A fighter should always stick to one rule: Keep both hands up.
During a fight, it means protecting one’s face from an opponent’s strikes. And that is exactly what Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight Oluwale Bamgbose expected of his trainees at the Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park, where Aggressive Combat Championships held its latest tournament. Two of Bamgbose’s fighters were on the Oct. 3 card: Steve Sierra of Park Slope and Kelvin Francisco of Washington Heights. It was Sierra’s inaugural fight in the amateur circuit, and Francisco was aiming for a favorable sequel to his recent loss in March.
For Sierra, this fight was about recognition. For Francisco, it was about retribution.
But for Bamgbose, it was about more than that. This was the 28-year-old’s first coaching stint after becoming the latest fighter from the Bronx to compete in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. Standing close to 6 feet tall and weighing 185 pounds, Bamgbose held a nearly unblemished record as the Ring of Combat middleweight champion. The South Bronx native was only given two weeks to prepare for his match-up against Uriah Hall, who held a solid professional record. (Hall’s expected opponent, Joe Riggs, dropped out due to an injury.) Almost three minutes into the first round, Hall pinned Bamgbose down and unleashed a flurry of punches onto his face and torso. The referee stopped the fight and declared a technical knockout.
Bamgbose suffered a loss, but it was a major gain for his overall career. After the match, he was considered a UFC fighter — a title that followed him into Queens Theatre on Oct. 3. And Bamgbose would have to prove that he deserved it. It was appropriate that Francisco and Sierra would fight for him soon after his Uriah Hall match; both trainees were with their coach when he received the fateful phone call in July.
“We all felt like we got into the UFC that day,” Sierra said.
Sierra hopes this possibility isn’t out of reach for him. Like many amateur fighters, he aims to become a professional competitor. But mixed martial arts, or MMA, has a shaky history in New York, the only state where professional MMA is still considered illegal. Earlier this year, a bill that would legalize the sport died in the Assembly after being passed by the Senate — for the seventh time.
Opponents of the bill have referred to the health-related risks of MMA. Approximately one-third of professional matches end in a knockout or technical knockout, leading to a higher incidence of brain trauma than professional boxing, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Currently, third-party organizations such as the United States Muay Thai Association and the World Kickboxing Association are permitted to sanction amateur events in New York, therefore establishing codified standards for safety and judging criteria.
Aggressive Combat Championships founder Tom Kilkenny believes that the fight for legitimacy is entering its final round.
“We feel very strongly that we’re definitely going to see some movement in the beginning of 2016,” Kilkenny said.
Bamgbose hopes the legislation will pass. He remembers the hassle of driving to New Jersey and other cities outside of New York in order to compete.
“Other fighters won’t have to do what I did,” he said.
For now, amateur organizations such as Aggressive Combat Championships serve as a career pipeline for aspiring fighters. Sierra and Francisco were among that hopeful group. They arrived with Bamgbose at the sold-out Queens Theatre around 3:30 p.m., but they wouldn’t ascend the stage until that evening. Competing in the 145-pound, featherweight division, Sierra entered the ring before Francisco, who fought in the light heavyweight category. At 36 years old, Sierra was older than the typical fighter, but two, six-month tours in Iraq offered “The Sergeant” extensive training in Army combatives. And he had two major reasons to win: his wife, Mariah, and their 9-year-old son, Roman, who watched him compete for the first time. As for Francisco, his parents and brother cheered him on from three of the 400-plus seats in the theater.
By 4 p.m., the seats were still empty. The cage, which was 27 feet in diameter, was being set up on the stage. Bamgbose and his fighters headed to the basement, where their dressing room was located. The space could barely fit five people, but any feelings of discomfort were quickly forgotten when they saw the wall-to-wall mirrors and Hollywood-esque lights. It was quite fitting, for this sort of event often highlighted theatrics — the dramatic walkout, the flashing lights, the lurid crowds. Bamgbose often said it was important to get one’s blood pumping before a fight. If a warm-up session couldn’t accomplish that, then the environment itself would finish the job.
The coach loved that setting. Growing up, he would imitate the martial artists he saw on television, especially actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. It wasn’t until Bamgbose was 12 years old that he started taking free karate lessons at Middle School 52 in Longwood. When the program was discontinued, he began working at McDonald’s in high school to pay for taekwondo lessons. More than a decade later, he began coaching.
“It was to perfect my understanding of MMA,” he said.
A crucial part of MMA is preparing for a fight. As Sierra and Francisco’s coach, Bamgbose had them on an exact schedule: eat, stretch, hydrate and spar. By 5 p.m., the pair had already completed the first two steps, so it was time for stretching exercises and a bottle of pomegranate juice. Francisco and Sierra took turns using a foam roller and a handgrip strengthener, which resembles the bottom half of a hole-puncher. The former alleviated back tension; the latter improved a fighter’s grip — a crucial component when trying to grab an opponent while grappling.
“I went into MMA because I was pushed away by the real world.”
