Fighting for mixed martial arts in New York

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As leaders in Albany struggle to deal with the state's fiscal problems, they should think outside the box and inside the Octagon.

Last April, I fought Georges St. Pierre in a rematch of the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title match. Our sport is banned in New York, and this fight [ UFC 83 ] was held in Montreal, St. Pierre's hometown. The sold-out crowd of 21,000 was less than welcoming - everywhere I went that weekend, I heard jeers and boos. When I eventually lost the match, the cheers for my opponent were deafening.

In my eight-year career with the UFC, the world's largest mixed martial arts league, I've fought in New Jersey, Connecticut, Las Vegas, Texas and Montreal. But because of New York's ban, I've never competed in my home state.

I've never had the excitement of hearing a sold-out crowd at Nassau Coliseum chant my name as I entered the Octagon - our sport's answer to the boxing ring. I've never been able to compete in front of all my friends and family.

And New York has never captured any of the revenue these hugely popular events bring.

My fight in Montreal generated more than $5 million in ticket sales. UFC events contribute millions of dollars in tourism and tax revenue to host cities. A UFC event held last year in Columbus, Ohio, is estimated to have produced $11 million in external economic activity for the city.

Wherever we go, there are sold-out arenas, fans buying concessions and merchandise, and thousands of people staying in hotels and eating at restaurants.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development, has introduced legislation that would authorize mixed martial arts events in this state. It's not the first time the issue has come up for debate in Albany.

Last year, the bill died because some Assembly members were concerned about what they call the "violent nature" of the sport. What they forget is that mixed martial arts is a combination of several Olympic sports: martial arts disciplines like jiu-jitsu, karate, Greco-Roman wrestling and judo - sports that prize discipline and strategy.

From the moment I saw my first Bruce Lee movie as a kid, I knew I wanted to practice martial arts. My dad encouraged me to learn kung fu when I was growing up. After high school, I was lucky enough to train with Renzo Gracie, a renowned master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I won first place at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Pan American Games in 1999, and shortly after that, I competed in my first Ultimate Fighting Championship match.

I also opened two jiu-jitsu academies and train people from all walks of life - everyone from couch potatoes looking to get fit, to local police officers, to aspiring Ultimate Fighters. Everyone is taught the skills they need to build strength and discipline.

The students at my schools understand that mixed martial arts is a sport based on respect, strategy and skill. That's also the view held by the leadership of the UFC. Zuffa, the company that bought UFC in 2001, has reinvented the league by instituting strict safety standards to protect its athletes.

Contrary to popular belief, mixed martial arts competitions are anything but "no-holds-barred." There are weight classes, judges, time limits and more than 30 moves that are against the rules.

The athletic commissions in the 37 states where the sport is regulated set additional rules that govern each fight. They oversee and enforce things like medical testing, ringside doctors, post-fight MRIs - even what type of gloves we wear.

A 2006 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study reported, "The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing," and "knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing." That conclusion, combined with the fact that the most serious injuries in all the UFC fights have been broken arms and legs, should put safety concerns to rest.

Our elected officials in Albany have a lot on their plates right now, but they should consider regulating mixed martial arts in New York. As a professional athlete, I can't imagine anything more exciting than competing in front of a hometown crowd. And as a New York taxpayer, I would hope that our legislators are open to new ideas to bring more entertainment dollars into our state.

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