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Efforts to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York Faces a Tough Fight

by Kris Venezia, Jeff Coltin
A A
MMA Takedown Move in the Ring

flightlaunch, flickr

Advocates Say Legalization Will Bring Financial Benefits to the Empire State.

Mixed Martial Arts Fighter Uriah Hall has won seven of his nine professional matches. One of his most notable wins came when he knocked out Adam Cella with a jumping spin kick.

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Hall trains in New York City and grew up in Queens after moving from Jamaica as a teenager. He can’t compete professionally in his home town because New York is the only state that bans professional mixed martial arts.

"I gotta ship my family and my fans over to another place to watch me compete… I can't even do it in my home,” Hall said. “I think that's a big thing because you have a lot of support, a lot of fans in New York City.

“It's already here in New York City, you go to any local bar, you see it on every TV screen… it just sucks man.”

New York banned mixed martial arts in 1997, but a loophole in the law does allow amateur events.

A bill that would legalize the sport at the pro-level has passed the state Senate, but the legislation is having a difficult time in the Assembly. Speaker Sheldon Silver hasn’t put the bill up for a vote, and the New York Daily News reported Monday that many Democrats in the Assembly have urged Silver to keep the chokehold on the legislation.  

Fighter Uriah Hall says he doesn’t understand why New York lawmakers are opposed to legalization.

"Why not? You got every other state doing it but us,” he said. “I think with New York City being the tip of the iceberg, the best city in the world… adding [professional mixed martial arts] to the combination would be, words can't even describe it.”

But State Senator Brad Hoylman voted against legalization. He argues the sport is unsafe and too violent.

"There's no question this is a bloody sport,” Hoylman said. “The takedown aspect of it where one fighter virtually submits to another with very little refereeing is very disconcerting.”

Hoylman co-sponsored a bill that would put a two year moratorium on MMA if it’s legalized. The legislation would also require studies to be done on the health consequences of the sport. He says more research needs to be done.

"I believe New York, which is the leader in so many areas, should be the jurisdiction that gives the full vetting to the safety of this sport before we legalize the professional aspect of it," he said.

The American Academy of Neurology examined brain damage from boxing and mixed martial arts. The study shows fighters who compete for nine years or longer suffer brain damage.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a group that holds professional MMA events. The UFC website argues they’ve never had a serious injury or death at one of their events.

The group says they take steps to protect fighters from brain damage. This includes their concussion policy that states a fighter who is diagnosed with a concussion has to avoid any contact of any kind for at least 45 days. And those athletes can’t compete again for 60 days.

Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Uriah Hall argues there’s another sport in New York that is legal and just as dangerous as MMA.

"Well look at boxing, you get knocked down a couple of times and you keep going, that's like future head injuries and stuff like that,” Hall said. “Not to take anything away from boxing, but [in mixed martial arts] you get a first knockout it's over, it stops.”

Some argue New York is putting fighters’ health at risk by allowing amateur MMA and not professional events. Stephen Koepfer founded the advocacy group the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York. He says pro-MMA takes the health of fighters seriously.

“Professional mixed martial arts has much more regulation and attention paid to the fighters pre-and-post contest," Koepfer said.

Koepfer also says the Empire State would improve their economy from hosting events. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has reported that legalizing the sport would bring in over $100 million to New York, with two-thirds of the pot benefiting cities upstate.

Koepfer says communities statewide would get a nice financial boost.

"One would think of New York City or Buffalo in terms of UFC, where [the Ultimate Fighting Championship] might come to a big arena,” he said.

“But when you look at the smaller venues that would crop up all over New York State, you're talking about Rochester, Ithaca… Long Island, central New York, pretty much every area of New York State is primed to have professional mixed martial arts.”

A poll from the Siena Research Institute in April says New York residents support legalizing mixed martial arts, with 44% in favor and 33% opposed.

But despite the public opinion poll and arguments of economic benefits, State Senator Brad Hoylman isn’t convinced.

“The term mixed martial arts probably leads a lot of folks to believe it's a safe sport,” Hoylman said. “It's also known as cage fighting or ultimate fighting or no holds bar fighting, I think if you asked New Yorkers whether those types of sports should be legalized, opinions may be different.”

“I also think once New Yorkers know about the health impacts which are now being studied for the first time, they would feel differently.”

With the legislative session ending in a week, professional MMA may be pinned for at least another year.

Mixed martial arts advocate Stephen Koepfer says he doesn’t have high hopes for the bill.

"I'm actually pretty pessimistic regarding the legalization and lifting of the ban this year,” Koepfer said. “It seems that we're at a status quo holding pattern where we've been for the last many years, with the Senate passing the legislation and the Assembly stalling on the legislation.”

If the bill to legalize professional mixed martial arts doesn't pass this session, it'll be the fifth straight year the legislation has fizzled out in the Assembly.

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