By Jim Genia
I arrive at the venue at 5:00 p.m., waiting with the fighters to pick up the credentials that will allow me access to all areas. For the sixteenth installment of the New Jersey-based regional promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championships, there are UFC veterans taking on up-and-comers, rising stars facing local tough guys, and a pair of female competitors ready to throw down. But I’m not there to watch them all fight — not this time, at least. No, this time, I’m wandering around the bowels of the Borgata Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City with the singular purpose of shadowing an inspector with the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. There are countless articles on the fight night perspective as seen by the fighters themselves, and last year I sat beside venerable cageside judge Jeff Blatnick to get his take on things. But on this Friday night in August, I wanted something different. I wanted to know what the inspector saw.
Of all the moving parts of a sanctioned fight show — whether it be MMA or kickboxing or boxing — none are more prevalent than the inspector. They are there backstage, watching over the fighters as medicals are done, hands are wrapped, and warm-ups are undertaken. When it’s time to head to the cage, they’re there too, walking the fighter out, and standing beside them before and after the bout and in between rounds. The inspector is the ubiquitous lubricant that greases the gears. Without them, the engine wouldn’t run.
Aaron Davis may be the commissioner of the NJSACB, but Nick Lembo is grand poobah when it comes to MMA, and he wastes no time in introducing me to Vincent Dudley, the man I’ll be shadowing. Dudley is burly and solid and built like a lifelong martial artist, and when he folds his arms across his chest (a common stance adopted throughout the night), he’s a figure of authority and appears every bit the retired New York City Department of Corrections officer he professes to be. He’s friendly, yet there’s no mistaking feeling that if you screw up, he’ll let you know. Dudley has been working for the commission in New Jersey for years now, as an inspector but sometimes as a judge and referee, too. He knows the job.
And apparently, the job begins with getting all the fighters squared away in terms of paperwork, a doctor examination, and a urine sample for the pre-fight drug screening.
When a big show like the UFC is in town, Lembo assigns the individual inspectors to specific fighters, and throughout the night those inspectors are on their men like glue. But at a regional event like the Cage Fury Fighting Championship, where attendance will top out around a couple thousand, the inspectors will float about to where they’re needed. For Dudley, this means swooping in on whichever fighters are lagging behind and making sure they jump through all the necessary hoops. Of course, ultimately, it all boils down to escorting fighters to the bathroom, and standing there patiently while they pee in small plastic vials.
Picture twenty-six men in fight shorts, flip-flops and hoodies, saddling up to a row of urinals in ones and twos, while athletic commission officials in black or blue shirts look on, eyes peeled for any signs of funny business. (Remember when Kevin Randleman submitted a fake urine sample for his fight against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at PRIDE 32 in Las Vegas? That’s what constitutes “funny business”.)
“The job is great,” says Dudley. “But this is the part that’s the real hazard.” Hours later, when the bathroom begins to smell like it’s been used a few hundred times (which it has), I am well acquainted with the hazard he speaks of.
“I want you in the cage for the main event,” Lembo says to Dudley, bout sheet in hand. Normally, there are two inspectors in the cage — one for each fighter — but when there’s heat between the competitors, more are needed to keep the peace. On this night, Colorado native and UFC vet Dustin Jacoby has flown in to take on South Jersey superhero Tim Williams for the middleweight belt, and apparently there’s bad blood.
“Usually, the fighters are cool with each other,” Dudley says to me. Tonight, though, priority one will be keeping two of them apart.
The first fight is scheduled for 7:00 p.m., and once all have completed the first phase, it’s time to settle in to either of the two locker rooms (really, just vacant conference rooms in the Borgata) and prepare. Those who aren’t competing until later on the card, and therefore much later in the night, make themselves comfortable. A Brazilian, slated to fight the CFFC bantamweight champ for the title, snuggles up under a blanket and naps. A popular local fighter named Chris Liguori, who tasted what combat is like in the Octagon years ago, sits around with teammates Frankie Edgar and Tom DeBlass and coach Ricardo Almeida, and they all crack jokes. In the center of each locker room are mats, and it’s there that those who have to fight earlier on the card begin stretching out and warming up. One by one, they also have their hands wrapped.
Everyone who has their hands wrapped (which is done by their coach) has to have the procedure observed by an inspector. There are rules, like how much covering is permitted over the knuckles, and prohibitions against foreign substances such as plaster of Paris, which, when mixed with the inevitable sweat exuded from a fighter’s hands, would turn the wraps into hard shells. Dudley watches it all intently, sometimes telling them to pause so he can feel the materials being used, and when they’re finished and he’s satisfied, he signs his name all over them with a magic marker. He even makes one fighter clip his fingernails.
Since knowing how to wrap hands is a learned skill, when we’re out of earshot I ask his opinion on some of wrapping jobs we’ve just seen. On a scale of one to ten, he gives one coach an 8.5; someone else’s shoddy handiwork merits a six.
After their hands are wrapped, the fighters are taken back to the room where they got their physicals and handed in their paperwork. It’s there that they’re given the gloves they’ll use to fight with (the gloves are provided by the promotion, and they were fitted to each fighter the night before). They’re donned, and the wrists are wrapped in either red or blue duct tape (depending on which corner they’ll be fighting out of).
Besides walking fighters to and from the bathroom, Dudley and the other inspectors have to make sure the fighters ingest no energy drinks. Water, Gatorade and Pedialyte are okay, but Redbull? No way. According to Dudley, they all usually understand the rule and adhere to it — although another inspector is incredulous that one fighter had just asked permission to add a powder allegedly containing “amino acids” to his drink.