A fighter’s grapples, however, do not always take place inside a ring. For Bamgbose, the past five years had been particularly difficult. He and his wife, whom he met as a student at Morrisville State College, divorced after a few months of marriage and six years of dating. The experience was painful, but one factor made the relationship worthwhile. “My son,” Bamgbose said, referring to 5-year-old Olugo. Following the divorce, another failed relationship and a period of unemployment, Bamgbose fell into a haze of depression.
“I went into MMA because I was pushed away by the real world,” he said.
What began as a decade-long hobby needed to become a livelihood, but it would take sacrifice to make the transition. To optimize his training, Bamgbose abstained from alcohol and intimate relationships with women for five years.
“There is a certain amount of sacrifice that leads to miracles, to breakthroughs,” he said.
For Bamgbose, a breakthrough moment was winning the 2013 Ring of Combat championship belt. Another one was earning his master’s degree in public administration from Alfred University. But he still felt the threat of depression.
“Here I am, still in that fight,” he said.
Bamgbose said he often finds respite in God. He began attending church at age 16 — around the same time that he started his taekwondo training — and now is a devoted congregant of Hillsong Church in Times Square. Even his nickname, “The Holy War Angel,” pays tribute to what he calls his “covenant with God.”
His belief has influenced the way he coaches. Along with a bucket filled with gauze, Vaseline and ice packs, Bamgbose carried around a tattered Bible as he prepared Sierra and Francisco for the fight. He recited scripture from the Book of Psalms while wrapping their hands with Curad gauze and tape.
“‘He trains my hands for battle. My arms can bend a bow of bronze,’” Bamgbose said, taking a line from Psalms 18:34.
Soon, it was time to spar. Bamgbose supervised the fighters’ drills, which included sets of uppercuts; dips; leg kicks; and “hammershots,” a move Bamgbose created that involves blocking one’s face with both forearms. He emphasized the importance of not only winning, but also reducing the risk of injury. A cut to the eye, a kick to the temple, a smack in the jaw — any of these could end a fighter’s career. For Bamgbose, there was one way to prevent these injuries.
“My fighters don’t get cut,” Bamgbose said. “They keep their hands up.”
Bamgbose repeated this maxim to Sierra, who could barely look at his wife and child as the fight neared. At that moment, Sierra was no longer a father or a husband; he was a fighter who wanted his opponent to bleed. At 8:22 p.m., Bamgbose led Sierra to the cage, which was lined by a row of judges, announcers, photographers and coaches. Bamgbose, donning latex gloves, applied Vaseline to Sierra’s face — a common practice used to limit the chances of sustaining a cut.
A minute later, Sierra walked into the cage to his walkout song, “The Stand,” by Christian band Hillsong United. He crouched down on one knee in prayer for a few seconds and then slammed both fists on the floor; written on his gloves were two Bible verses — one from Proverbs, the other from Habakkuk. His opponent, Dennis Stamp, was pacing on the opposite end of the arena. The green-gloved referee — a stout man named Alexius Phoenix — stepped between the antsy fighters.
At 8:25 p.m. the bell rang. The fight began.
For the next 10 minutes and three rounds, the entire theater was filled with sounds of blows digging into flesh and Bamgbose egging on Sierra. The crowd cheered and jeered as the fighters exchanged strikes and attempted to take each other down. When Stamp slammed Sierra against the cage and onto the ground, Sierra responded by lifting his legs up to attempt an armbar, a move that hyperextends an opponent’s elbow and often forces him or her to tap out. The armbar seemed to sink in, but Stamp escaped, stacking Sierra onto his head. As the fight continued, it became clear that Sierra’s main strategy was to wait out Stamp. He triumphed in the third and last round, raining punches and knee kicks onto Stamp’s head until the referee stopped the fight.
The night did not end as well for Francisco, who suffered four takedowns in defeat. But he held on until the last few seconds. After the loss, Bamgbose — holding Francisco’s bloodied mouthguard in his hand — acknowledged his fighter’s perseverance.
The coach returned to Soundview, where he lived with his son. Their room was scattered with superhero figurines; UFC apparel; and DVDs, most notably “The Karate Kid.”
When Bamgbose looks at Olugo — a bashful child of Nigerian and Japanese descent — he sees the future. And the future is often on his mind. Bamgbose plans to retire from the ring at age 33, but fighting isn’t his sole enterprise. He hopes to open a recreation center in the Nigerian state of Ido-Ekiti — where his father was from — and bring the sport of MMA to that region. Bamgbose also wants to become a pastor and ultimately establish factories that produce basic necessities for Nigeria’s poorest residents.
“I may not be able to give them gold or an iPad, but I can start off with a toothbrush,” he said.
For now, Bamgbose will focus on coaching at Dolphin Fitness in Queens and continuing his stint with UFC. He awaits his next match, which he hopes will take place by March.
“I was born to be the best at it — until every bone in my body is unable to continue,” he said.
And as he continues to fight, Bamgbose plans on keeping his hands up — for the fight and for God.