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Ultimate Fighting fans hope for good news in gov's budget

January 19, 2010
Professional mixed martial arts organizers are hoping to change the reputation the sport had in New York for being a series of ruleless, bloody brawls, and they might get a chance to do just that if Gov. David A. Paterson follows through on a proposal to legalize the sport.

Gov. George E. Pataki, who called it "barbaric" at the time, banned the sport in the state in 1997. Supporters are now hoping Paterson will include legislation in his forthcoming 2010-2011 Executive Budget to legalize mixed martial arts.

The sport, promoted in other states by such organizations as Ultimate Fighting Championship, World Extreme Cagefighting and others, has grown in popularity throughout the past decade, and supporters have been arguing its potential to provide New York with more jobs and revenues.

An economic study conducted in 2008 by the UFC projected sales at an Ultimate Fighting match in the New York City and Buffalo markets could generate $555,000 and $320,000, respectively, in tax revenue for the state. In total, both cities, according to the UFC, could benefit from $16.1 million in net new economic activity that an event would create from people paying for hotel rooms, meals, other visitor-related activities and event merchandise sales.

A UFC arena would need at least 300 staffers working per event, which is the equivalent of creating about 138 new jobs, according to the UFC.

"This is desperately needed revenue," said Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, D-Manhattan.

Assemblyman Bob Reilly, D-Colonie, however, released a report last year, "The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York," that discounts the claims of how much the state would actually receive.

In the report, he said while the fights would generate large sales, most of the sales would be sent back to Las Vegas, where Zuffa LLC, parent company to UFC and several other mixed martial arts companies, is located, similar to how casinos are run. While the sales would benefit the state temporarily, in the long run, they would not produce economic stability, according to Reilly's report.

The assemblyman also mentioned the pay per view sales on television networks, which, in 2007 amounted to $200 million in sales for UFC. According to the report, it is unknown how much of that profit would be distributed to the states themselves, rather than the company.

Last year, a bill (A.2009-c/S.2165-c) sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D- Setauket and Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, which would legalize and create protocols for mixed martial arts matches in New York, made it through the Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Committee and was then referred to the Codes and then to the Ways and Means Committee, but it failed to make it to the Assembly floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session.

"Sometimes it takes a long time. We just ran out of days. There are just so many bills. That was just not considered," said Devin Lander, deputy legislative director to Englebright, chair of the Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Committee.

As for the promise of money coming into the state from mixed martial arts events, Lander admitted that "it remains to be determined that it will actually add revenue." But he did argue there is a potential for economic stimulus, considering the number of crowds willing to fill up the seats.

As of Jan. 6, the bill is once again in the Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Committee.

The Senate bill, which never left the upper house's Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee last year, was once again referred to that committee on Jan. 6.

"The legislative process is one that we can never predict," said Lawrence Epstein, UFC's executive counsel. He said that "as a company, we've been trying for the past 18 months. We're really hopeful."

If passed, the bill would allow mixed martial arts competitions, establish procedures for license applications, create violations for penalties and impose taxes on gross receipts from mixed martial arts events.

According to UFC officials, the sport originated from a Brazilian form of fighting, vale tudo, and features hand-to-hand combat in a mixed martial arts style, which includes forms of tae kwon do, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and others. Vale tudo, when translated, means "anything goes."

In the early 1990s, the sport was brought to the United States, and upheld a similar motto: "There are no rules." Since the sport was unregulated, it was often unsafe, and fighters attacked one another using no-holds-barred brutal techniques that led to injuries.

The sport, according to UFC officials, was eventually banned in 36 states, and some competitions were forced underground. In 1998, cable networks refused to air the mixed martial arts events. In 2002, however, UFC was bought by Zuffa and major changes occurred, including, its company officials say, unified rules and regulations.

Weight classes, drug testing, time limits, gloves, and referees were just some of the new additions to mixed martial arts, as well as the athletes' option to tap out of matches if necessary.

"I think what our bill does is regulate it more than most states do. It's a dangerous sport, but there are ways to make it safer. The participant is number one, which is a big reason why people are giving it a second look now," said Lander, who also admitted the sport still faces opposition by New Yorkers who find it too violent.

"From the senator's point of view, it's more of a safety thing," said Damaris Olivo, press secretary to Jose M. Serrano, D-Bronx, chair of the Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks, and Recreation Committee. "Regulation is always better. Revenue is a side bonus," she said.

According to Bing, doctors are also available on the sidelines of every match, and youth under the age of 16 aren't permitted in the arenas without a parent. Bing sits on the Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Committee and was on the pro-legalization side of the bill last year.

Bing also spoke of the highly educated and well-trained participants of the sport. Of the 100 or so fighters in UFC, 14 of them are former Olympic contestants, and 17 of them are former NCAA wrestling champions, according to statistics complied by Global Strategy Group.

"Five of the sports are Olympic medal competitions," said Bing of the different styles of fighting in mixed martial arts, "It's not the type of competition it was in the '90s."

Currently, 42 states recognize UFC as a legal sport, and Epstein said the UFC has been trying to educate everyone about how the UFC of today has "nothing to do with the previous ownership."

Mixed martial arts has frequently been compared to boxing, which is a recognized sport in New York. However, UFC officials pointed to a 2006 study John Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted to determine the chance of injury in mixed martial arts. John Hopkins found that the most common injuries were on the face, hand and nose.

"Boxing is a lot more violent," said Bing, "There have been deaths in boxing but no deaths in mixed martial arts. Right now, a mixed martial arts competition is three rounds, sometimes five if it's a championship. Boxing goes 15 rounds, and this can last an hour, of fighters just pummeling each other."

In Reilly's report, it mentioned that the history of boxing is a lot more extensive than that of mixed martial arts, which could explain why there have been more documented deaths. Also, the approved gloves for UFC are about 4 inches, whereas boxing gloves are much larger. It was referenced in the report that the gloves used in UFC had the potential to allow more damage to participants' hands.

Bing mentioned that bicycling and skiing are both dangerous sports and that injuries frequently happen but don't get the same negative press as mixed martial arts. He brought up actress Natasha Richardson, who died last year of a brain injury after falling during a beginner's ski lesson. "Nobody is saying we should ban skiing," he said.

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