“How the hell am I supposed to know what that powder is?” the inspector says to us. “I told him no, of course.”
The clock ticks towards 7:00, and in the locker rooms the tension increases tenfold. Andria Caplan, the female fighter out of Philadelphia — and wife of Bellator matchmaker/FiveOuncesofPain.com founder Sam Caplan — starts to jump rope, while her opponent in the other locker room drills takedowns. A former Division I wrestler named Chris Birchler is going at it with his training partner so hard, a coach from another team that’s standing against the wall mutters, “He gonna burn himself out. He needa relax.”
Then, when it’s time for battle, the fighters and their respective corner men are called by a member of the event staff and led to a staging area, accompanied by an inspector the whole way. From the backstage area we can’t hear the ring announcer’s introductions, but on the screens of the big TVs set up in the locker rooms, we can see the fighters enter the cage. And it’s on those TVs that we all see them fight.
Imagine watching a UFC with a bunch of guys that are about fifteen minutes away from fighting in it. Imagine an atmosphere of anxiousness, of excitement and anticipation, of coaches pointing out who did what right and wrong on the TV while teammates whisper words of encouragement to their buddies who are waiting for their turn to scrap.
A fighter named Jonathan Helwig wins via triangle choke, and the locker room is flooded with opinions. Birchler ends up going the distance with his foe, and though victorious with the hard-earned decision, he collapses in a heap once he gets backstage. It takes a while for the EMTs to coax him onto the stretcher.
Like any true fan of the sport, Dudley watches the bouts as they happen on the TV screens, about as enthralled as the rest of us. But often, duty calls, so it’s back to the bathrooms we go, standing around like attendants (or perverts) as this champ takes a crap or that top contender takes what’s probably his eleventh whizz.
Back to the locker rooms, and Andria is brawling with her opponent on the TV. We don’t get to see the outcome, though; a Pennsylvania-based warrior named Evan Chmielski is up next, so we walk with him and his crew to the barebones office abutting the arena that’s being used as the staging area. Within, there are a few chairs, but no one sits. Instead, the fighter paces while his corner men vary between nerve-wracking silence and last-minute instruction. Standing by the door, Dudley watches impassively. A knock by one of the event staff signals that it’s time to come out, and in the hall, everyone assembles while the announcer calls out Evan’s name and pedigree info (“Fighting out of…”, “Representing…,” “With a professional record of…”). We follow Evan out through the artificial smoke and blinding lights, to cageside, where he gets a brief coating of Vaseline on the ridges of his face and a look-over, and then he climbs into the cage. Dudley stands by his side. When referee Gasper Oliver gives him the signal, Dudley exits the cage. He watches from outside, and at the end of the round (or the bout), he jumps back in, standing vigil once more.
I ask Dudley what he’s looking for when he’s watching over the fighters in between rounds. This time, “funny business” can involve anything from too much Vaseline to a corner man handing the fighter a baggie of crystal meth or a two-by-four. New Jersey’s inspectors have been pretty good about heading all that stuff off at the pass.
Evan is tough and made of iron, but his opponent is sharper and more dangerous, and numerous times Evan’s on the brink of unconsciousness. He fights back repeatedly, however, and the bout stretches on into the third round. It’s then that Evan’s eye swells up like a balloon. The doctor — Dr. Sherry Wulkan, one of the most experienced and best in the business — waves the fight off, taking the time to apologize to Evan for having to do it but explaining that she had no choice. After the announcer calls out the official result, Dudley escorts the battered fighter and his teammates back to the locker rooms.
Dudley repeats the process for Liguori, this time walking out with him and former UFC champ Edgar, Almeida, and boxing coach Mark Henry, and after three rounds of action, and referee “Big” Dan Miragliotta raising Liguori’s arm in victory, he walks the fighter back to the locker rooms as well — or at least he tries to, as Liguori is mobbed by fans and well-wishers en route, effectively delaying the process.
Another walkout, this time for flyweight champ Sean Santella. In the staging area, Santella paces around, muttering forcefully to himself, “My time. My time.” And after the five-round fight, when Santella is declared the winner, he’s mobbed by even more fans and well-wishers, and Dudley is forced to leave him with his family members because it’s time to get the main event fighters ready for their respective trips to the cage.
When Jacoby and Williams are in place and about to fight, there are no less than ten athletic commission officials standing between them. Once, many years ago, I witnessed two fight teams (the Rhino Fight Team and Ricardo Almeida’s crew) flood the cage and teeter on the edge of violence. But this time around the NJSACB is ready, and it’s not hard to imagine one of the fighters sneezing and the sudden movement prompting the assembled commission muscle to kick everyone’s asses. Thankfully, nothing happens, and when Williams is cut open with an elbow and is instantly drenched in blood (think: David Loiseau vs. Tony Fryklund times ten), and the doctors declare the bout over and Jacoby is the winner, there’s still no brawl. As Dudley and the others stand by, Williams and Jacoby hug. For all the supposed bad blood, the night ends on a peaceful — albeit “Dexter-ish” — note. The inspectors’ work is done.
Dudley and some of his NJSACB compatriots usually hit a nearby pizza place for a gigantic slice or two when the fights are over, but it’s almost 1:00 a.m., and the two-hour-plus drive back to New York City beckons. For CFFC 16, there were fourteen bouts that gave the crowd just about everything, and backstage, in the world unseen by most, there were no hitches or speedbumps or anything that would’ve made the machine break down. Instead, Dudley and the others ensured that every fighter was cleared and ready and wrapped. What did the inspector see besides an awful lot of dudes going to the bathroom? He saw everything go smoothly, and did his part to make it so.
It was a job well done.