Tonawanda News — The life of a professional mixed martial arts fighter in New York State tests even the most mentally-strong competitor.
Because pro MMA is illegal in New York State, fighters like Tonawanda's Erik Herbert have to travel to get the opportunity to fight, and sometimes even try to make a living. The conditions can be brutal: fighting for a couple hundred dollars, in the home town of an opponent and with very little support.
But Herbert, the No. 1 ranked middleweight in Upstate New York according to upstatemmarankings.com, has figured out a way to make things work, despite the difficulties and frustrations of life on the road. He improved to 5-2 in his pro career Saturday night in Cleveland, Ohio with a unanimous decision victory over Ontario, Canada's Matt Dicensio, who was previously undefeated as a pro.
Herbert was happy with the way he performed in a "big fight" against a tough opponent.
"I've fought some really tough guys and this guy was one of the tougher guys I've ever fought," he said. "I think they brought me in to lose, you know, because I was the out of towner. So it went real well and I got the decision."
The first round was close, but Herbert said he felt he did everything he could but that Dicensio was fighting a good fight as well. In the second "The Bull" started to focus on his ground and pound and abandon his submission gameplan against Dicensio, who is a very talented grappler and jiujitsu guy.
"He knew I was going to come out and try to take him down and try to submit him," Herbert said. "He's one of the more accomplished jiujitsu submission guys out of Canada, and I knew by taking him down we'd be in his world too.
"I just made sure in the second and third round to stay heavy and not give him much space to move. I worked on the ground and pound and just hitting him, instead of setting him up for submissions."
The victory Saturday night helps Herbert and Victory MMA promoter Don Lilly deal with the realities of being or managing a pro fighter in New York State, but it doesn't make either one ready to accept the sport's current plight at the pro level.
Lilly said that the the bill to legalize pro MMA in New York State (bill A 6505) must be brought to the floor of the Assembly by Wednesday or lose another year without pro MMA in New York State — the same thing that's happened the past four years. He said the current rules are costing fighters like Herbert their dreams to fight someday in their hometown.
"Honestly I can't even put it into words how disappointing it is," Herbert said. "It's the only state in America that's not letting MMA happen on a professional level. It's absolutely nuts for it not to be allowed.
"New York State is not letting us compete or make money as athletes, and I get fired up just talking about it. It'd be like every other state and country allowing football and New York just saying, 'since you're from New York you can't play football.' It's just so frustrating."
Herbert is also the head trainer and co-founder of Victory MMA in North Tonawanda. He has a passion and a vested interest for all areas of the sport and its ability to succeed at every level.
As someone who manages fighters and trains amateurs, Herbert said that the inconsistencies of New York State don't help to quell the anger of the pro MMA community.
"We have to pay sales tax for every fighter we train here," he said. "So every person who comes in and signs up at Victory, we have to pay a membership tax to New York State. So New York State makes money off us training people for a sport they deem illegal, but they'll collect the money so we can train people. It's just so backwards and doesn't make sense."
Herbert said that current amateurs at Victory, like Tonawanda's Scott McGregor who will fight this Saturday night at the NT SportsPlex Arena on Ridge Road on the TNT Fight Series' Dynamite card, have a tough decision to make when trying to decide to go pro.
"We have these amateurs and they want to turn pro and I'm like, 'I don't even know if we can get you fights.' We have seven or eight pros, but at the same time if we have any more pros I'm going to spend the rest of the year living out of my jeep," Herbert said.
As the fight continues between MMA supporters and New York State over the right to fight professionally, Victory MMA is set to continue its amateur efforts this Saturday night. The first bout of the 11-fight card is set to begin at 7 p.m. and tickets are available by calling 716-471-0566.
Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.