Mixed martial arts fighter Demetrious Johnson, left, parrying a blow from Joseph Benavidez during the Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight title match in California. MMA events are prohibited in New York state due to a 1997 ban on the sport, urged by former Republican Gov. George Pataki. Proponents of legislation legalizing MMA argue the sport has evolved over the years, creating a safer and better regulated environment for participating fighters. lawmakers who are opposed to sanctioning the sport say they are worried about the safety of the fighters. Photo by AP.
January 06, 2014The efforts to pass legalized mixed martial arts in New York state has dragged on for years, with state lawmakers both for and against the sport trading blows over whether or not the state should allow the controversial and polarizing sport to be sanctioned in the state.
Mixed martial arts, or MMA, has been outlawed in the state since 1997, when former Republican Gov. George Pataki banned the sport after referring to it as "barbaric."
Opponents of the sport liken it to street fighting and even "human cockfighting" — a term famously used by Sen. John McCain, R – Arizona, in 1996 during his efforts to ban the sport nationally, including penning a letter to all 50 governors urging them to prohibit MMA fighting.
Those in favor of legalizing the sport insist MMA promoters have worked closely with state regulators around the country to increase oversight and safety. Proponents note that MMA fighting has increased in popularity and viewer demand, stressing that health concerns are overblown while touting the economic benefits to the Empire State.
Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, — the leading promoter in MMA fighting and events — says the sport has evolved a great deal in the 16 years since New York first signed a bill prohibiting the sport.
"First of all MMA is not the same sport today that it was in 1997 when the New York state Legislature, New York state and the governor, passed the law banning MMA. It is a completely different sport today than it was then," Greenberg said. "When [Zuffa, LLC] purchased the UFC in 2001, unlike previous management of UFC that ran away from regulation, UFC ran to regulation."
Mixed martial arts fighting is sanctioned in every single state in America except for New York state, although the UFC only participates in 47 states. Greenberg says UFC does not permit sponsored events in Alaska and Wyoming due to a lack of state regulations. Although the UFC does not participate in those two states, professional MMA fighting is legal.
"The UFC made a conscious decision that they were going to run to regulations, so they worked with state legislators, with state governing bodies. [The UFC] will only participate in states where the governing body has adopted the unified rules of mixed martial arts, Greenberg said. "Well that's 47 states in this nation."
"It has become a mainstream sport. It is legal in 49 states, it is legal in every province in Canada, it is legal in jurisdictions throughout Central America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa. It is huge in China, in Japan," Greenberg continued. "The only place in North America where it is illegal is the state of New York."
As the sole battleground left for the efforts to legalize the sport, the controversial debate on whether or not to legally sanction MMA fighting in New York state has dragged out over the course of more than 15 years with little progress.
One common theory as to why New York state has not passed legislation legalizing MMA, links a labor dispute between the Nevada-based Culinary Workers Local Union 226 and Station Casinos, a gaming and entertainment company in Las Vegas owned and operated by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta — majority owners of the UFC.
Culinary Workers Local Union 226 is an affiliate of UNITE HERE and the AFL-CIO, powerful allies with the New York state Assembly, leading many to speculate the Assembly's refusal to move the bill legalizing MMA forward is a response to the Fertitta-owned Station Casinos refusal to unionize.
A bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Joseph Griffo legalizing MMA passed the New York state Senate last year — the fourth consecutive year the Senate has passed such legislation — only to be stalled in the Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee. The committee chair, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D – Maspeth, is an outspoken opponent of MMA fighting and has frequently referred to the sport as "barbaric and brutal." Despite having more than 60 Assembly co-sponsors, the session ended without the Senate-backed bill ever receiving an up or down vote on the Assembly floor.
Those in favor of legalizing mixed martial arts fights say fight promoters have worked closely with state regulators around the country to increase oversight and safety for the fighters. Photo by AP.
Griffo calls the arguments against legalized MMA "superficial" and says it is past time for the Assembly to act on the bill, as the margin by which the bill has passed in the Senate has increased over the last four years. The Rome senator says MMA's rising popularity makes it clear the sport is here to stay.
"It is not only on national TV, pay-per-view and cable but on regular TV too. The only thing we're denying in New York state is a choice. If someone wants to spectate or participate they are being denied [that choice]," Griffo said. The MMA exists, it's not going away, it's a recognized sport."
Griffo says he understands not everyone will be a fan of legalized MMA, but "for them to stand in the way [of legalization] is just ridiculous."
Even with increased oversight and more regulations and an increase in demand, it seems unlikely Markey — one of the many Assembly critics — will be easily swayed to allow the sport. Markey says she cannot morally support the legalization of a violent sport with the intention of immobilizing one's opponent.
"The question about [the] proposed legislation is a moral one for me. The activity is barbaric and brutal, the equivalent of a street corner brawl, just moved indoors to a bigger stage with TV cameras, lights and a bigger audience," Markey said.
Markey says the sport of mixed martial arts may be similar to other violent sports such as boxing and football but "may only be comparable to those sports as the extreme extension of their most brutal aspects."
"However the difference is that the brutality is a byproduct of play, not the primary purpose of the activity, as in MMA," Markey said. "As we have seen in recent months alone, there are still significant health risks for participants in those sports even though they are better supervised and regulated and we learn more every day about the consequences of head injuries for players."
For opponents of state sanctioned MMA fighting, concerns over the health of the participating fighters remains one of the strongest arguments against legalizing the sport. Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat representing Manhattan, says his greatest concern over legalizing the sport is the health of its participants.
