The New York State Athletic Commission is Still Courting Disaster

THE HAUSER REPORT — As the parties involved work to settle the various legal claims arising out of the horrific injuries suffered by Magomed Abdusalamov at Madison Square Garden on November 2, 2013, the New York State Athletic Commission is still playing Russian roulette with fighter safety.

Medical procedures and protocols have improved since the Abdusalamov tragedy. But there are still instances where the NYSAC is turning a blind eye toward the health and safety of fighters.

On April 14, 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release heralding the return of mixed martial arts to New York. In part, the press release read, “Mixed martial arts contests will be supervised either directly by the New York State Athletic Commission or by a sanctioning entity approved by the Commission.”

On August 31, 2016, Jim Leary (counsel for the NYSAC at that time) elaborated on this third-party supervision of MMA, saying that it would apply only to certain amateur cards. In response, promoter Lou DiBella noted, “Right now, you have a situation where some small promoters are putting on MMA shows using unknown fighters, paying them under the table, and calling them amateur shows. That way, they can get around the state insurance regulations and a whole lot more.”

Is this situation cause for concern? Absolutely.

The case of Gabriella Gulfin is in point. Gulfin is listed by Tapology.com as having had five MMA fights dating back to March 14, 2015, when she was placed on indefinite medical suspension by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board after being knocked out by a punch on an amateur MMA card in Rahway. In mid-July, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission (which regulates both amateur and professional MMA bouts) refused to license Gulfin for an August 19 MMA card in Pennsylvania.

“I won’t touch her unless she gets off medical suspension in New Jersey,” Greg Sirb (executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission) told this writer.

Here’s the problem. While on medical suspension, Gulfin has fought four times on unregulated “amateur” MMA cards in New York. These fights were contested last year on July 18 and July 30 in Astoria, September 24 in Corona, and December 16 in Westbury.

So much for the high priority that the New York State Athletic Commission places on the health and safety of fighters.

On July 5, 2017, it was announced that NYSAC acting executive director Tony Giardina (who had served in that role since August 31, 2016) was leaving the commission to become one of three commissioners on the New York State Tax Appeals Tribunal.

Giardina leaves a mixed legacy. To his credit, he worked to improve medical procedures and protocols at the NYSAC. But by his own admission, he knew little about combat sports. And he helped lock in a system where political considerations take priority over performance, and employees who perform in mediocre fashion are given as much responsibility (sometimes more) as employees who are competent. He had an opportunity to change the culture at the NYSAC for the better and failed to do so.

Too many commission employees seem more concerned with moving into position to get their faces on television on fight night than in doing their job.

MMA project coordinator Kim Sumbler has succeeded Giardina as interim executive director and is likely to be given the job on a fulltime basis. Sources say that, with Giardina’s departure, political directives are likely to be funneled to the NYSAC through Brendan Fitzgerald (first deputy secretary of state at the NYS Department of State).

Sumbler is entitled to a grace period to show what she can do in the job. Meanwhile, the best procedures and protocols in the world are of limited value if they’re not properly implemented.

On May 13, 2017, the NYSAC held a training seminar for inspectors that focused on handwraps and the taking of urine samples. There was a time when trainers like Emanuel Steward were brought in to lecture commission personnel on handwraps. This year, recently-appointed deputy commissioner Tony Carrecia did the job. Dr. Louis Rotkowitz gave the lecture on the collection of urine samples and was corrected by Dr. Angela Gagliardi when he confused a woman’s urethra with a woman’s vagina.

More recently, on July 29, Jorge Sebastian Heiland (pictured) fought Jarmall Charlo at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Heiland is a southpaw. That means he plants his left foot to throw punches. Shortly before the fight, a commission employee (possibly deputy commissioner Robert Orlando) noticed that Heiland’s left knee was heavily taped, which is a violation of NYSAC rules. The matter was brought to Kim Sumbler’s attention, and the Heiland camp was ordered to remove the tape.

In round one, Heiland’s footwork, to be polite, was “awkward.” Commentating for Showtime, Paulie Malignaggi observed, “It’s strange footwork. It’s like his legs are too straight.” In round two, Malignaggi added, “It’s almost like his knees aren’t bending at all.”

Midway through the second stanza, Heiland’s knee gave way and he slipped. As he was falling to the canvas, Charlo landed a solid right uppercut. The punch was legal since Heiland was not yet on the canvas. Referee Benjy Esteves, who had seen the slip but apparently not the uppercut, waved off the knockdown. Then, realizing that Heiland was hurt, he picked up the count at “five.”

Put the puzzle pieces together. The commission had reason to believe before the fight began that Heiland’s left knee was injured. He was obviously having trouble moving and planting his left foot to punch. He was being pounded around the ring like a one-legged punching bag. But Benjy Esteves, who also refereed the Magomed Abdusalamov fight in addition to having Arturo Gatti vs. Joey Gamache on his resume, let Heiland take a beating for two more rounds.

