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MMA In NY: Round Five in the Main Event for MMA Legalization, Divided Legislature Denied Vote

Posted on 06/14/2011

By Bryanna Fissori
Legal Analyst

There is nothing like a black label to ruin an image and for a sport that is branded “illegal” and deemed “barbaric” it is difficult to build a following. Despite this obstacle New York Mixed Martial Arts has continued to gain popularity, while fighters battle on two fronts; in the cage and on the legislative floor.

Proponents for the measure known as A4146 have until June 20 to get the legislation to an assembly vote. Its round five in the main event and the clock is ticking.

MMA is currently sanctioned in all but five states. The remaining are New York, Vermont and Connecticut, though New York and Connecticut have legislation pending. West Virginia accepted MMA sanctioning in March of this year and neither Alaska nor Wyoming has an Athletic Commission which is why they are unsanctioned.

The debate over MMA in New York is long standing following its ban in 1997. It was referred to by then Governor George Pataki as “barbaric,” and has yet to recover from the stigma. Many changes have occurred in MMA since 1997, the development of rules for starters. It is not the same game it used to be. At the time of the ban the only substantial rules were the exclusion of eye gouging and biting. The rest was fair game. Today’s MMA bouts are radically more civilized with regulated weight classes, pre and post medical examinations, drug testing, and fight regulations.

On May 23, proponents for legalization of the sport in New York made a great strides toward achieving their goal when the Senate Bill (SB 1707A) promoting the issue passed 42-18. The bill was sponsored by Senator Joe Griffo.

“It was difficult because there are so many different interests and people who oppose it for different reasons whether it was philosophical or political,” said Senator Griffo to Boxing Insider. “The key here is education and better informing people about the sport, and I repeat that it is a “sport” not a fad and it is growing. I focused on a couple of things including that the state is losing out economically and that we are not giving the New York State Athletic Commission the opportunity to regulate underground activity which is already occurring.”

Senator Griffo stated that he has grown to enjoy MMA though his interaction with the legislation and is especially connected with the sport after meeting UFC Light Heavyweight fighter Matt Hamill who is an Ohio native, but lives in New York. “I had the opportunity to get to know Matt Hamill and I think he is an inspiration and a great example of someone who can overcome hardship,” said Senator Griffo. The hardship referred to is that Hamill is def from birth. Griffo looks forward to being able to attend a live MMA event in his own state.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright is the sponsor for the Assembly Bill. “It is a measure we have had considerable controversy over,” said Englebright. “Very few people have neutral feeling on it. The people in out democratic caucus are naturally opposed to violence. MMA as a sport is certainly a spectacular display of athletic prowess but also violence. So we have divided majority conference on this issue.”

On June 6 the bill passed overwhelmingly 17-3 out of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development. Now that it has survived that feat Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of the Democratic Party has the ability to bring the measure directly onto the legislative floor for a vote. With only a week remaining in the legislative session it appears unlikely that Silver will do so considering that the Democratic Party is still divided on the issue. This decision could ensure the death of the initiative.

“There does not appear to be widespread support in the Assembly for this legislation,” Silver said to the New York Daily News.

Some legislators like Assemblyman Dean Murray of the Tea Party are more than enthusiastic about the measure. Dean has even been gathering signatures and petitioning for the vote to take place. He believes if the bill went to a vote today it would in fact pass.

The primary opposition along the way for sanctioning New York MMA appears to stem from Assemblyman Bob Reilly who expressed his disappointment regarding the June 6 committee passage.

“I am deeply disappointed that this legislation was successful in committee, however, it this has not deterred my campaign to keep this dangerous sport out of New York State,” said Reilly. “I believe my Assembly colleagues will continue to vote ‘NO’ to an excessively violent activity that has no place in civilized society. We’ve come too far to turn our state into a veritable coliseum. The New York State Assembly will continue its efforts to eradicate all types of violence in our State and will not implicitly condone violence by legalizing ultimate fighting.”

Reilly has three major contentions with MMA. The first is violence. In a March 27 radio interview with New York radio show Hot 97 “Street Soldiers,” Reilly stated that New York’s legislature wants to reduce violence in the state. He then essentially compared and inferred that MMA is a contributor to the likes of school bullying, domestic violence and gun violence.

