Promoting amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) successfully takes a special breed of individual. Especially in the state of New York, where it was outlawed for 19 years until its recent sanctioning on March 22. It requires equal parts infatuation for the martial arts, dedication, drive and a healthy enjoyment of a good scrap. New York Fight Exchange (NYFE) owners Tom Sconzo and Mike Washington have turned their passion project into a premiere destination for MMA in New York City. Their drive to succeed, in the sport they love, looks to have no clear end in sight.
I am standing next to a mini-bar on the second floor of Queens, New York’s night-club Amazura. The scene is filled with a mix of anxiety, tension and polite sportsmanship. Men and women are gathered in this dimly lit room to weigh-in for their bouts on NYFE’s Xtreme Tension MMA card. A resounding voice is heard across the room stating that NYFE is the “safest place you can get punched in the face in New York.” It is the voice of Mike Washington, Co-Owner of NYFE. He is addressing the fighters and their trainers about the rules and regulations for tomorrow’s event, and how the company makes safety a priority.
The 33-year-old Washington, a married father of two and Brooklyn native, exudes a joy for his work while surrounded by the fighters he promotes. As NYFE’s match-maker he is a key influence on picking the bouts and fighters that the audience gets to see. “I always wanted to be a matchmaker. I always felt like I could see talent,” says Washington.
NYFE is the “safest place you can get punched in the face in New York.” – Mike Washington, Co-Owner NYFE
His straight-forward approach (dotted with adult language here and there) makes him an affable personality, that is seemingly well-liked by the participants on his shows. His experience in fighter management, from his days working at KO Dynasty, gives him an easy rapport with the combatants. It all meshes to make him a stern, yet energetic, authority figure in this unique business.
Washington’s youthful exuberance makes for an interesting contrast between him and his partner—Tom Sconzo. While Washington is lively and conspicuous, Sconzo is more a man in the shadows as the weigh-in process plays out. His influence is evident, as he handles fighter paperwork, but he is less a mouth-piece and more a calming anchor. It works out in such a way because Sconzo is an active referee and judge for a multitude of fight sports in several states. His integrity prefers less fraternization with the pugilists he could one day officiate.
The 60-year-old Long Island native, and a married father of three, has an elder statesman vibe. The former Vice-President of investments at JP Morgan Chase exudes a glow in his eyes when he speaks of his 43 years spent learning the martial arts. “It’s a way of life,” says Sconzo. He is a black belt in several martial arts and calls legends like Moses Powell, Mike DeLuca and UFC 4 participant Ron Van Clief his friends and masters. He is like a grandfather who enjoys giving lessons around the learning tree. Though, in this case, he is a grandfather who could decimate a man half his age.
It is this blending of these styles, and legitimate backgrounds, that makes for a perfect match in promoting a sport that is all about blending styles. “The two of us have an incredible balance,” says Sconzo.
The two met many years ago as they crossed paths in their shared vocation of working as officials for the World Kickboxing Association (WKA). From that new friendship formed a business relationship. Leading to the formation of NYFE three years ago. As the company has chugged along it has turned in to a family affair for both. Sconzo’s wife has chipped in and worked for the company, along with his daughter, who has helped the process of legalization as an aid to District 3 Assemblyman Dean Murray. Washington counts his wife, along with his brother and sister-in-law as part of the team helping to building the NYFE brand. The two men impart a professional atmosphere, with a family warmth, as they promote an air of opportunity.
For 44-year-old Brooklyn native—and former professional wrestler—Ken Sweeney, opportunity is what he was afforded. After a fighter dropped out of a scheduled bout, Sweeney filled the empty spot against Craig Brian May on a day’s notice. It is an unfortunately common occurrence in amateur MMA, but it is also a chance for any aspiring fighter to get into a cage and gain valuable fight experience on short notice. It’s a risky proposition no matter the amount of preparation, but for these fighters it is chance they relish. “I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the test,” says Sweeney.
While these athletes are not being paid, they are sharpening their skills in an environment that truly mirrors the larger stages of Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA and Invicta FC. Promotions all of these warriors hope to reach one day.
On fight night, the Amazura night club is turned into an electrifying atmosphere of combat. NYFE’s presentation is quite admirable. While none of the fighters on the card are professionals, the set-up of the cage, the lighting and fighter announcements accurately prepares them for what is to come down the line if their amateur runs are successful.
“I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the test.” – Ken Sweeney on fighting in amateur bouts.
The feel in the room is a combination of sport and concert, as music booms from the speaker’s in-between fights or while fighters make their way to the cage. There is a massive screen on one wall showing off the action in the ring, in case the view from your seat isn’t enough. There is even an announce team that calls the action as the show is live streamed to interested parties at home.
Though there are people of all ages watching, it is a youth movement inside the cage. One bout featured 23-year-old Hilarie Rose, of Massachusetts, facing off against 20-year-old Queens New York resident Destiny Quinones. The two straw-weight (115 pounds) fighters had a combined five fights under the NYFE brand going into the show. They are a perfect example of what this promotion is about. Showcasing up-and-coming talent and letting iron sharpen iron on a path to the same goals.
Both women had nothing negative to say about their experiences fighting for the company. “I really like it here, I have never had any bad experiences,” says Quinones, a young woman whose youthful energy permeates in her smile. Rose—a fighter that considers Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk as influences—in her second go around with the company said, “so far so good, no bad experiences.”
Along with promoting an entertaining and visually entrancing show, safety is a major concern for Sconzo and Washington. There are protocols currently in place to oversee amateur bouts in New York. However, they are not without their limits. Where other promoters may cut corners and closely follow these guidelines to their fighters detriments, NYFE goes above beyond to make sure a high level of safety is imperative.
“We have doctors and not just EMT’s,” says Washington, when discussing the differences in medical care between NYFE and other amateur shows. Along with using doctors and having fighters take the necessary medical exams before fights, they also use the WKA as a third party sanctioning body. They serve as a “checks and balances” of sorts, as an extra level to make sure the fighters health is protected.
Now that legalization of the sport has passed in the State Senate and on the Assembly floor, it currently awaits a signature from Governor Andrew Cuomo. With professional bouts in New York on the horizon, could NYFE take steps toward even bigger endeavors? “If they allow us to do Pro-Ammy’s [professional and amateur mixed promotions], I would love to do that,” notes Washington. There will always be a devotion to the up-and-comers of the industry for NYFE. As Sconzo furthers the notion when he says, “we’re always going to be loyal to the amateurs and always going to give them a launching pad.” They will continue to give fighters in New York, and the surrounding areas, a place to get started in the sport. Which can legitimately catapult them on to bigger shows like Bellator MMA and Invicta FC, where former NYFE veterans have progressed on to.
“Where about the fighters, it’s always been about the fighters, it’s been about the show,” Sconzo proclaims. These two men, who went into their own 401k plans to fund NYFE, are building a significant name in the sport of MMA. Their love for what they do comes through in the product they showcase four times a year, on Saturday nights at Amazura. “Toms one of the most honest people I know, and vice versa,” says Washington. And it is that honest and forthright approach that makes New York Fight Exchange a passion project turned legitimate MMA organization.