American Jui Jitsu, which is more taught as women's self-defense. It's more combative.
Why fight in a cage?
They came out with a cage. Basically it's adapted to where all the fights happen in the cage. The guys go in there, they know when the cage door opens or closes, they know that it's time to compete.
Now there are probably 100 cage companies in the country that make cages for gyms across America.
Did anyone get hurt at the Rainbow Rink fights last month?
I had 20 fights and no hospital visits, and everybody was fine after my event and everybody thinks it's brutal.
There could be cuts. There could be bruises. There could be broken bones.
There was one guy that got cut. They see a doctor two hours before they compete and then after they get out of the ring or the cage they're checked immediately by the doctor.
How did you get into MMA?
My background is as a wrestler. Once college is over, there's nowhere for a wrestler to go any more.
I wrestled in high school and I wrestled collegiately for the Navy. I'm a 10-year Navy vet. I went to college for a year or so, and then I went in the military.
I was always around amateur wrestling my whole life. I wrestled since I was 7 years old.
Basically at that point, when I got out of the military, a friend of mine who was a MMA fighter wanted help with wrestling.
So you and two friends opened the gym at Sportsplex?
Everywhere mixed martial arts gyms were popping up, but they weren't in Western New York yet.
Who are your partners?
Erik Herbert. He's a Muy Thai and Brazilian Jui Jitsu fighter. He fought amateurs. His background: He was a Marine, and he did presidential security.
Tom Neff. His background is he's an amateur boxer and trains boxing. A lot like me. He boxed since he was a young kid. Just a guy we knew from Tonawanda. We're all actually from the City of Tonawanda. We're all actually Tonawanda High School graduates.
Who comes to the gym?
I have women [who] are in their 40s that will come and hit the bags and get a workout. On the opposite of that, I have young athletes in their 20s that want to compete in the sport of MMA.
How much money do fighters make?
On average a pro will make $1,000 to $2,000 a fight.
Would you make more money if pro MMA was allowed in the state?
I don't think I would make millions. I think it would help my business tremendously.
John Jones. If he could come in his hometown or Buffalo at HSBC. The tickets are like $500 a pop, not including the pay per views that are sold.
What do you love about watching a match?
It's the unknown. In baseball, you know it's inevitable that the pitcher's going to get the ball and throw it.
You don't know what's going to happen. At any point a submission could be put on. When he comes out to fight, he could box the guy. They're going to go through blood, sweat and tears, and at some point the sports for him or it's not.
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