ALBANY – A decadelong fight to legalize professional mixed martial arts bouts in New York ended Tuesday as the Assembly, the sole Albany holdout for years, approved a measure legalizing the combat-style matches.
The Assembly approval comes after the Senate for six years, including this year, has embraced ending New York’s position as the only state to ban MMA matches. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who Tuesday reaffirmed his support for the MMA industry, is expected to sign the bill. The first permitted pro matches will be staged about six months after the bill becomes law.
By a 113-25 vote, supporters beat back a steady chorus of critics who, in a more than 3-hour debate, said New York is taking a step backward by legalizing a bruising, violent entertainment.
Tuesday’s vote came after the industry has spent millions of dollars over the years on campaign contributions, lobbying and public relations campaigns to get entry to what will be an especially large marketplace.
“I would argue this is the most progressive, most highly regulated statute in the country. It will result in the safest participation, recognizing it’s a violent sport,” Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, D-Irondequoit, sponsor of the legislation, said of provisions to license fighters and requirements such as physical exams and concussion-related protections.
Legislators in support of the bill defended MMA as a legitimate sport that already has a loyal fan base in New York and offers a potential tax revenue windfall for Albany. They noted the state is losing business to other states that allow MMA bouts and that the state already allows MMA, but in an unregulated, amateur basis.
Detractors kept their opposition fairly simple: MMA is grounded in mere splashy barbarism.
Mixed martial arts supporters can thank the departure last year of longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who single-handedly blocked the MMA bill over the years based, in part, on the vehement objections of some of his Democratic colleagues. Silver was convicted in December on federal corruption charges. His replacement as Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, cleared the way for the bill to make it to the floor Tuesday.
The MMA industry quickly rejoiced in the outcome of its long lobbying campaign in New York and said the industry’s fans in the state helped push the Assembly’s final passage. “It took a while, but their voices have been heard,” said Lorenzo J. Fertitta, chairman of Las Vegas-based UFC, which runs MMA live events around the world. He said UFC would hold at least four bouts a year in New York, with the first at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, followed by upstate dates in Buffalo and other cities.
The bill drew spirited debate over a sport that is often conducted within a cage. Assemblyman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, said MMA encourages combatants to choke each other and “beat his or her brains out while they’re on the floor” of the ring. “This goes too far for your entertainment,” Barron told his colleagues.
“I have yet to see anyone thrown in a cage,” responded Assemblyman Dean Murray, R-East Patchogue. He echoed other supporters in saying the legislation will serve to protect an MMA industry in New York that is now unregulated, since amateur bouts are allowed.
Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, D-Lewiston, said MMA could be a tool to help tourists extend their visits to places such as Niagara Falls. “Not only is it an economic engine in New York State … but it’s about jobs,” he said in supporting the bill.
Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, a longtime opponent of MMA, said before the vote that the National Football League and other sports increasingly recognize the dangers of long-term injuries to the brain. “It seems like the craziest thing to do is authorize a so-called sport the point of which is to beat the other guy’s brain in,” said Glick, who described herself as a big sports fan.
Glick said the state will be encouraging more young people to seek a career in a violent activity. “I guess the most successful may still retain some capacity going forward to do other things, but the youngsters who aren’t very good could be seriously hurt,” she said.
Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, said legalizing MMA will increase gambling problems while making promoters wealthy at the expense of fighters.
In his January budget proposal, which is being negotiated at the State Capitol in advance of the new fiscal year’s start April 1, Cuomo embraced MMA with a plan to have the bouts be regulated by the state Athletic Commission, which now oversees pro boxing matches in New York. Cuomo also projected $1 million in boxing and wrestling tax revenues to the state in the coming year.
Cuomo joined with MMA supporters in noting that many sports contests are violent. After an event in Niagara Falls, he told reporters that the sport offers an “economic generator” for the state.
Backers of MMA said that once the industry is fully underway in New York, the state will be in line for tens of millions of dollars in additional tax and license fees.
Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said she won’t attend a MMA event. “I don’t want to see it,” she said, adding, however, that lawmakers have “no right” to keep its fans from attending bouts in New York.