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(NJSACB Counsel Nick Lembo)

New Jersey has always been on the forefront of combat sports, and some of the biggest bouts in MMA, boxing, kickboxing and muay Thai history have taken place at various venues around the state.  Last year was yet another banner year for combat sports in the Garden State, especially for MMA and muay Thai.  In fact, 2011 saw history being made for the sport of muay Thai with the first ever full pro-rules, WBC-sanctioned  matches taking place.   As for MMA, New Jersey has always been a trailblazer.  The efforts of Nick Lembo and the NJSACB have been instrumental in helping to regulate and popularize the sport worldwide.  Indeed, the NJSACB was the first sanctioning body to legalize and regulate MMA at the state level, and since that time they've been a guiding light for other states.   The UFC would not be as big and as mainstream as it is today without the pioneering efforts of the agency, and fans of the sport owe a debt of gratitude to the agency for those efforts.

In 2011, New Jersey saw all three of MMA's biggest organizations holding events, with the NJSACB hosting the Ultimate Fighting Championships at the Prudential Center in Newark, the Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, and Bellator's season finals at Caesars Atlantic City.   There were a grand total of 21 pro MMA events and 14 MMA amateur events hosted by the state, with a total of 199 professional MMA contests and 151 amateur MMA contests taking place.  NJ-based promotions Cage Fury held seven pro events at Resorts Superstar Theater,  Lou Neglia's Ring of Combat held five professional events at the Tropicana showroom, and Bellator held 4 events, 3 at Caesars Palladium Ballroom and one at Adrian Phillips Ballroom in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall.  In addition to the major events in the typical locations of Atlantic City and Newark, smaller level non-boxing combat sports cards were also readily found in 2011 in various venues in Mount Laurel, Jersey City, Lakewood, North Bergen, Paterson, Rahway, and Wildwood.

With regard to muay Thai kickboxing, the agency regulated the first professional muay Thai event in State history, held at Brookdale College's Collins Arena in Lincroft, as well as the first muay Thai event ever held in Atlantic City, which took place at Bally's.  These events included matches which involved WBC international titles. The agency hosted 7 muay Thai kickboxing events which featured 8 professional contests, 3 class A amateur contests, and 69 class B amateur contests.  On June 23rd, the NJSACB hosted an intensive day-long seminar for its muay Thai kickboxing officials in Sayreville.  The lead instructor at the seminar was the very talented and universally respected Vladimir Borodine.  Counsel Nick Lembo also drafted unified rules for the sports of amateur and professional muay Thai kickboxing, which led to the arrival of the new style events in New Jersey; these rules were then adopted by the entire membership of the Association of Boxing Commissions at their annual convention in August in Washington DC.

New Jersey is also known for the high quality of its officials.  The agency's trained judges, referees and inspectors like Dan Miragliotta, Kevin Mulhall, Keith Peterson, Gasper Oliver, Cardo Urso, Jeff Blatnick, Dave Tirelli, Tony Tamburrino and Eric Colon were selected to officiate events in several other locations such as Pennsylvania, Mohegan Sun, Texas, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. They were also selected to work in other countries such as Canada, England, Italy, Panama and Germany.   Lead MMA and muay Thai ringside physician Dr. Sheryl Wulkan was selected by the Department of the Navy to test a neurocognitive device on combat athletes and was an invited guest of the Sergeant Major of the United States Marine Corps as a consultant to their martial arts program.  Dr. Wulkan was also a featured speaker at the ABC convention discussing new topics like TRT therapy and therapeutic use exemptions.  In addition, as the Chair of the medical committee, she produced the ABC's first Handbook on Ringside Medicine.

As you can see, New Jersey takes officiating very seriously and the state's expertise is widely recognized and much appreciated by commissions all over the country.  It is always a great honor, and a lot of fun, working with this amazing group of people when I ring announce and/or commentate in New Jersey.

Here are my choices for New Jersey's 2011 Muay Thai and MMA awards.

MMA FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: Toms River's Frankie Edgar, the UFC lightweight champion.  Frankie retained his title on January 1, 2011 after a five round draw with challenger Gray Maynard at UFC 125 in Las Vegas in one of the most amazing comebacks in MMA fight history, and then KO'd Maynard on October 8, 2011 at UFC 136 in Texas at 3:54 of the 4th round.

Honorable Mention: John Cholish

MMA PROMOTER OF THE YEAR: Lou Neglia's Ring of Combat.  The ROC is a staple in Atlantic City, and there have been an extraordinary amount of fighters who have moved on from there right into the UFC, the latest being Chris Weidman, who scored a unanimous decision victory over Demian Maia on national TV during the UFC on Fox 2 event.

