NIAGARA FALLS – A flashy hotel and casino resort is a lot fancier than a dead-end street or back alley.
But the concept was the same: two men – or women – using whatever mixed martial arts or improvised street-fighting skills they have to beat, bloody or injure the other person in an hexagonal, steel-caged ring.
You say you crave hand-to-hand violence, blood and screaming fans?
You’re looking for tattooed contestants with colorful nicknames like Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett and Matt “The Cat” DiMarcantonio?
The Seneca Niagara Casino offered plenty of that Saturday night with a nine-fight “King of the Cage” card.
“It’s kind of exciting,” said Clare Elias of Hinkley, Ohio, who attended the event with her husband, Joe.
Mixed martial arts is a freewheeling ring fight that far exceeds the bounds of traditional pugilism.
Think punches, for sure. But throw in kicking, grappling, karate, wrestling and maybe even something the fighters invent on a nightly basis.
“When you watch boxing, you see a lot of hugging in the middle of the ring,” said Matthew Jones, 25, of Kenmore. “Here, there’s a lot more action.”
When the bell is rung, the fighters – for the men, wearing nothing but trunks or bike shorts and modified gloves that expose the fingers – charge right at each other.
In the early battles Saturday, there were kicks and punches to the head that drew both blood and rousing cheers from the standing-room-only crowd.
Repeated knee blows to the ribs were also popular in the combat that also featured traditional on-the-mat wrestling moves, head locks and thrusts into the side of the steel cage.
Mixed martial arts has never been legal in New York, the only state in the nation that still bans the sport.
The mixed martial arts bout occurred in New York State on Saturday night, but only because of the casino is located on Seneca Nation of Indians territory. As a result, the facility does not have to adhere to New York’s prohibition, a casino spokesman said.
It’s like the two high school tough guys who’d take their after-school fight to the street just off school property.
“It shouldn’t be illegal,” said Joe Elias. “It’s not like a dog fight. They work hard, train hard, for this.”
For those who missed Saturday’s event, there’s another coming this fall.
Terry Trebilkock, “King of the Cage” promoter, announced the event will return to Seneca Events Center on Sept. 24.
Trebilkock has held 600 mixed martial arts events like Saturday’s since 1999, and thinks it’s only a matter of time before New York State allows the sport.
“It’s going to – hopefully,” he said.
“It’s absolutely political,” added Trebilkock, who blames the ban on boxing industry lobbyists getting to Albany politicians.
Jones, who’s watched mixed martial arts on television for 10 years and attended his first live event Saturday with his father, Dave, agreed.
He said that when the state understands how popular the sport has become – and how much money there is to be made – it’ll be sanctioned off the reservation too.
“No question,” Jones said. “If they brought a UFC main event here (to First Niagara Center), it would sell out in a day.”
“Extreme Horsepower” marked the first professional mixed martial arts event since 2011 at the Niagara Falls facility, which hosted six cards between 2009 and 2011, said spokesman Philip J. Pantano.
The Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca hosted one in 2010, while the Lay Sports Center on the Cattaraugus Territory in Irving has hosted five in recent years.
Advocates says mixed martial arts should be legal because of the economic impact of big crowds. They say it needs the state’s regulation, and they add the fact that people like it.
Opponents say the sport should remain illegal in New York because of its inherent violence.
There are other concerns besides the sport’s brutality, however. Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, says proponents have yet to satisfy questions about liability in regard to immediate and long-term injury. “I look at MMA (mixed martial arts) through the prism of workplace safety and not whether it’s morally right,” Ryan said. “Insurance for these promoters is lacking.”
Fight promoters have yet to accept responsibility for injuries that taxpayers ultimately could conceivably end up paying for, he said.
“We don’t allow employers to say an ironworker, for example, accepts the risk of the profession so we don’t have to be responsible,” he said, pointing to the state’s disability and worker’s compensation programs that so far would not govern cage fighters.
Attempts to legitimize the sport remain controversial. Albany has never approved measures over the past seven years to legalize it, even though amateur fighters have been competing in New York for years, said Steven A. Greenberg, spokesman for the statewide group seeking approval in the Legislature.
Last year, more than 500 amateur bouts took place in 54 events, he said.
“Not only do we want professional mixed martial arts regulated, we want to see amateur mixed martial arts regulated across the state,” he said. “It’s for the safety of the athletes.” The sport would be regulated, he added, by the New York State Athletic Commission. He pointed out the body has a long history of effectively regulating boxing.
Saturday night’s card featured area fighters, including from Williamsville, Blasdell, Buffalo, the Finger Lakes and from just across the border in Ontario.
The ban makes it tough for some of these fighters to get into the sport without traveling.
A measure to legalize the sport was once again introduced in the State Senate in January by Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome. And significantly, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for the first time proposed in his new budget that professional mixed martial arts become legal throughout the state.
“That makes us cautiously optimistic,” Greenberg said.
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