Looking for a Fight

"There's no longevity in MMA. One wrong kick, one wrong move. That's it. Your whole career's over."  -- Jerome Mickle, MMA Fighter

HOST INTRO: Most people don’t go looking for fights. But for the past six years, Jerome Mickle has been doing just that. Mickle has been trying to become a professional fighter in mixed martial arts, or MMA. If you’ve never seen it, professional MMA is basically a mashup of kickboxing and wrestling, which until last week, was banned for years in New York. When a new law goes into effect in August, rising amateurs, like Mickle, may finally get a chance to turn pro on their home turf. But as Adrian Ma reports, Mickle isn’t waiting around for that day

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MA: Last week, on Thursday morning at Madison Square Garden, the action wasn’t in the arena, but in the lobby.

CUOMO
Well thank you and good morning to all. 

MA: Governor Andrew Cuomo is flanked by several fighters from a professional MMA organization called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or U-F-C.

CUOMO
You should know that some of the UFC techniques actually were not started in the UFC, but were started in New York politics. (chuckles). No, it’s true. 

MA: After years of slugging it out in Albany, lawmakers have finally agreed to allow professional MMA fights. New York is actually the last state to legalize it. And Cuomo says legalization will make the sport will be safer for athletes and also bring in tens of millions of dollars in tourism and taxes.

CUOMO
It’s great for the sport. It’s great for the state. So let’s sign the bill, let’s make it legal. Thank you. (clapping).

MA:  And with the flick of a pen, Cuomo delivered a knockout blow to the nearly two-decade ban on the sport.

(SOUND: applause ...  fade into gym sounds)

MA: Meanwhile, at this tiny martial arts gym in Kew Gardens, Jerome Mickle is hitting the bags,

(SOUND: punching the pads)

MA: … running cardio drills …

(SOUND: jumping drill)

MA: … and sparring with his fellow fighters.

(SOUND: sparring – fade under)

MA: Mickle trains for 3-to-4 hours a day, five days a week. And with the hour-and-a-half subway ride from his home in the Bronx, it’s practically a full-time job. But since MMA hasn’t been legal in New York, he doesn’t get paid to fight. That’s why, after training, he heads to his job as bartender at Buffalo Wild Wings. Mickle has a 5-year-old son and he says he needs the paycheck.

MICKLE
I got my little man to take care of, you know, I got a fiancé. So it’s like, I got goals. And the goal is for us to get out of the the 9-to-5 lifestyle. (0:08)

MA: Even with New York finally legalizing his sport, it’ll still be several months before pro fights start to happen here. And Mickle says, he can’t wait that long. That’s why for the past several months, he’s been searching for pro fights out of state. Problem is, he’s got baggage. Mickle’s fought fourteen times in New York; most of those fights were in something called the Underground Combat League — a scrappy, unregulated fight series. Think Fight Club. Not Karate Kid.

KILKENNY
I’ve seen headbutts, I’ve seen elbows to the face. I guess people could use the word “barbaric,” because it was barbaric.

MA: Tom Kilkenny promotes amateur MMA fights and has been following the MMA scene in New York for more than two decades.  And in 2010, he started his own amateur fight league after seeing one too many fighters get hurt in the underground scene.

KILKENNY
In no holds barred you were allowed to eye-gouge, you were allowed to, you know, kick in the groin. There just so many different things that were just, uh, what I would call unethical in the way of a sport.

MA: Unethical enough that in states where MMA is legal, fighters like Mickle don’t rank. Even though Mickle is 12 and 2 in New York, in every other state he’s zero-zero.

RUIZ
Those fourteen fights, he cannot get back.

MA: Jonathan Ruiz [ROO-iz] is Mickle’s coach.

RUIZ
That time that he put into training and to being away from his son, and to taking off of work and losing out on money, he does not get back.

MA: And as I’m talking to Ruiz about Mickle, he walks in.

RUIZ
What’s up champ? (hands clap together). I didn’t even tell you today. Uh, I’ve got good news … There’s a promoter out in uh, Massachusetts. She’s like, well, he’s on my list. So you guys are in. I’m waiting …

MICKLE
We’ll see until they start doing the background checks. 

(fade under next act)

MICKLE
This is something I gotta do, this is not a hobby, this is not recreational.  I can’t wait for New York to finally set up something. Even though they made it legal here we’re still waiting for them to set up something. I can’t do that.

MA: Mickle says, he’s in a race against time. And he’s already behind.

MICKLE
I already wasted two years by being incarcerated, so it’s like, I have to catch up, cause I’m getting older.

MA: At 28, Mickle just a few years away from an age where many MMA fighters retire. And every sore muscle, every bruise, every bloodied lip, reminds him that any chance of a professional fighting career starts and ends with his body.

MICKLE
My knuckles are still swollen from the last fight. My body is being put into this as an investment so I need to get something back.

MA: And he says, once breaks into the pros, he’ll be lucky if he lasts five, maybe six years.

MICKLE
There’s no longevity in MMA. One wrong kick, one wrong move. That’s it. Your whole career’s over. (0:09)

(SOUND: music fade into next line)

MA: And he accepts that, cause at the end of the day, he’s loves this sport.

MICKLE
Once the cage close, I hear the click and the ref slaps his gloves togethermy mind is on blank, there’s no more bills, no baby mama drama, no family members right now.(0:10)

(SOUND: punching sound)

MICKLE
It’s very hard to explain. It’s like, your heart is on a thousand, you’re sweating, you feel it, everything in you is tense. Once I usually see guys go from standing at 12 o’clock to go parallel within that. It’s just a thrill. Like, time to celebrate. 

MA: You’re saying this is about your livelihood. But I think a lot of people would hear that and say like, there’s got to be an easier way to make a livelihood than to be a professional fighter. 

MICKLE
What job would hire me? Considering my background of running in with the law, I’m not going to get a Fortune 500 job behind a desk. 

MA: Mickle says, success as a fighter would also give him a chance to give his son a life he thought he couldn’t provide. When he went to prison for two years, his son was less than a year old.

MICKLE
I didn’t get to see my son’s first steps. I didn’t get to hear his first word, even though I was told it was Da Da. He’s gonna remember cause I remember the time not spent. So, I want him to be like, my father took me on a cruise. My father took me to Florida. My father took me to see the world and see more than just the Bronx.

MA: Right now, Mickle has a bout scheduled this summer in Massachusetts. And if all goes according to plan, he’ll fight there in July and return to New York a pro. Until then …

(SOUND: sound of Mickle sparring)

MA: … he’ll be at the gym.  Adrian Ma, Columbia Radio News.