When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put pen to paper on April 16, 2016, it became a landmark day for the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). By signing the legislation, Cuomo made New York the 50th and final state to legalize the sport of MMA after years of debate. It was originally outlawed in New York in 1997 when the sport was in its infancy and many of today’s regulations did not exist.
Despite not having legal MMA for nearly 20 years, the New York-region, particularly Long Island, has developed into a hotbed of talent. Bellmore resident Lou Neglia’s Ring of Combat (ROC) has been used by more than 100 fighters as a springboard to the UFC, a number of whom have come from Long Island.
With 55 events under its belt dating back to 2002, and No. 56 set for Sept. 23, at the Tropicana Resort and Casino in Atlantic City, the Ring of Combat has become well-known among fighters as an avenue to future success. And that’s just fine with Neglia, a fighter at heart and three-time kickboxing champion who won a title at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in 1985 and knows all about the atmosphere of competing there. In fact, as much as MMA in New York could bring about future business, it’s the fight fan in Neglia that really shines through when discussing Cuomo’s signing.
“Fans have easy access [to New York City],” Neglia said. “And all the fighters are happy to [have a chance] to fight in New York in their hometown. MSG is one of the greatest arenas. I fought there 10 times.”
An expert matchmaker, Neglia’s keen eye for talent and fight styles has Sherdog.com calling his promotion the “American Idol” of MMA. It’s hard to argue with that assessment, considering the number of fighters that have fought under the UFC banner, many from Long Island. Baldwin’s Chris Weidman (13-1) has become perhaps the most notable ROC alumni after winning the welterweight title and defending it three times before losing last December. Of the more recent alumni signees is welterweight Randy Brown, who was personally congratulated by UFC President Dana White after a victory at the Ring of Combat 53 show last November and quickly inked by the sport’s biggest promotion.
“Fighters get more out of losing a close fight than winning an easy one,” Neglia said of his promotion’s tough matchups. “I get tremendous satisfaction [when fighters advance to the UFC]. That’s the point of the Ring of Combat — to find unknown and talented fighters and then watch them go on to the UFC.”
Among those currently making waves for Neglia’s promotion is Taj Abdul-Hakim, a 170-pounder who most recently improved his professional record to 3-0 with a stunning knockout of Gregy Styles at Ring of Combat 55, held June 3. “Everyone knows the reputation of the Ring of Combat,” Abdul-Hakim said. “Everyone knows this is the route to the UFC, so everyone’s coming from your neck. Everyone is tough. There’s no bums.”
Abdul-Hakim endured a leg infection leading up to his first professional win, a decision over Yazan Janeb at Ring of Combat 53, then had to cope with the death of his long-time judo coach during the training camp ahead of his second win by decision at the next event.
Last June, however, Abdul-Hakim turned plenty of heads, including Styles’. He unloaded a spinning backfist despite giving up several inches to his opponent at the 3:33 mark of the first round and earned his first pro win by knockout. A move normally reserved for the taller fighter because of arm length and reach, Abdul-Hakim connected as his opponent was trying to chase him down.
“I never thought I’d pull that move off on anyone, and I still don’t believe it,” Abdul-Hakim said. “I made him chase me and close the gap for me. When I saw my striking was better and defense [of his striking] was better, I was comfortable. I saw an opening and spun. When I connected [on his jaw], I finished turning around and he was on the floor. I saw nothing else and I heard nothing else.”