By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
In a small, sweaty room tucked neatly in a back corner of Amsterdam's Alpin Haus Fitness Center, two best friends dance and feint around each other's punches and kicks, each preparing for the biggest fights of their burgeoning mixed martial arts careers.
For Tommy Marcellino, July 29 in Atlantic City is an opportunity. Undefeated in three professional fights, he's been given his first chance to go after a championship, and he intends to grab that brass ring.
For Manny Millan, July 29 could be a bittersweet farewell. Fighting on the same card as his friend and trainer, Millan knows that his National Guard deployment to Afghanistan is approaching, and this bout could be his last before shipping out.
A little more than 30 miles away in the halls of the state legislature, a debate is raging, and unlike Marcellino and Millan's training session, no punches are being pulled. With the end of the current legislative session rapidly approaching, the fight for the New York State Assembly to vote on a bill legalizing MMA events in the state is as furious as ever.
Sitting in their gym, all Marcellino and Millan can do is wait and hope to see if they'll ever get the chance to fight in their own backyard.
Though its roots can technically be traced back to the sport of pankration at the ancient Olympics in Greece, the birth of what is recognized in present terms as Mixed Martial Arts came in 1993 with the genesis of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
Conceived originally to put practitioners of different fighting styles up against each other, the early UFC shows were violent, bloody and very nearly "no holds barred." Taking place on a mat enclosed in an eight-sided steel cage creatively dubbed "The Octagon," those nascent events cast a stigma on the sport as wild and savage.
Though the face of MMA has gone through a radical change in the intervening 18 years, with the UFC becoming a major draw on television, in arenas and on pay per view, that stigma is still attached to a sport that Sen. John McCain once derided as "human cockfighting."
"It's crazy when you look back to the early days and what it came from," Marcellino said.
Many, including Tony Vellano, a deputy commissioner for the New York State Athletic Commission, are of the belief that the promise of savage violence is still what draws fans into arenas.
"It's so violent that people love it," Vellano said. "They love it because they're present-day gladiators, and the fans are the people in the stands cheering and yelling for death or blood or injury. Do we watch the Indianapolis 500 go around in circles because we like it, or do we wait for the crash? That's what we want. It's the violence that draws us to it -- the knockouts, chokeouts, that kind of thing."
Vellano's hesitant attitude toward the sport echoes that of many of the opponents of legalization. However, fighters and proponents of the sport are quick to point out that MMA is not as dangerous as some might believe.
"Statistics have shown that the sport is very safe," said Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam. "The sport of boxing, which has a very rich history in Amsterdam, if you look at the fatalities in boxing versus MMA, there have been more in boxing."
"The crazy thing is that it's not as dangerous as other sports," Marcellino said. "If you look at collisions from things like football, a ton of my friends are still hurt from high school football and they let little kids play that sport."
Vellano said that, should MMA events be legalized in New York, his biggest concern is making sure that the sport is regulated to provide for the safety of the fighters.
"It's a big push," he said. "It's a moneymaker, it's a draw and people are looking to make a lot of money. What we're not looking at is the fact that its highly violent. They haven't had a death yet. Once they have a death, there'll be a different perspective, more regulation, things like that."
For Marcellino and Millan, getting into MMA was never about violence -- it was about competition.
Marcellino, a former five-year varsity wrestler at Amsterdam High School and an accomplished amateur boxer who won a New York State Golden Gloves title at 153 pounds, stepped into MMA as a way to continue competing at something as opportunities started to exhaust themselves.
"It kind of just fell together," he said. "I always competed in something, and after high school, it was like, 'What now?' I competed in boxing, then I started doing jiu jitsu tournaments."
Millan was neither a boxer nor a wrestler, but he was Marcellino's best friend. Following his return from a tour of duty with the National Guard in Iraq, Millan saw what his lifelong friend was doing and immediately liked what he saw.
"The first time I saw MMA live was watching him fight," he said.
It's fitting that the pair, who train throughout the Capital District as members of the Amsterdam-based Team Stryker, have been nearly joined at the hip throughout their MMA careers. It's been that way for more of their lives.
