When Lou Neglia talks Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), people tend to listen — and for good reason. A former three-time world kickboxing champion in the 1980s who boasted a career record of 34-2, Neglia is now one of the preeminent MMA promoters in the United States.
His Ring of Combat promotion at the Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City has helped launch the careers of 39 MMA fighters to the sport’s top level, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), including East Meadow’s Matt Serra. So when Neglia throws out the name of someone he thinks is nearing the launching pad to be the 40th to advance from the Ring of Combat ranks to the UFC, it carries plenty of weight. The fighter in his sights is Ryan LaFlare, the Ring of Combat’s current welterweight champion who competes out of the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy.
“I believe Ryan [can] be the next Ring of Combat fighter to get to the UFC,” said Neglia, who resides in Bellmore. “He fights to win and doesn’t fight not to lose. [Ryan] fights from the beginning to the end of a round, has a great fighting spirit, the heart of a lion and is in great condition.
“He does his homework and has the stamina and work ethic required.”
LaFlare sports a sparkling 6-0 mark as a professional in Ring of Combat competition and successfully defended his title June 11 in Atlantic City with a second-round technical knockout of Mike Medrano. The referee stopped the bout at the 4:07 mark of the round due to strikes by LaFlare. He’s scheduled to put the belt on the line again Sept. 24, but in a show promoted by Neglia, no outcome is a given. “Styles make fights,” said Neglia, who schedules up to 16 bouts per show at the routinely sold-out Tropicana. “When I match up fights at shows, I don’t even know who’s going to win.”
LaFlare agrees with that assertion. “I think it’s the most competitive [organization] besides Strikeforce and the UFC,” he said.
A former wrestler, LaFlare’s first experiences with mixed martial arts helped quench his thirst for competition. Now, he’s trying to turn it into a full-fledged career. “I’ve wrestled my entire life,” he said. “I always liked the competition and used to watch. Then I got into submission wrestling and saw all of the jiu jitsu.”
As a professional, he trains twice a day, five times a week in a variety of fighting disciplines. Trained by Keith Tremble of Bellmore’s Kickboxing Academy, LaFlare also hones his wrestling skills with coach Kenny Willis and develops his jiu jitsu skills at D’Arce Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. “You have to be equally good in everything,” LaFlare said. “All the training at Bellmore Kickboxing has really put that all together for me.”
Judging by the results of his first six professional bouts, all wins, with two coming via knockout, two by technical knockout and two by armbar submissions, it’s clear LaFlare has developed into a well-rounded fighter. “There’s so many ways to win,” Neglia said. “That’s what makes it so exciting. If you get hit and don’t like what’s happening, you can take it down [to the mat]. Anything can happen at any time.”
As important as the physical aspect of MMA is, the mental aspect plays just as big, if not a bigger role in the development of a fighter’s career. As Neglia points out, being successful takes far more than just showing up in an arena on fight night with a mean mug and a big right hook. “That journey of two and a half to three months of gruesome training is the hard part,” he said. “The hard part is getting competition-ready. It’s a lot of sacrificing that a lot of people couldn’t handle.”
Decried by some as brutal, including New York lawmakers who continue to ban the sport in the state and refuse to approve sanctioning, MMA’s hopes for a reversal were recently dealt another blow when a proposed bill to allow professional bouts was struck down by the state assembly.
New York remains one of just six states that does not sanction MMA fights, but the long-running debate appears to be far from over. “The greatest fighters in MMA should fight in the greatest arena [Madison Square Garden],” said Neglia, who experienced that exact rush by winning the World Kickboxing title at MSG in 1983.