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Nick Paccininni during his days as a Ward Melville wrestler. File photo

Hometown supporters of a Ward Melville graduate and Head of the Harbor native will gather to cheer him on virtually at a popular local spot when he makes his mixed martial arts debut in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Friday, June 18.

Nick Paccininni training in San Jose, California. Photo from Nick Piccininni’s Instagram

Nick Piccininni, a 24-year-old MMA fighter, will be fighting during the XFN-371 event at the River Spirit Casino. While Piccininni is competing in Tulsa, family and friends can gather at The Bench Bar and Grill in Stony Brook to watch the match, which will be live-streamed. Owner Marios Patatinis said the fight will be shown on all the TVs in The Bench, and the night will feature various drink and food promotions. At the beginning of the week, reservations were already limited.

The Bench, with the Country Corner bar in East Setauket, which Patatinis also owns, are sponsoring Piccininni. The restaurant owner said the sponsorship came about because one of his managers, Michael Cohen, is a friend of the MMA fighter. Sponsorships help athletes with expenses incurred while training.

“Ultimately, what we get in return is partnering up with a local kid who’s on to some big dreams, and we’re glad to be part of that,” Patatinis said.

Piccininni is currently training at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, according to his father Anthony Piccininni.

His father said his son began wrestling in the Three Village school district when he was in seventh grade, but was unable to compete that first year in the league and county tournaments due to being too young. He went on to become a four-time New York state champion.

After graduating from Ward Melville with an impressive high school wrestling career under his belt, he attended Oklahoma State University where he continued competing in the sport. During his time with the university, he was a three-time NCAA Division I All-American and a four-time Big 12 Conference champion.

“Ultimately, what we get in return is partnering up with a local kid who’s on to some big dreams, and we’re glad to be part of that.”

—Marios Patatinis

The folkstyle wrestler decided to compete in the flyweight division of MMA when the 2020 college sports season was cut short due to COVID-19. His father said Nick attended the university on a full scholarship, and while he thought about continuing to achieve his master’s at OSU where the odds of becoming an assistant coach at the university were good, with the 2020 wrestling season cut short, he decided to go into MMA.

“He was only 23,” the father said. “He still had his competitive spirit, and he wasn’t ready to enter into the coaching world, which he probably will do sometime down the road, whether it be 10 or 15 years.”

Anthony Piccininni said it’s not unusual for OSU wrestlers to go on to compete in the MMA world. Among the former OSU athletes who went on to become MMA fighters are Johny Hendricks, Randy Couture and Nick Piccininni’s mentor Daniel Cormier.

The father said his son was always a fan of MMA but the family didn’t realize how much so until recently. When he was younger, Nick always thought he may be a professional athlete, as he also excelled in baseball as a pitcher for the Patriots.

“When he was going through college, I had no idea that he had the passion for MMA,” the father said. “But in his senior year is when he obviously had to make his decision, and he did. We support him. It’s his dream.”

Nick Piccininni said in an email from California that he appreciated the support he has received from home. He said The Bench and Country Corner are two of his biggest sponsors.

“I am grateful to come from a town where so many people continue to care about my career,” he said. “So, seeing everyone support me on my upcoming fight is amazing to see.”

Fighter Chris Weidman shakes hands with state Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. File photo

Discussion of mixed martial arts elicits a wide range of opinions, though very soon one thing will be indisputable: it will be legal in New York.

The state Assembly passed a bill on March 22 that will lift a near 20-year ban on the sport with a 114 to 26 vote, almost two months after the state Senate approved the measure. New York is the only state in the country where it is illegal to take part in a mixed martial arts event.

The bill will become law after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs off, though he has expressed support in the past. Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) was one of the 26 who voted against the bill.

“The legalization of mixed martial arts fighting in New York is the perfect example of what former Sen. Patrick Moynihan would characterize as ‘defining deviancy down’ and normalizing a dangerous blood sport in the name of economic development,” Fitzpatrick said in a press release. “This is not the economic development our state needs. I am concerned about the health of fighters and what message normalizing and lauding violence sends to our children and families. Just because 49 other states do it doesn’t make it right for New York. Legalizing MMA is the wrong move for our state.”

Assemblyman Chad A. Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) cosponsored the bill.

“I am thrilled that the Assembly has finally passed legislation to bring this highly skilled sport to the arenas and venues across New York State,” Lupinacci said in a press release. “There are many fighters native to New York who have been forced to leave the state to pursue their dream of competing professionally. Legalization will allow them to stay in their hometowns and compete in front of their families and friends.”