"My major concern is about the health and well being of MMA participants," said Hoylman. "Recently there was a class action lawsuit that was settled for over $700 million by former NFL players that really highlights the need to protect professional athletes from brain trauma. My opposition is grounded in the need to protect these fighters and that's something that I think the UFC, the main promoter, isn't doing."
The senator says he believes the UFC will face similar lawsuits as the ground-breaking NFL lawsuit in which the league accepted blame for the health issues of former players that resulted from years of concussions and head trauma.
Hoylman has introduced legislation in the Senate which, if passed, would create the New York Mixed Martial Arts Injury Compensation Fund — money collected from MMA promoters and others who stand to profit off of the sports legalization to provide funds for fighters who suffer from health issues as a result of the sport.
The bill (S.05055/A.08312), which is sponsored in the Assembly by Herman Farrell, D – Manhattan, would also create a procedure for applying for state regulated licenses to participate in the sport, establish penalties for violating regulations and tax the profits generated by MMA sporting events.
"Look, what are the human costs?" Hoylman asked. "Clearly a lot of people stand to make a lot of money off of MMA but what are we doing to make certain the sport has safeguards for people who participate in it, long term health safe guards. And again I point to the NFL, [that] is the future of this sport."
Heading into this legislative session, Hoylman says he will continue to push to pass his bill to create an injury compensation fund benefitting MMA fighters.
Despite Hoylman and Markey's concerns that MMA organizations, such as the UFC, do not have strict enough health regulations or enough oversight, UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein strongly defends the UFC's health record. According to Epstein, the UFC has held more than 3,000 bouts without a serious injury occurring — Epstein says broken bones are the most serious health incidents that have occurred so far.
Epstein says the UFC uses rigorous pre-fight health screens, schedules fights between similarly skilled opponents and has a number of medical safety services available on-site.
The UFC executive also looked to distance MMA fighting from the problems of head trauma in the NFL saying, "We're trying to be very pro-active, I think one of the biggest problems when you look at the NFL was they were constantly saying there weren't any problems when there obviously were problems."
"We're taking this thing head on. Listen, we're a combat sport. Our athletes know what they're getting into, but the most important thing is we provide them with as much information as possible so they can make good decisions," Epstein continued.
Epstein also touted the UFC's strict policy on fighters who are concussed while competing, explaining fighters are suspended from participating in any fighting, training and work-outs for 90 days following the incident. Epstein says that is very different from the NFL, where a player may re-enter into the same game, if not return just a week later.
"If you get a concussion, if you get knocked out in an event, you are typically going to be suspended for at least a 90 day period," Epstein explained. "And when I say you're suspended, I mean you're not fighting in another event. Boxing and MMA have the most stringent rules and regulations when it comes to dealing with concussions of any sport in the world."
Epstein said Hoylman's injury compensation fund may help move the bill through an overly-concerned Assembly but that the UFC already provides its athletes with health insurance.
"We're proud of the fact that the UFC is the only fighting sport company in the world that has ever offered health coverage to its athletes," Epstein said. "We're the only company in the business that does that."
Epstein also explained that MMA promoters must purchase health insurance to cover athletes participating in an event to cover any injuries sustained by fighters, "so part of what Mr. Hoylman is talking about would be covered if New York state regulated the sport."
Proponents of legalizing mixed martial arts in the state also point to a new economic report recently released that detailed the economic benefits of New York state legalizing and regulating the sport.
According to the report — sponsored by the Ultimate Fighting Championship and MMA4NY — legalizing MMA in the state would generate a total of $135 million in economic activity each year, through a number of sporting events, tourism support, new training centers and secondary markets.
Of the $135 million, legalizing MMA in New York would generate $68 million through MMA sporting events alone. Lorenzo Fertitta, UFC chairman and CEO, has expressed interest in holding at least five UFC events across the state, including two New York City fights, as well as at least three upstate events.
"We know what UFC events do for cities around the nation and around the world. And now we know what it's estimated we can do in New York. Legalizing professional MMA in New York means $135 million in economic activity for the state," said Fertitta. "And I'm convinced that UFC events will outperform these estimates and that we will set gate and attendance records in arenas around the state."
The report estimates such UFC training centers would support 35 different groups with a membership total of 69,000, create over 950 jobs and would generate close to $1 million in tax revenue. The analysis also estimates a total of $5.4 million in total tax revenue from events and training facilities.
Those who support the sanctioning of MMA fighting argue that the sporting events and training centers would help bolster the economy through revenue generated by marketing, merchandise sales, training courses and other related markets not accounted for in the report's estimated $135 million profits.
"I cannot think of one remotely good reason New York hasn't joined 49 other states and every Canadian province in bringing the live version of the sport to the millions of MMA fans in New York. But now I can think of at least 135 million really good reasons for New York to finally legalize and regulate professional MMA," Fertitta said.
"We think those numbers are actually probably on the low side," Epstein said. "The economic impact will be spread throughout the state, not just New York City [and] Long Island."
Epstein says upstate communities stand to benefit even more so than downstate areas because of the close proximity to Canada where the sport is three times more popular on a per capita basis.
The looming fight leading into this year's coming session over the legalization of the accused "barbaric" sport comes at a time when MMA fighting is in high demand from sports fans.
According to the report released by the UFC and MMA4NY, a study analyzing America sport-watching habits revealed 50 percent of respondents reportedly watch MMA fighting. The study shows MMA is slightly less popular than professional football, college football, baseball and basketball, yet ahead of other major sports such as NASCAR and college basketball.
"New York is the outlier," Epstein said. "We're able to do events in 49 states in the United States and the only place we're not permitted to do events is New York."