The NY State Athletic Commission hasn’t, in recent years, been inclined to be in a sharing mode when it came to their style of communicating with press.
To be quite honest, that policy made some sense to me, being that media is conditioned to hunt for drama and discord and play it up most of the time. Most of the time, that story is the one that gets the most attention.
But one problem with playing keep-away from the press is that silence often allows rumors to fester and one sides' storyline to get out-sized play.
Since Kim Sumbler came aboard the commission—she was hired in October of 2017—that ‘silence is better’ policy has been less in evidence.
Sumbler, the executive director of that body, which is a state agency, and has the Governor choosing top personnel to fill slots, was hired to help NY get their brain around MMA, which they legalized here in 2016.
I talked to the E.D. Sumbler, and tried to get a better sense of who she is and what she stands for.
There is a perception that she’s the “MMA boss” but no, she’s ringside and front and center doing oversight on the boxing shows in the vicinity as well.
“My history, there’s a lot of rumors in the boxing community that I was hired by the state as ‘the MMA person,’ and in boxing the community many believe I’m solely an MMA person, that’s not the case.”
A Canadian by birth, she earned some toughness stripes getting into karate as a kid, and then transitioned to jiu-jitsu. Sumbler played football, yep, with the fellas, in high school, and no, she wasn’t the kicker. “I was the first string middle linebacker,” she informed me. “I was tough, not very big. Now, football in Canada is not like it is here, but I still got hit by some pretty big guys.”
Sumbler came upon radar screens in the pro fight game sphere while working for the Seneca Nation of Indians Athletic Commission, based in western NY. She’d been involved in security for the Nation, and then a friend within their gaming arm, an attorney, beckoned her to the gaming sphere. From there, the Nation decided to form their own commission, and she was asked to help form and shape that. Sumbler is a black belt in karate, having scored that designation last month, and also practices muay thai, at a high level. She then worked to help other tribes form commissions, all around the US, and with UFC looking to open up their program all around, a concentration on MMA coalesced.
NY had been a focal point, no surprise, for UFC to gain entry. Year after year, the push to allow MMA, which had been banned after a slate of bad pub in the 90s, worked to a point. A ban lift would pass in the state government committees, but then peter out. After some leadership hurdles were removed (Assembly head Sheldon Silver was arrested on a corruption charges), in April 2016 MMA was given the green light in NY.
A splashy show ran at Madison Square Garden in November 2016. There was success, as the gate was the grandest in building history. Some weigh in drama popped up, though, and it was clear that this would be a work in progress for NYSAC.
Six UFC events have run within NY state since that starter show, and overall, they’ve drawn well. Yes, there have been pockets of drama here and there.
Like the breast implants hubbub. At UFC 210 (April 2017) in Buffalo, Pearl Gonzalez was told she’d not be allowed to engage in her fight, because she had breast implants. A flurry of press erupted, consultations were held, and it was then decided she could take part.
“After careful consideration and review, including a conversation with Pearl Gonzalez’s treating physician, the Commission has determined that Ms. Gonzalez is medically cleared to participate in the UFC 210 event,” then NSYAC rep Laz Benitez declared. That was before Sumbler came aboard. She clarifies what was going on then, during that period of transition.
“Some new leadership was coming aboard, and at that time, they were looking at old forms and documents and manuals, which had been prepared for boxing only,” Sumbler said. “There was a rule in the manual that implants not permitted. Years ago, there were reports that silicon implants could burst, and cause damage and that was the fear. And the commission does not have the authority to change a rule, implant a new rule,” she pointed out. At the time, the commission got a signoff from the fighters’ physician, so she fought, and there was no issue with her chest. But clearly, some over-hauling had to be done. Boxing rules don’t always make sense for a combat sport that is a different animal than pugilism.
“I felt awful for her, and it was a no win situation,” Sumbler said. “That prompted us to really review boxing and MMA, we’ve gone through the regs with a fine tooth comb, and now our medical manuals apply to boxing and MMA.”
Boxing runs tonight, at Barclays Center, and Sumbler will be ringside, watching over the Matchroom show, topped by a Danny Jacobs vs Maciej Sulecki middleweight scrap. For the record, the NYSAC chair is vacant now, and needs to be filled by the Governor; Ndidi Massay, still with NYSAC, had been interim chair. Sumbler oversees the whole nine, the boxing, the MMA, and even wrestling which makes a pretty penny for the state.
