The familiar first step toward legalizing mixed martial arts in New York State occurred Tuesday in Albany when a Senate committee voted to advance the bill.

The State Senate Committee for Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation voted 9-4 in support of a bill that would make New York the 50th state to legalize the sport.

"The arguments are getting tougher to make against, and they're getting easier to make for," UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta told Newsday.

The History of MMA and New YorkMMA in New York: A timeline of events

Bill No. S2159, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Griffo (R-Rome), now goes to the Finance Committee for a vote. Should it pass through that committee -- and previous history indicates that shouldn't be a problem -- the bill likely would go to the Senate for a vote.

The bill has passed through the State Senate each of the past five years only to stall in the Assembly. It languished in one committee or another and was never brought to the floor for a vote of the full Assembly while Sheldon Silver was Speaker.

"We never got that opportunity to get to the finish line," Fertitta said.

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Silver resigned from his position last month amid charges and an indictment for allegedly collecting $3.8 million in kickbacks and bribes. Silver, who remains in the Assembly, has pleaded not guilty.

There is optimism that this will be the year MMA becomes legal in New York. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) replaced Silver as Assembly Speaker. He has been a sponsor of the bill in past years. When Heastie became Speaker, he removed his name from all bills he previously sponsored.

"He understands the sport, he understands the issues," Fertitta said of Heastie, with whom he met briefly on Tuesday in Albany.

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The bill calls for the legalization of mixed martial arts and would establish the New York State Athletic Commission as the regulating body. The commission would have to establish and adopt guidelines for New York before a professional MMA event could be held in the state.

Professional MMA became illegal in New York in 1997 under then-Gov. George Pataki. In the years since, the sport once marketed as "no holds barred" has undergone immense changes, such as a clearly defined set of rules, established weight classes and thorough safety regulations. The UFC last month also launched a new initiative to increase drug testing of fighters in all states and to advocate for harsher penalties than currently being handed down by state athletic commissions.

New York remains the only state -- and the only entity in North America -- to ban the sport on a professional level. Amateur MMA events, however, are legal and do not require sanctioning by any regulatory body.

Dennis Bermudez, who grew up in Saugerties and now lives and trains on Long Island, joined Fertitta and other UFC officials in Albany to lobby for the bill.

"When I first started fighting, I was in Pennsylvania," said Bermudez, the No. 6- ranked featherweight in the UFC. "It was pretty cool to be able to fight in front of friends and family and being able to celebrate afterwards and it not being a hassle to get everyone to fight. Now, if they're lucky, I'm fighting in New Jersey."

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Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who voted against the bill, raised concerns about brain injuries, citing a Canadian study showing a higher head trauma rate with MMA than boxing or football. He said cognitive damage, as in football, may appear years later. Hoylman also has introduced alternative legislation that would regulate MMA in New York and establish a compensation fund for professional fighters, similar to New York's jockey fund, which would be paid by the businesses putting on fights.

"You're going to get hurt in this sport. The question came up: What does boxing give you? Boxing at least gives you gloves," said Sen. James Sanders, a Queens Democrat, who voted no. "We're seeing damage is going to be done. And we're not preparing for it. Under those conditions, we should not move in this direction."

With AP