“What happens when you allow people to see the violence that occurs in the cages of MMA?” questioned Reilly, “It just makes people immune to violence and it gives people the impression, especially kids, that this type of violence is ok.”

Interestingly enough, New York does sanction wresting and hosts World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) events. Apparently the violence of hitting someone in the face with a chair is more acceptable than a fist, though boxing is also sanctioned in the state.

In the interview Reilly made a specific reference to the rule change for the MMA promotion Strikeforce after being acquired by the UFC. He states, “There’s a rule now that you can take your elbow, from a standing position and slam it into a downed opponent lying on the ground. Now how anybody can think that that should be an allowable activity and how that will not basically scramble someone’s brain is beyond me.”

The new rule was adopted by Strikeforce because UFC follows the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.” The rules were developed in 2000 by the California State Athletic Commission, but codified by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. California was not officially sanctioned until five years later. The rules are constantly reviewed by the Association of Boxing Commissions to reflect the safest policies given new developments in medical research. On the recommendations of the association, the rule in controversy does not allow for the elbow to fall straight down from a twelve o’clock to six o’clock position, thus allowing the move while minimizing the risk.

The Assemblyman’s second and third contentions regard economic feasibility and the well-being of competitors. He stated, “I believe it will be economically harmful to the state and I believe it is without question, harmful to the fighters.”

Reilly has implied that the concept of economic harm and competitor injury are not mutually exclusive. He referred to a study done by previous New York Governor David Paterson which projected $2 million in revenue for New York within the first year of legalization. He also attests to three incidents of injury in the sport and one death that occurred over the last several years costing an excess of that amount. None of the injuries mentioned were during sanctioned fights.

To clarify, just because it is illegal to host MMA events in the State of New York does not mean it does not happen. It just does not happen legally. It also has not stopped athletes from training to compete as there are numerous MMA gyms across the state. There are also known underground competitions which go unregulated, as stated by Senator Griffo.

The Professional MMA industry has been active throughout the process and on March 15 the when the senate bill had its first victory in passing the Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs and Tourism (13-0) a number of advocates were present including UFC President Dana White, Co-Owner Lorenzo Fertitta, current UFC Lightweight Champion and native New Yorker Frankie Edgar and fellow New Yorker and UFC Fighter Renzo Gracie.

“Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport in the world,” said White to the committee. “It is also the most regulated.” White answered questions about licensing, safety precautions and medical exams. He also informed the committee that 90 percent of UFC Fighters are college graduates who have gone on to be professional athletes.

In early 2011, the UFC released the results from its own economic study. The results were based on the UFC holding two events in the state yearly. The report contends that the state would benefit by approximately $23 million a year, $16 million of which would come from UFC promotions while the remaining $7 million comes from other MMA promotions that would host in the state. Venues of choice for the UFC would be Madison Square Garden in New York City along with a venue in Buffalo. The UFC study estimates 212 new jobs and annual attendance of approximately 145,000.

Dana White recently expressed his belief there are other politics aside from those of the legislature at play on the issue and it seems to be a widely accepted theory throughout the industry and political realm. UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta also own Stations Casinos in Las Vegas, which is the largest non-union gaming corporation in the country. White has recently asserted publicly his conviction that the Culinary Union is behind the anti-MMA effort in New York through funding and coercing with political leaders. The Culinary Union is continually at odds with Station Casinos, which are also owned by the Fertittas. The Culinary Union recently issued a memo confirming anti-MMA sentiments for the State of New York and outlined reasoning related to the dominant position of Zuffa in the industry and the lack of a fighter’s union. They have yet to respond to the fact that Zuffa has recently purchased an accident insurance policy to cover all fighters under contract in and out of the cage.

Proponents for the bill find themselves in the same position now as in 2010, as time becomes the enemy and they rally for the possibility of a vote by the New York Assembly. The hope is that bill sponsors Senator Griffo and Assemblyman Englebright’s efforts, along with those of the fighters, fans and industry personnel who have shown their support along the way will prove effective against a divided caucus. If the initiative is not brought to the floor this year, the New York Assembly should anticipate another re-match.

“Every year we are making gains,” said Englebright. “Whether this is going to be the year I don’t know that.”

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