All in all, Sumbler is upbeat, even though, yes, fight sports tend to get a flurry of press when someone steps in it. Like when Conor McGregor came to Barclays Center April 5 and went ballistic, resulting in a meet and greet with NYPD, and a pending court case for the Irish all-star. Every week or so, it can seem like, Sumbler earns her salary by dealing with some kerfuffle or another. The last UFC show, April 7, saw a drama show with fighters being pulled from the program at Barclays, and she was juggling, at the 11th hour, who’d be fighting who. “There were reports after that UFC boss Dana White praised the commission. UFC and the commission get along well and communicate on a daily basis, especially leading up to a fight,” Sumbler said. She told me that she does get faced with an active rumor mill, such as when word leaked that one fighter on the last UFC card was being considered for a title shot, but, in fact, “UFC never presented him to me as a possible opponent.” No, the commission didn’t deny a fighter at a shot at a title because he wasn’t ranked, she told me. “Rankings have nothing to do with the commission process,” Sumbler said. “It starts with the promoter proposing a fight and fighters. This guy was never proposed to me. All in all, I talked to Dana Octagon-side after, we congratulated each other. The right decisions were made all the way around, it was a big success. Every one has been a success. Are there things we wish we’d done differently? After every event we do a detailed analysis, talk to our group about ways to deal with the things the best way possible.”
Sumbler gets asked about the “missteps” and dramatics, of course, more than the smoother running elements of the productions. That’s the way of this world. So, she continues to be asked about McGregor, if he’d be allowed to fight in NY after his Barclays blowup.
“The unfortunate incident that happened is not something I can talk about with an ongoing investigation,” she said. “He was not a licensee of mine, so we didn’t contemplate any reaction from that standpoint. As for McGregor fighting in NY, I can’t speculate as nobody knows how things will play out with him, we have to wait and see.”
Drama certainly reared its head last Saturday, during a boxing card topped by Adrien Broner. After 9 PM, word spread in Barclays Center that a firearm had been discharged inside the building. A reporter friend told me he was on lockdown backstage, in the basement, because, security told him, someone had shot at someone. NYPD confirmed to me on Sunday that indeed, someone had smuggled a gun into the building, and a shot had been fired. No one was hit, and an investigation continues.
“We worked with Barclays event management and they were phenomenal, they put plans in place, hiring extra security, and there was a huge extra NYPD presence at the site,” Sumbler told me, because there was talk of a boxer vs rapper beef that week, as well as heated feelings between some of the fighters and their camps during the weeks leading up to the fight card.
“The locker rooms, the commission area are protected and plans are in place if an incident occurs. We think every precaution that could have been taken was taken,” Sumbler continued. “We are thankful to Barclays and NYPD for everything they did to make sure everyone was safe.” Noted; I told Sumbler that it behooves everyone involved in the sport, from the building management, to the commission, to the media, that we all push for and work to maintain a safe atmosphere, so families can feel safe attending fightsports event. “The integrity of the sport is paramount, and we have to remember pro athletes have a huge impact in their community, and when displaying themselves in a public environment need to conduct themselves professionally at all times. On the international stage New York is the boxing mecca, and we are in a situation where we don’t have the option of hiding at all how we conduct ourselves. For the rest of the commissions and the world New York does set the stage. We are very clear to fighters and camps what is acceptable and what is not.” She said that the commission decided to clamp down on fight night after rumors started circulating, and not allow additional guests of fighters to the back of the “house,” and they told fight camps that only one guest was allowed into the dressing room to see a fighter, rather than the typical two, during the last three fights of the night. “Those extras had to ID as family members,” Sumbler said. “Anyway, almost everything the commission does is a balancing act,” she continued. “We want fans to feel comfortable to watch, to feel comfortable bringing their five year old walking into Barclays, to feel safe. They will go away if they can’t come in person and feel safe.”
We both agreed that these A grade fighters have to be more mindful that their actions have repercussions, and everyone needs to smarten up, and walk a straighter line. And, I will add, any allowances made for fighters and their crew need to be shut down, in regard to their entry into a building, if indeed that’s how a gun got into Barclays. So far, I’ve not seen any story which delved into how a weapon got inside. I will touch base again with NYPD, and ask for an update on their investigation.
“On a higher note, we tripled events last year from the previous year and we are on target to maintain that,” Sumbler said. A new MMA promoter is jumping into the fray, on May 4, in Long Island (CES, from Rhode Island, they have John Gotti’s grand-son headlining), she shared, and so, all in all, business is good. She and the staff are working on events such as: a May 12 boxing card at MSG; a June 1 UFC event in Utica and a June 8 boxing card on LI, as well.
And from her perch as the mother of three kids, as the proud recipient of one grand daughter, and three step-children, with seven grandsons from them, Sumbler will be mindful of wanting the athletes who work in NY to act the right way. She doesn’t want to strip them of their verve, she understands they have families to support and this fight sport arena is unlike your regular 9 to 5 environment. Emotions can run a tick higher…”But what happens today dictates their future, so don’t make mistakes today. I do get the pomp and the flash,” she said, accenting that balancing act she deals with.
And tonight, she will be ringside, watching, monitoring, ready to address a deviation from norms or practices. Can we all agree, let’s all have fingers crossed that we will all be talking about the superlative in the ring action tomorrow, and no sidebars of drama. Sumbler and our fight sports we enjoy deserve that.
Listen to Woods' podcast here.