Tommy Marcellino was pacing fiercely in the ring. Three steps left, quick turn, three steps right, quick turn, his eyes locked on the fighter in the opposite corner.
“Now introducing, on my right, fighting out of the blue corner of the decagon … ” the announcer boomed over the thousands of fans gathered at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
Marcellino threw punches into the air.
“His record: seven victories, three defeats,” the announcer continued, “Standing 5-foot, 9-inches tall, weighing 155 pounds, fighting out of Amsterdam, New York, introducing … Tommy! Gunnz! Marcellino!”
Marcellino pointed into the air and blew a kiss into the camera.
Two days earlier, he was sitting in the kitchen of his apartment in Amsterdam, a stone’s throw from City Hall. His coach was in another room watching fight footage.
“I’m happy,” Marcellino said about the chance to fight Connecticut native Nick Newell. “He’s from down there. I’m excited to go beat him up in front of his friends and family.”
With 20 seconds left in round three of the fight, Marcellino had Newell on his back. The crowd was chanting his name: “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!”
There would have been four times as many fans chanting on his home turf, Marcellino said — but, as a professional mixed martial arts fighter in New York, he’s not sure he’s ever going to hear a hometown crowd.
He’s 31, which isn’t old, but he knows the clock is ticking on his professional fighting career. Since professional MMA is illegal in New York, he’s going professional as a boxer this year just for the opportunity to fight at home.
He’s been fighting professionally for six years, and has heard plenty of talk of legalization in that time, enough to leave him skeptical of whatever new momentum may be building.
“At this point it’s silly,” he said. “It’s the last state left. It don’t make sense.”
In the weeks before Marcellino’s fight, he was joined at the Extreme MMA gym in Amsterdam by state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who has been a vocal supporter of legalizing MMA.
The assemblyman held a set of pads and let the fighter throw a combination of punches, following his instructions — he would throw a right-handed swing when Marcellino threw a punch to his left hand; Marcellino would duck the punch. They kept repeating that pattern.
Santabarbara learned later that they were mimicking some of Newell’s favored moves.
“This is a sport just like boxing, just like wrestling, any other sport you can name,” Santabarbara said later. “These athletes have a passion for it. They want to compete at the highest level. They want to have a chance, the opportunity to work at competing at the highest level.”
Back in the days of video stores, when Marcellino was maybe 9 years old, he and his older brother Tony would rent Ultimate Fighting Championship videos. This was in the early days of the sport, when it was still somewhat in the shadows. They were renting tapes with names like “UFC 1,” “UFC 2” and “UFC 3.”
And the 9-year-old Tommy started doing the math, Tony remembers: “If he’s 9 now, and he’s a pro by the time he’s 25, he’ll be in tape number whatever.”
Marcellino wrestled through high school, then found the world of wrestling doesn’t extend much beyond that. He picked up boxing, then started getting into things like jiu-jitsu and other martial arts, and was into MMA before knew it.
“Which was blowing up at the time,” Tony said. “It was taking off, and now it’s even more so. But at that time in, like, 2006, when he first started fighting, it was just kind of becoming mainstream.”
The Oct. 17 fight at Foxwoods was Marcellino’s 13th career fight, including two boxing matches.
Tony and his whole family, as many as can make it, have been to just about every one. At about three hours away, the fight at Foxwoods was a welcome relief. Usually, they’re traveling four or five hours to places like Atlantic City and Pennsylvania.
He’s never had much of a problem watching his brother fight. It’s an adrenaline rush, he said, but he knows Marcellino’s not going to be seriously hurt. He’s seen enough fights to know the referee will stop when things look dangerous. His brother may get beaten up and come away with a broken nose, but rarely anything more serious.
“Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt,” he said. “People want to see people get punched in the head, but they don’t want to see nobody get hurt forever. The way the sport is set up nowadays, and the regulations to it, have created a safe environment, just as safe as boxing or football.”
Marcellino sold about 130 tickets to that fight, which Tony said is actually on the low side. He often brings about 200 or more fans with him.
“If he was fighting in Albany, Schenectady, Syracuse, he’d get 1,000 people that would go to that fight, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Tony said. “And Tommy is one person. There’s a hundred Tommys in New York state right now that are traveling outside of the state. Their family and friends are spending money in other places that could be revenue for New York state.”
Santabarbara was also front-row for Schenectady’s first amateur MMA event at the Schenectady Armory in September, which he said could pave the way for the city to host the first — or at least maybe one of the first — legal professional fights in the state.
The fight, hosted by Cage Wars, drew 1,000 or so fans, people Santabarbara said would not have otherwise come to the city.
“I think showing what it has done for Schenectady, it shows what it could do statewide,” he said.
The sport, if legalized, has been projected to generate $33 to $35 million in economic activity, he said.
He said he plans to make MMA legalization a priority in the state Assembly’s next session in January, and feels confident about its odds as more and more lawmakers are coming on board.
“It’s something that was being considered toward the end of session, and now that we’re back, I don’t think we should wait,” he said. “I think we should do this.”
In an auto garage in Amsterdam’s East End, Mervin Rodriguez was cracking open an axle from a Dodge Dakota pickup truck. He was wearing a pair of white latex gloves to protect his hands from the gobs of grease, a practice he knows most mechanics would laugh at.
But like most days, he was going straight to the sparring gym after work, and he didn’t want to leave greasy black handprints on his partner’s gi.
In the office of Merv’s Auto Repair, the walls are covered with memorabilia from eight years of professional fighting: event posters with his name on them, photos, trophies, two title belts. In the garage, a giant poster of himself hangs on a far wall, a memento from an event in Mexico.
Rodriguez was training for a fight a week later in Massachusetts. Like Marcellino and a handful of other fighters on the Amsterdam scene, he competes professionally out of state.
“I was kind of a troublemaker when I was younger,” he said. “I liked to get in fights. I liked it. So instead of fighting people for nothing, I started fighting MMA. I took my first fight and I loved it. I fell in love with it ever since.”
The Amsterdam MMA fighters are tight-knit. Rodriguez came to the city when he was young, barely speaking a word of English, according to Tony Marcellino. He used to get rides home from wrestling practice with Tommy’s mother.
As he worked, another member of the Extreme MMA gym in Amsterdam stopped by to talk. Marcellino’s Pizza, owned by Tony, is another popular hangout.
“There’s times when we go out to Bruno’s [gym in Troy] and it’s all Amsterdam guys,” he said. “We have me, we have Tommy, we have Harley, we have Manny, we have Jay. We have like six or seven guys that train, and there’s a couple of professional boxers here also.”
Rodriguez is always busy, but especially so when he’s training for a fight. On a typical day in the week before a fight, he opens the shop in Amsterdam, drops his daughter off at school, makes it to a training class by 11 a.m., spars for an hour, goes to another training after that, then comes back to work in the shop until about 5 p.m. After that, he picks up his daughter and goes to two more gyms in Albany and Latham.
“If I don’t train like this, I’m gonna get beat up,” he said. “I don’t have a choice.
His following is not as big as Marcellino’s, but he gets about 60 to 70 people coming to his fights, he said. If they were in New York, he thinks he could draw 10 times that.
Like Marcellino, he’s 31. He gives his all in every fight, he said, but he also treats every fight as if it’s his last — because he knows it might be.
The Amsterdam Mohawks baseball stadium occasionally hosts amateur fights, he said. They put the cage right in the middle of the field. Turn the lights on. Hometown crowd.
“I’m never gonna get that feeling,” he said. “I got a feeling that I’m gonna retire and I’m never gonna fight in New York, which is gonna suck. But hopefully my daughter beats some people up.”