Honorable Mention: Rob Haydak, for resurrecting CFFC and for holding 7 pro events in AC

MMA FIGHT OF THE YEAR: Al Iaquinta vs. Gabriel Miglioli 1.  Held at Ring of Combat XXXVI on June 17, the fight ended in a split decision win for Iaquinta.  The judges were Henry Krawiec, Tony Tamburrino and Michelle Agustin and the bout was scored 29-28, 29-28 and 28-29. This fight was an absolute war, and is the hands down winner. 

Honorable Mentions:  Alexander Shlemenko vs. Brett Cooper, Bellator 44, May 14, and Pete Sell vs. Elijah Harshbarger, ROC XXXVI, June 17.

KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR: Bellator Fighting Championships 59, November 26, 2011.  At a 175 pound catchweight, Lucas Pimenta knocked out Douglas Gordon at 0:40 of round one via a highlight reel KO elbow.    

Honorable Mention: Nordine Taleb vs. Pete Sell at ROC XXXVIII, Nov. 18

TRAINERS OF THE YEAR: Ray Longo, of Team Serra Longo and Mike Constantino of AMA Fight Club.

Ray Longo had Chris Weidman, Al Iaquinta, Pete Sell, James Jenkins, Pat DeFranco, Noah Faunce, Costas Phillipou, and Ed Gordon as some of the fighters competing on pro cards in Atlantic City and in the UFC.

Mike Constantino, of AMA Fight Club.  Mike had Charlie Brennerman, Jim Miller, Mike Massenzio, Dan Miller, Ricardo Romero and Rafaello Oliveira active in the UFC, Chris Wing active in Bellator, Sean Santella active in New Jersey, and Adlan Amagov, Amanda Nunes and Brian McLaughlin active in Strikforce.

MMA PROSPECTS OF THE YEAR: Tom DeBlass and Frankie Perez Jr.

Tom DeBlass, who trains out of Ocean County BJJ, went 3-0 in 2011 on ROC cards to remain undefeated.

Frankie Perez Jr., who trains out of Ricardo Almeida BJJ, went 2-0 there with two quick submission stoppages in his first two professional fights.

Muay Thai Fight of the Year: Eddie Martinez of the Sitan Gym vs. Justin Greskiewicz of Cool Hearts.  This intense battle took place on the Bally's card.  Both men fought  a grueling, action packed five round fight that ended in a split decision victory for Greskiewicz.

Honorable mention: Ryan Murray vs. James B52 Smith at Weapons 9 Warriors Cup.

Muay Thai Fighter of the Year: Bad Company's Liam Harrison.  Liam traveled from England to appear on the Weapons 9 Warriors Cup, taking on Justin Greskiewicz  and stopping him at the end of round 2.   Harrison's leg kicks were some of the most powerful and brutal I've seen.   It was an amazing display of muay Thai striking prowess. 

Honorable mention: Ognjen Topic , who competed and won by stoppage on two Weapons 9 cards.

Muay Thai Prospect of the Year: Jay Matias of the Sitan Gym.  Jay emerged as the northeast's prospect of the year and is a name to keep a close eye on. This 21 year old looked outstanding on the Bally's card against the very skilled Jake Mainini of Boston Muay Thai.

Muay Thai Promoter of the year: Weapons 9 Warriors Cup. The Warrior's Cup held the first ever WBC sanctioned pro-rules muay Thai event in New Jersey.  Their events feature some of the best muay Thai fighters in  the world.  

Best NJSACB MMA Decision of the Year: The NJSACB's hiring of legendary fighter and trainer Ricardo Almeida as a mixed martial arts judge immediately after Almeida announced his retirement from the UFC.   Ricardo brings of  wealth of knowledge and experience to judging, and it was a brilliant move bringing him on board.

Best NJSACB Muay Thai Decision of the Year: The NJSACB was able to secure hall of fame worthy all time great legendary former Thai fighters Coban Lookchaomaesitong and Kaensak Sor Ploenjit to serve as fight officials.   Like Ricardo Almeida, Coban and Kaensak bring a wealth of experience and expertise to New Jersey's already top-notch officiating.

NJ MMA and Muay Thai Man of the Year: Nick Lembo.  Nick's efforts to grow the sports of MMA and muay Thai in the state have brought spectacular results, and he continues to be a powerful voice for combat sports not only in New Jersey, but in the United States as a whole.   From being the first to sanction MMA, to helping create the unified rules, to bringing full rules muay Thai to the state,  Nick has been instrumental is the growth and development of both sports.

As you can see, 2011 was a great year for combat sports in New Jersey, and the momentum continues to build.  I'm looking forward to another big and exciting year in 2012.

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