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New NYSAC executive director Kim Sumbler admits critics of commission ‘weren’t wrong’

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Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier uses a towel to make weight before UFC 210 in April. The NYSAC changed its weigh-in policy thereafter.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If Daniel Cormier and his clever use of a towel to help him make weight before UFC 210 became a running joke in MMA this year, then the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) was the butt of it.

The first time Cormier stepped on the scale April 7, he weighed 206.2 pounds. Somehow, miraculously, the UFC light heavyweight titleholder came back into the room less than three minutes later and made the championship mark at 205 pounds.

A closer look at the video revealed that Cormier was pressing down on a towel being held by his teammates and UFC staffers, using the leverage to redistribute his weight in order to be within title fight compliance. Cormier went on to beat Anthony Johnson the next day by second-round submission to retain the belt.

“DC” denied using the towel to help him hit 205, saying he was hanging onto it to cover his private areas from the camera. But it was pretty clear to most that shedding 1.2 pounds in that short amount of time was improbable without a little help and the commission officials overseeing the weigh-ins missed it.

About six weeks later, the NYSAC had a new policy on the books. A fighter weighing in cannot make contact with anything else besides the scale. And anyone holding a towel must be a commission official, not a teammate or UFC personnel.

The New York commission didn't say so publicly, but this was its way of acknowledging an error.

New NYSAC executive director Kim Sumbler said as much in a candid interview with MMA Fighting on Friday.

“There were mistakes all around there,” said Sumbler, who was calling out the weights that day. “We learned from it. We changed our policy. We’re making sure that not only does the fighter not touch the towel, but that nobody else touches the towel except commission staff. As you noticed, it was not commission staff who held the towel at the Dan Cormier fight.”

New York only passed a law making MMA legal last year and September 2016 was the first month that the NYSAC was able to fully regulate events. Just two months later was UFC 205, one of the biggest mixed martial events of all time. So the learning curve was steep and the commission officials, many of them new, had to learn on the job.

That inexperience led to multiple missteps, Sumbler admitted. Missteps, she said, that the NYSAC is working to correct and improve upon. The commission will be under the microscope again this week for UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

There were a number of controversial moments for the commission over the last year, including the Cormier weigh-in; the announcement of a wrong result between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson at UFC 205; a confusing finish to a fight between Gegard Mousasi and Chris Weidman at UFC 210 in Buffalo; a female fighter getting pulled due to breast implants and then being reinstated at UFC 210; and the overlooking of multiple punches landed after the bell from Germaine de Randamie on Holly Holm at UFC 208 in Brooklyn.

Sumbler, who was running the NYSAC’s MMA program before getting promoted to executive director over the summer, said the criticisms of the commission have been heard and noted.

“It was a trial by fire,” Sumbler said. “We got thrown into the pit of snakes. We had the spotlight on us. We had every eyeball in this whole community on us. We were the last state to regulate [MMA]. Every eyeball was on us, waiting for us to slip up. Yeah, that was really hard to take. But again, I have to go back and say, they weren’t wrong. A lot of these criticisms — the people who criticized us — weren’t wrong. So there’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind.

“I’m willing to take the criticism. I’ve got some pretty heavy shoulders and I’m willing to take it. I’m willing to listen. I want people to realize this athletic commission now and this staff right now is really a good staff. We’re a staff that looks at what’s going on, we look at it realistically. We’re not an authoritative powerhouse. That’s not our philosophy any longer. We look at things realistically, we look at what the community wants and needs, we look at what’s right for the fighter and we make our decisions based on that — criticisms or not.”

The NYSAC altered its weigh-in policy after the Cormier situation and approved an instant replay system as a result of Mousasi vs. Weidman. The commission has at least shown a willingness to own up to and improve upon errors.

“I believe that every criticism is an opportunity for us to review what we’re doing,” Sumbler said. “If we’re not doing something or we could be doing something different that makes it better, then yeah. You know what, I think criticisms, as much as they hurt sometimes and as much as it’s a slap in the face, I think criticisms are a great opportunity for us to learn from.”

Along with Sumbler moving up to executive director, the NYSAC made some more personnel changes over the last few months. Interim executive director Tony Giardina has moved on, as has former boxing program director Eric Bentley and former commission chairperson Ndidi Massay. Ryan Sakacs has taken on a more influential role as legal counsel and Matt Delaglio is now overseeing the boxing program, Sumbler said.

There is no current commission chairperson and still two commission spots left unappointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sumbler, who is still running the NYSAC's MMA program, said she hopes those commissioner spots will be filled by the middle of 2018.

In summer 2016, a state investigation dropped that ended up casting out multiple commission officials, some resigning, some being relieved of their duties. The investigation partly stemmed from a 2013 boxing match at Madison Square Garden after which fighter Magomed Abdusalamov was left with brain damage. Abdusalamov’s family received a $22 million settlement last month.

Sumbler said the investigations and scandal are in the rear-view mirror and more than anything the NYSAC wants to focus on putting the athlete first.

“If we continue to maintain focus on the fighter — that’s really what we’re here for — we can’t go wrong,” she said. “It’s really the way I look at things. I’ve really drawn everything back to the fighter. When we make decisions, when we look at our policies and procedures, it’s our first question. How does this affect the fighter? It’s first their safety, second the integrity. We look at these guys and understand this is their careers, this is their livelihood, this is how they make their money.

“We’re doing our best to make sure our focus maintains on the fight and i think a lot of other commissions who not necessarily have lost sight of that fact, but that fact has almost become secondary with some. They’re so involved in exactly what their rules say that they lose focus on the fighter and lose focus on what a regulatory body is intended to do.”

Given the short amount of time that the NYSAC had to build an MMA program without the benefit of getting its feet wet with smaller shows, Sumbler believes Year One was a “tremendous success.” In the next 12 months, Sumbler said she and her team are hoping to repair some of the trust that eroded in the commission with fighters and fans after the mistakes of the last year.

“Those fans who want to hate New York, I want to make them fans of New York,” Sumbler said. “I want them to gain confidence in us. We have not done everything right. We’ve done everything the best way we know how and we did what we thought was best. We realize that we made mistakes along the way. But what that means to me is as we continue to grow and as we move towards the future, things can only get better.”