New York Fight Exchange
By Jason Burgos
Promoting amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) successfully takes a special sort of determination, 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, and a healthy enjoyment of a good scrap. New York Fight Exchange (NYFE) owners Tom Sconzo and Mike Washington have turned their passion project Amazura into a premiere destination for MMA in New York City.
On the day before a recent event, men and women gather in a dimly lit room on the second floor of the Queens night-club to weigh in for their bouts on NYFE’s Xtreme Tension MMA card. A resounding voice echoes across the room, saying 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, explaining the rules and regulations for tomorrow’s event to the fighters and their trainers.
The 33-year-old Washington, a married father of two and Brooklyn native, is NYFE’s matchmaker. He picks the bouts and fighters that the audience gets to see. “I always wanted to be a matchmaker,” he says. “I always felt like I could see talent.” Washington’s straight-forward approach (dotted with adult language here and there) makes him an engaging personality. He has a competitive background in martial arts and experience in fighter management from his days working at KO Dynasty.
His youthful exuberance makes for an interesting contrast with his partner Tom Sconzo. While Washington is lively and conspicuous, Sconzo is more subdued as the weigh-in process plays out. His influence is evident, as he handles fighter paperwork. He explains that he prefers less fraternization with the pugilists because he is a referee and judge for a multitude of fight sports in several states. He does not want to socialize with fighters he could one day officiate.
Sconzo, 60, is a Long Island native and a married father of three. The former vice-president of investments at JP Morgan Chase has spent 43 years 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.
The partners’ different styles and backgrounds makes for a good match in a sport that is all about blending styles. “The two of us have an incredible balance,” says Sconzo.
They met many years ago working as officials for the World Kickboxing Association (WKA) and founded NYFE three years ago. The company has turned into a family affair for both. Sconzo’s wife has worked for the company, along with his daughter, who worked for MMA 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 athletes are not being paid but they are sharpening their skills in an environment that mirrors the larger stages of Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA and Invicta FC where most hope to compete one day.
Ken Sweeney, a 44-year-old amateur and former professional wrestler, is here to take advantage of the available opportunities on an NYFE card. 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 unfortunately a 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.
On fight night, the Amazura has an electrifying atmosphere of combat. 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.
It feels like a combination of sport and concert, as music booms from the speakers 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, most of the fighters in the cage are young. One bout features 23-year-old Hilarie Rose, of Massachusetts, facing off against 20-year-old Queens resident Destiny Quinones. The two straw-weight (115 pound) fighters had a combined five fights under the NYFE brand going into the show.
“I really like it here,” says Quinones of NYFE. Rose — a fighter that considers Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk as influences — was fighting for the second time with the company. “So far so good,” she says. “No bad experiences.”
Safety is a major concern say Sconzo and Washington. There are protocols currently in place to oversee amateur bouts in New York but NYFE goes above beyond these regulations, they say. “We have doctors and not just EMT’s,” says Washington, when discussing the differences in medical care between NYFE and other amateur shows. They also require fighters to get medical exams before fights and use the World Kickboxing Association (WKA) as a third party sanctioning body. The WKA serves as a “checks and balances” of sorts, as an extra level to make sure the fighters health is protected.
A bill to legalize the sport has passed in the State Senate and on the Assembly floor and it now awaits a signature from Governor Andrew Cuomo. With professional bouts in New York on the horizon, will 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,” says Washington. However, NYFE will always devoted to the up-and-comers of the industry. “We’re always going to be loyal to the amateurs and always going to give them a launching pad,” says Sconzo. Former NYFE veterans have progressed on to bigger shows like Bellator MMA and Invicta FC.
“We are about the fighters, it’s always been about the fighters, it’s been about the show,” Sconzo says. Together, the two men, who dug 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.