New York Fight Night: Triumph Kombat – Part 1
I walked up excitedly to the entrance of Madison Square Garden. This is where I had seen my first Muay Thai fight two years earlier, just a month after I started training at the Renzo Gracie Academy. Madison Square Garden is the pinnacle of fighting arenas. The greatest fighters in the world have competed at the Garden — Rocky Marciano, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta, and the late, great Muhammad Ali. It was only last year that I saw Gennady Golovkin, better known as “GGG,” defeat David Lemieux to unify the middleweight title. Most recently, after several years of legislative battle, MMA finally became legal in New York. Immediately, the UFC announced their first fight in the Big Apple, scheduled for November at the Garden. I was going into one of the most historic venues in the United States to interview amateur Muay Thai and MMA fighters that had the same dreams as the pros who had came before them. Admittedly, I was a little nervous.
My coach Elijah was with me as he would be taking pictures of the fight. He was cool, calm, and relaxed, having photographed several events before. He also is a pro Muay Thai fighter himself and knows the feeling of stepping into the ring. We went through security to promptly be told that we would have to use a different entrance on 8th Avenue.
Elijah nodded at me and said, “That’s where the fighters go through.” I had to walk fast to keep up with his long legs as we rushed to back. Elijah had fought and won at Muay Thai at the Mecca II, at Madison Square Garden, in November 2012. He knew exactly which entrance to use.
I followed him to the door, where we had to go through security again. It seemed like every person who walked by knew Elijah and shook his hand. I waited anxiously to receive our press passes. The security guards watched the Warriors-Cavaliers basketball game on their phones and would occasionally relay the score into their radios.
“Second quarter, Cavs are up. I really think they got a chance to win the finals.” the guard behind the desk muttered into his walkie-talkie. A man in a suit brought our passes and nodded at Elijah.
“How’s the baby?” he asked my coach as he led us inside.
We went down a concrete hallway that opened into the floor of the Garden. VIPs walked by us with beers in their hands as I was suddenly overwhelmed by seeing all the people in front of me. The lights shined brightly into the center of the ring and illuminated the faces in the crowd. I walked past security and was now just a few feet away from the ring. I began to feel panic. I had forgotten my assignment and felt too shy to talk to any of the fighters passing me by. Elijah was taking out his equipment and caught sight of my face.
“Elijah, you can’t be shy or nervous right now, because I am shy and nervous,” I said anxiously. He laughed at me.
“Pari, I am neither shy or nervous right now. Neither are you. Find a couple fighters who won’t be competing until the end of the night, or talk to people a little while after they fight. Don’t try as they warm up or their fight is upcoming, they need to focus. You know what you’re doing, and I’ll be right here if you need me.” He pointed to a seat directly in front of the ring and smiled reassuringly at me. I took a deep breath, nodded, and went off to find someone to interview.
I figured I would start with the guys who were going last. At the beginning of the event was a four-man tournament, 140 lbs for Muay Thai and 147 lbs for MMA. Those individuals would be fighting again at the end of the night for their title and most likely were trying to relax in the back. If there was anything I learned from watching people compete more than once in a day, it was that they needed to remain focused the entire time. I walked towards the locker rooms and asked a security guard if I could go up to interview a couple of the fighters.
“No way” he said as he glanced at the red pass hanging from my neck. “Media isn’t allowed up there.” I turned away for a second and thought about what I needed to do. I could see the next fighters climb into the ring and imagined how they must feel with hundreds of people watching them. I was in a dark little corner of MSG, where the only light that we could see was from the spotlights glaring over the ring.
I walked to another security guard a couple feet over.
“Hi, my name is Pari and I am a writer for New York Fighting. I needed to talk to a couple of fighters, and I promise I’ll be real quick with them.” I smiled at the man and tried to look as convincing as I could.
“Well, press isn’t allowed back there but… Ah what the hell. You seem like a nice kid. You won’t be starting any fights up there, right?” he asked gruffly.
“No sir. I just want to ask them a couple questions about their fight.” I smiled again.
“Alright kid, follow me.”