Reactions to the vote reverberated across the MMA community.

“I truly appreciate the New York State Assembly as a whole to finally get this bill passed,” Baldwin native and active Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Chris Weidman said in an email through his media contact. UFC is the premier MMA governing body in the world.

“Along with the UFC, I campaigned very hard to get this done and made sure the people of New York were educated about mixed martial arts and how important it is for the sport to be regulated in our state,” Weidman added. “The people of New York have spoken and I think in the very near future I will be able to showcase my craft and my hard work to the people of New York. I’m sure the UFC has big plans for the first UFC event in New York in history. I have no idea what they’ve got in the works, but I think an event at Madison Square Garden has to happen. I would love nothing more than to defend my title on my home turf in that arena.”

North Shore native and United States Marine Corps veteran Devin Mollberg, who has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and boxing as a pastime since his return from service in Afghanistan in 2014, offered his perspective on the decision. Mollberg, 28, has said he hopes to pursue a career in mixed martial arts.

“It’s about time,” Mollberg said in an interview. “It’s a great thing for all N.Y. fighters and definitely a positive thing for the state. It should have happened a long time ago but now there is nothing but good things to come from here.”

The decision will generate 525 permanent jobs and about $70 million in annual spending, according to Lupinacci’s release. Assemblymen Andy Raia (R-East Northport) and Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) both voted in favor of the bill.

Devin Mollberg steps into mixed martial arts arena

Devin Mollberg, left, trains at Red Dragon Jiu-Jitsu in Centereach. Photo from Mollberg

Some people watch mixed martial arts fights on television and think “that’s brutal,” or “that’s barbaric,” or “that’s too violent.” Some don’t know what it is at all.

But North Shore native Devin Mollberg described the anything-goes, hand-to-hand combat style differently.

“It’s really exhilarating…It’s just an adrenaline rush,” said Mollberg, a 28-year-old Ward Melville High School graduate and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, about his favorite pastime. Mollberg grew up in Stony Brook, where he returned home from Afghanistan following his second tour of duty in late 2014. His first tour deployed him to Japan and South Korea. During his enlistment, he was stationed in Twentynine Palms, California.

“It’s kind of a tough transition,” Mollberg said in an interview last week about adjusting back to home life after four years in the military. “It’s kind of like, you leave home and then when you come back four years later everything’s a lot different. So it’s kind of tough getting back into the routine of things.”

Mollberg, like countless other veterans, said he realized the importance of finding ways to regain a feeling of normalcy upon returning home. Mixed martial arts has provided him with that.

“I started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu when I was a teenager,” Mollberg said. “I’d always trained jiu-jitsu and boxing even throughout my entire enlistment. I would train at schools in California.”

Mollberg has been involved in two jiu-jitsu tournaments in his life, one in Okinawa, Japan, and one in 2015 in St. James. He said he decided to use his boxing, jiu-jitsu and military training blend to pursue a mixed martial arts career. Generally speaking, the most successful MMA fighters tend to use a seamless blend of multiple disciplines to create their own style.

He gave MMA a full endorsement as a way for veterans to channel some of their emotions upon returning home.

“It’s definitely a great thing for veterans to get into,” Mollberg said. “It helps you stay calm.”

“Devin’s a goal-setter and a go-getter,” Nick Galatro, a friend of Mollberg’s for about a decade, said in an interview. “When he puts his mind to something he won’t stop until he gets it and he’s probably the most humble guy I know. You will never hear how great he is from his mouth,” Galatro said.

“It’s just an important skill set that I think is something that you should have,” Mollberg said about what initially drew him to fighting. “It’s definitely a passion of mine. I love fighting.” Some of his other passionate interests include rooting for the New York Jets and Knicks. He follows the Jets with the same intensity as a cage fighter.

Though he hasn’t yet been in an MMA “cage fight,” his training and preparation are currently geared toward making that debut in 2016. Mollberg trained for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament in 2015 at Red Dragon Jiu-Jitsu in Centereach. He is in the process of selecting a suitable gym for his foray into MMA.

Long Island natives have experienced some success in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, mixed martial arts’ most popular governing organization.

Chris Weidman, who fights out of Baldwin, spent time as the UFC middleweight division champion. Chris Wade of Islip won his 11th professional bout in a UFC match Sunday.