"We're not just friends, we're more like brothers," Millan said.
"We've been friends since preschool," Marcellino added. "We were born three days apart, we grew up with each other. His family is like my second family, my family is like his family."
With their fighting careers blossoming, both would like nothing more than the opportunity to ply their trades in the cage closer to home, so that more than the 70 to 75 people that they estimate have made the long trips to see their fights can watch them in person.
"That's a dream, to be able to fight here. To get 75 people to go to Atlantic City, that's a pretty big deal," Marcellino said. "But, if you had it up around here, you'd get 10 times that many."
Getting to that point, however, has been a no holds barred battle all its own.
Despite the long efforts of the MMA community, as the legislative season winds down, the bill to legalize the sport remains in the same purgatory that it's been in for years.
Though the New York State Senate passed the bill for the second straight year May 23 by a 42-18 margin, the biggest roadblock has always been in the Assembly and the legislation's biggest opponent, Democrat Assemblyman Bob Reilly of Saratoga County.
Now, with the potential revenue to the state and local businesses, legislators like Amedore believe that now is finally the time to tear down the barriers and start promoting.
"It's much-needed, let's get it done," Amedore said. "Other states are benefiting from it. The economy is extremely difficult, and I don't think Albany and some New York legislators who have an idea of taxing more people and bringing in more programs that they think would help spur economic opportunity [should oppose it].
"I think the state of New York should offer this opportunity, not just for sport participants, but for businesses, for promoters, for advertising to be spent and circulate currency within local economies for this type of sport. I think it would give a great boost to our economy."
Amedore also said that it's time to give the growing population of MMA fighters based in New York a chance to fight close to home. New York has become an MMA hotbed in recent years, and in addition to fighters like Millan and Marcellino, there are athletes like Jon "Bones" Jones, an Endicott native and former state wrestling champion who, at 23 years old, recently became the UFC light heavyweight (205 pounds) champion.
"I think it's really a vital necessity, not only for economic development opportunities ... but more importantly it will give opportunities for a really growing area of the sport for local participants," Amedore said. "It will give them a local venue to fight and to have the event within the state of New York as opposed to having to travel."
With the amount of money that's potentially on the table, Vellano said that MMA's legalization is all but a given at some point in the near future. He just wants to make sure that once regulating the sport is in the hands of the commission, the most important issue is fighter safety.
"I think it will be because what they're looking at more is revenue and the success of it in other states," he said. "The fans of MMA in New York drive to other cities in other states and spend their money there. A state that's really in need of revenue has to seriously look at this, because they will fill Madison Square Garden and these bigger arenas in the state. That's big revenue, but our main concern is always the fighter and to protect him."
No matter what happens with Bill No. A04146A, when July 29 rolls around, Marcellino and Millan won't be fighting in New York, they'll be at the House of Blues at the Showboat Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
And for two Amsterdam kids who grew up together and now train together, simply fighting on the same card is the thrill of a lifetime.
"I think its pretty historic for the city of Amsterdam," Millan said. "There's two local guys going out and fighting on the same card under the big lights in Atlantic City."
Marcellino, who fights at 155 pounds, knows that July 29 represents the biggest fight of his professional career to date. At 3-0 in his career, he's been given the opportunity to go after his first title.
"It's going to be good fighting on the same card [with Manny]," he said. "For me, it's exciting to be fighting for a title."
For Millan, July 29 could be the culmination of a career that saw him go 4-1 in amateur fights before turning professional, where he is currently 0-1. He is due to ship out for a tour of duty in Afghanistan later this year, but turned down opportunities for advancement out of his desire to get this fight in before leaving.
"I turned down air assault school recently because it started the same day as the fight," Millan said. "It was a decision that I made. I want to fight, that's what I am is a fighter, and this could be the last one before I go over."
If it is to be the last fight of a young career, Millan is hoping to go out with a bang, and to watch his best friend and coach capture a championship on the same night.
"This could be the last one," he said. "I may try to squeeze one more in for September, but I can't count on that. I want to make this one count."
Contact ADAM SHINDER at adam.shinder @recordernews.com