He led me past the security guard who originally told me no, and before the guy started to protest, he told him I was with him. The security guard sighed loudly and shook his head. I followed my new friend past a door and up the stairs. We were now on the stage behind the ring, where the DJs and coordinators for the event were sitting. Some had beers and food, but they mostly looked intently at the ring. We walked past them to another set of stairs and into another concrete hallway. The lights weren’t very bright and there was no noise other than our footsteps.
“Over here is the blue corner,” the guard said, as he pointed into a room. There were several fighters and their coaches sitting on couches or on the floor. A large television was broadcasting the event and had close-ups of the fighters flashing on the screen. A girl was sitting cross-legged with a mongkon, the traditional Muay Thai headband, and gloves already on her hands. She was quiet as her coaches did a prayer over and around her. I was whisked away by the guard before I could see anymore.
We walked down a narrow hallway. I saw Taj Rueda, a competitor for Chok Sabai, warming up in the middle of the floor. He shadowboxed intensely, but when one of his coaches said something to him, he would turn and smile at them. He bounced a few times on his feet and stretched his arms out wide. The security guard and I quickly walked past them. Taj and his group smiled and acknowledged us. I could hear his sharp exhales from shadowboxing in the distance.
“Over here is the red corner. You only have a few minutes, so pick someone to interview and then I have to get you out. My ass is on the line by having you up here.” We were now in a large room, with the fighters spread out in different corners. I glanced down at my sheet.
“How about Ahmad Ibrahim?” He was the main event against Ricardo Mixco and trained out of Rami’s Elite in Philadelphia. I saw his team at almost every single fight that I went to.
“Ahmad? Where’s Ahmad at?” The guard called out. The room went silent and a young man in a sweatshirt stepped forward.
“I’m Ahmad. What’s going on?”
“There’s someone here who needs to talk to you,” The guard said. A couple of people from Ahmad’s team stepped out behind him.
I cringed inside. It was like being called up to the principal’s office without knowing what was going on. They probably thought I had brought some kind of bad news, when all I wanted to do was ask a couple of questions about the fight.
Ahmad and the individuals from his team walked towards me. I saw Rami Ibrahim, the main coach, look at me inquisitively. He was in the middle of talking to Yasmeen Salhani, who was about to fight next. I didn’t mean to interrupt but couldn’t leave now.
“Hi Ahmad, I’m a writer for New York Fighting. Do you have a few minutes to answer some questions?” My nervousness came rushing back. The guard was now leaning against the door entrance and checked his watch pointedly.
“Sure, it’s no problem!” Ahmad looked relieved that I wasn’t telling him something happened to his fight.
“Great, okay! So tell me, what’s it like coming all the way up here from Philly? Are you happy to be in New York City?”
“Yeah, it’s really great. It’s a long way here, but it only gives me more time to think. I focus on nothing other than my fight and spend the trip thinking about what I am going to do.”
I noticed his teammates still behind him. “Are these your cornermen?”
Ahmad looked to his sides and smiled. “Yeah, they corner and coach me.” The men nodded at me and smiled slightly.
I saw Yasmeen still in the back with Rami. She would be fighting within the next twenty minutes. I had seen her fight several times before and almost every time I saw Rami’s name on the card, she was competing as well.
“Are you excited for Yasmeen? For yourself? Will you be able to watch her fight?”
Ahmad nodded. “I do get to watch her. She’s really amazing and does a great job. I am excited to see what she does for this one. As for myself, I’m ready to go. I trained for this and I know that I’m ready physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
“Cool! And what is the first thing you’re going to do after it’s all over, considering you’re the last fight of a very long card?” I focused on Ahmad’s face as I heard the security guard clear his throat.
“White Castle. I am going to eat White Castle.” He smiled broadly.
“Alright kid, we gotta go.” The security guard walked over to me and tapped my arm.
“Thanks so much Ahmad, and good luck!” I said quickly. The men nodded at me again and turned to walk back to their teammates.
I followed the security guard back out into the hallway. Taj was still there, but was now talking to his coaches. We walked by them again and I followed the guard down the stairs. The quiet stillness of the lockers contrasted with the deafening noise of the Garden as I walked back into the arena.
To be continued…..
Keep an eye out for Part 2, out later this week
Writer: Pari Aryafar
Editor: Kyle Antonelli
Photo: Pari Aryafar
Tags: Madison Square Garden, New York Fight Night, New York Fighting, Triumph Kombat