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Coming to New York: Mixed martial arts?

It has been a seven-year battle trying to bring professional mixed martial arts to New York State, but promoters of the sport say they are beginning to see the prospect of victory.

Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of Ultimate Fighting Championship, joined UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman Wednesday on the last leg of an upstate tour aimed at pushing a bill to legalize professional mixed martial arts in the last place in North America where it remains illegal.

“It’s probably the only place in the world where the sport is not permitted,” Epstein said during an appearance at Pursue Martial Arts gym in Eastern Hills Mall.

But that is likely to change with some recent developments in Albany, Epstein said. “We have a new (Assembly) speaker, Carl Heastie, who has in the past been a sponsor of the bill. The second thing, which is really a game-changer, is that the governor recently included professional mixed martial arts in his executive budget,” he said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s action is as much as an official endorsement of the sport, proponents say. If the governor’s action survives scrutiny by the State Legislature and remains in the budget, it automatically becomes law.

“It won’t have to proceed as a stand-alone bill,” Epstein said.

Mixed martial arts is a full-body contact sport that incorporates elements of boxing, wrestling and martial arts. At its birth roughly two decades ago, it was a dangerous, unregulated sport, but it is a lot safer now because of the UFC’s stringent safety rules. Even with that, amateur mixed martial arts competitions legally take place every day across the state. In 2015, there were, on average, 71 amateur events every day in New York. “That’s over 700 fights a year, and none of them regulated, none of them ensuring that drug testing was taking place or requiring testing for performance-enhancing drugs and other things,” Epstein said. “It’s crazy that New York professional (mixed martial arts) has been banned, but the amateur scene is alive and well and unregulated.”

The sport “needs to be regulated properly and that’s what the UFC and main MMA promoters are bringing to the table, and this year will be the year I’ll be fighting in front of all of you guys,” Weidman told a crowd of more than 100 local fans at the Clarence gym.

State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, joined Epstein and Weidman at Wednesday’s rally, along with A.J. Verel, a Pro Martial Arts Hall of Famer, and Erie County Legislator Ted Morton, R-Depew, all ardent supporters of legalizing professional mixed martial arts.

The sport has a broad fan base in Western New York, said Epstein, who estimated the statewide economic impact of legalization at up to $140 million a year.