“We’re always the villains,” said Dennis Sugrue, head mixed martial arts coach at Tai Kai Martial Arts. The villains he’s referring to are Doug Miller and Dustin Whalen, two natives of Oswego County hoping to make names for themselves in a sport that’s swiftly gaining popularity.
The catch is that professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is illegal in New York State, and amateur MMA bouts only became legal a year ago. Until recently Miller and Whalen have traveled everywhere from Ohio to North Carolina competing in amateur fights. “We’re brought in to fight the hometown boys,” Sugrue said.
“I’ve always been into boxing,” said Whalen. “I started watching mixed martial arts and cage fighting, and got interested in doing it myself five years ago.”
Miller, on the other hand, is a veteran of the Fulton wrestling program. “After I went to college, I took two years off, then decided I wanted to wrestle again.” Getting back into wrestling naturally led Miller to MMA.
Miller and Whalen learn techniques and practice fighting three hours a night, four nights a week at Tai Kai gyms in Liverpool and Oswego. The workouts continue on Fridays and Saturdays. “I usually take Sundays off,” said Whalen.
And the next week they do it all over again.
So, what keeps these guys coming back? “Love of the sport, truthfully,” they both agreed. “The adrenaline rush,” said Whalen. “And training with the family we have now.”
“The whole experience,” Miller summed up simply.
MMA is legal in 47 states but not yet in New York. A bill to make MMA legal has passed the State Senate, thanks to Sen. Joe Griffo of Rome. The bill has stalled in the state Assembly, though recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled a willingness to consider the bill if it arrives on his desk.
“Contact your Assembly people,” Griffo said. “Really urge them to take a vote.”
Griffo believes legalized MMA fights would bring in millions of dollars to the state and to local businesses. He believes the brutal sport’s rules protect athletes.
Most importantly, athletes would be able to compete in their home states. Miller and Whalen wouldn’t necessarily have to be the villains anymore, and “all our friends and family would be able to go,” said Miller. Not to mention that some of the biggest names in the sport, such as Jon “Bones” Jones are from New York and can’t compete at home either.
Miller and Whalen have traveled over six hours sometimes just for a fight, but they both say they don’t want to move in order to be able to fight more often. Tai Kai plays a huge part of that. “[It’s] One of the best schools around,” said Whalen. “Greatest school, greatest teachers, greatest teammates. A very humble school.”
In June of last year, in Ohio, Miller brought home a lightweight title, and Whalen won the middleweight title. In February both fought at American Fighting Alliance (AFA) 3, and won again. That night in February Tai Kai fighters won every fight they were entered in. On May 4th the Tai Kai boys will rally again in Watertown, NY at AFA 4: Undisputed. Whalen, whose fight was the AFA 3 main event, will be the main event again to defend his middleweight title against the man he beat in February. Doug’s lightweight title fight will be the co-main event.
“The amateur crop has just exploded,” said Sugrue. “The next generation is training right now. Both of them will be pro in the next year.”
Once a fighter goes pro there’s no stepping back down to amateur level. So, a fighter wants to be sure he’s ready and good enough to make the transition. Tai Kai, as one of the oldest mixed martial arts schools in the Central New York area, is “very specific” about letting their fighters make that choice. “We’ve got about a handful of guys ready to go pro,” said Sugrue. The Tai Kai instructors look at a fighter’s capabilities in striking, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and MMA, as well as his or her class attendance record and BJJ belt level. Though sometimes exceptions can be made.
But with anyone who wants to be a master in their craft, the best fighters put in many, many years of practice.
“If you show you’re an exciting fighter, and you’re good,” said Sugrue. “We’ve had other opportunities for these guys to take title shots, but AFA is local, hometown. It’s nice to reward them and fight locally.”
Senator Griffo agrees. When asked if he’d attend a UFC even at Madison Square Garden were the MMA legislation to pass in the Assembly he said he’d try to fit it into his schedule but would much rather see fights happen in CNY.
As for our hometown heroes, they just want to keep doing what they love. “We’d do the same thing,” said Miller when asked how Tai Kai life would change if legislation passed. “It’d be better because we wouldn’t have to travel out of state.”
And they wouldn’t have to be villians anymore, either.