Things were worse in round three. Showtime blow-by-blow commentator Mauro Ranallo noted, “There appears to be something wrong with [Heiland’s] left leg, although the doctors are allowing him to continue.”

“It’s weird,” Malignaggi responded. “I don’t know if he came into the fight like this. It’s so strange. There’s something wrong with this guy’s leg.”

“There’s no question about that,” veteran Showtime analyst Al Bernstein said.

The fight ended in round four, when Heiland was knocked down again and his knee couldn’t support his weight anymore.

Where was the New York State Athletic Commission inspector assigned to Heiland’s dressing room when Sebastian’s knee was being illegally taped? What sort of pre-fight physicals did the NYSAC medical staff administer to Heiland at the weigh-in and in the dressing room prior to the fight? What did NYSAC commissioner Ndidi Massay, who was sitting in the first row at ringside during the fight, think she was watching?

Suppose Heiland had suffered a subdural hematoma as a consequence of the beating he endured against Charlo? The New York State Athletic Commission would be right back where it was with Magomed Abdusalamov.

Let’s repeat that point so no one misses it. Suppose Sebastian Heiland suffered a subdural hematoma after being pounded in the head again and again by Jarmall Charlo? The result could have been a tragedy on the order of Magomed Abdusalamov.

Meanwhile, the NYSAC is in turmoil at the commissioner level.

Legislation enacted in April 2016 increased the number of NYSAC commissioners from three to five. However, at present, there are only three commissioners: Ndidi Massay, John Signorile, and Edwin Torres. Massay’s term runs through January 1, 2019. Torres’s term expired on January 1, 2014. Signorile’s term expired on January 1, 2015. Both Signorile and Torres have been serving on a holdover basis.

It’s not often that more than one NYSAC commissioner attends a commission seminar or fight card in New York. Too often, there are none.

On June 30, 2017, Michelle Nicoli-Rosales (Andrew Cuomo’s deputy director of communications for economic development) confirmed that the governor had nominated three new NYSAC commissioners subject to approval by the State Senate. The nominees are (1) Dr. Philip Stieg, a New York City neurosurgeon; (2) Dr. James Vosswinkel, an East Setauket critical care surgeon; and (3) Donald Patterson, a Buffalo resident who has been involved with amateur boxing. None of the three has extensive experience in the world of professional combat sports. Moreover, the new commissioners can’t be confirmed until the state legislature returns to Albany, most likely after the first of the year.

So the New York State Athletic Commission keeps lurching along.

The commission’s July 11 open meeting was instructive. It began with a review of revised medical protocols formulated by the NYSAC’s Medical Advisory Board under the leadership of Dr. Nitin Sethi.

Sethi, who is widely respected within the boxing community, presented the revised protocols to the commissioners. But the protocols are in a lengthy document that hadn’t been sent to the commissioners until the previous night. It appeared as though none of the commissioners had read the revised protocols, let alone reflected on them.

The commissioners approved the revised protocols. But the discussion that preceded their vote did little to build confidence in the commission.

There was a discussion of whether fighters who are colorblind should be allowed to fight because, it was theorized, they might have trouble distinguishing between the red and blue corners. Sethi explained that colorblindness in and of itself should not disqualify a fighter from fighting.

In the past, fighters with breast implants have been barred from fighting in New York. But that policy was undermined when the NYSAC bowed to pressure and reinterpreted the rule, saying it applied only to boxing, not MMA. This allowed a fighter with breast implants to compete on a UFC card in Buffalo on April 8.

At the July 11 NYSAC meeting, it was announced that the Medical Advisory Board had determined that a ruptured breast implant is not life-threatening. Henceforth, breast implants will be allowed in all combat sports competitions in New York as long as the combatant signs a form acknowledging and accepting the risk of a rupture. In addition, there was discussion of the difference between saline and silicone breast implants (saline is safer) and how large an implant has to be in order to pose a health risk in the event of rupture.

The commissioners also agreed to consider a suggestion that the ring doctor be allowed to interrupt a fight in the middle of a round to determine if a fighter is concussed. As John McEnroe once raged, “You cannot be serious!!!”

Finally, John Signorile complained that the NYSAC had yet to ban flag poles from the ring and that this represents a safety hazard because, if there’s a confrontation between the fighters’ camps during the introductions, someone could use a flag pole as a weapon.

Commissioner Signorile also said that the conference room was too sterile and it would be a more inspiring setting within which to conduct business if there were New York State and American flags at the end of the room.

Author’s Note: Don’t put the flags in the NYSAC meeting room on poles. Someone might use them as weapons.

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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