New York State Senate passes bill to legalize MMA, again

Jon Jones, from Ithaca, N.Y., battles Glover Teixeira

Jon Jones, from Ithaca, N.Y., battles Glover Teixeira for the light heavyweight championship at UFC 172, at the Baltimore Arena in Baltimore, Md., on April 26, 2014. (Credit: Baltimore Sun / Karl Merton Ferron)

For a fifth straight year, the bill to legalize professional mixed martial arts in New York passed through the State Senate.

The vote in favor of the bill was 44-16 on Tuesday afternoon, down from last year's 47-14 result.

Bill No. S6502 now goes to the Assembly, where it has stalled in one committee or another each of the past four years.

"We have had this bill in front of this house in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013," said Sen. Joseph Griffo, the bill's sponsor. "New York is not doing this because every other state is. New York is considering it because it's an opportunity to have people in this state do something they want to do."

The debate on the Senate floor was mainly between Griffo and Sen. Liz Krueger, just as it was last year. Krueger questioned the safety of the sport, citing a study released last March by the University of Toronto that said MMA is more violent than boxing and other martial arts.

She also asked if the bill would seek to regulate amateur events as well. Griffo said there is a companion bill to address that.

"I don't think it's worth the money to damage people's brains," Krueger said.

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.

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.

The bill, which has 57 Assembly members as sponsors including Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, seeks to establish the necessary protocol to have the sport legalized and sanctioned by the New York State Athletic Commission.

Mixed martial arts events would generate new revenue for the state through taxes collected on ticket sales, travel expenses and broadcast fees, to name a few.

The UFC, the sport's largest company and the leader in lobbying in New York, has promised at least four events statewide for each of the first three years once the bill becomes a law. That would include a fight card at Madison Square Garden and in upstate cities such as Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester.

But that's if the bill becomes a law.

"I think the most interesting thing was how tempered the debate was this year as opposed to past years," UFC executive vice president and general counsel Lawrence Epstein told Newsday. "What we're now having is a debate about what the law should look like, not whether we should have it."

The Democratic conference of the Assembly, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), will need to agree to put the bill up for a vote before the entire Assembly. That's where the bill stalled last year. Assemb. Andrew Hevesi said last November that Assembly abides by a rule that if there aren't enough votes to pass in the conference, the bill doesn't get brought up.

Assuming the 57 sponsors already attached to the bill vote yes, another 19 Assembly members would have to do the same for it to pass the Assembly and go to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature. The legislative session ends June 19.

"The attention turns yet again to the Assembly," UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said in a statement. "Hopefully the Assembly will finally recognize that enacting this law is the right thing for the millions of fans, the right thing for ensuring the safety of amateur and professional MMA athletes, the right thing for tourism and economic development, the right thing for the arenas and the union jobs they provide.

"I have no choice but to be cautiously optimistic. Mr. Speaker, make 2014 the year this gets done."

Also in its way is the Culinary Union of Nevada Local 226. They have been at odds with Station Casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta over labor issues. The Station Casinos are the largest non-union gaming entity in Nevada. The Fertitta brothers co-own Zuffa LLC, the UFC's parent company.

"We've got to push for the simple vote on the floor on the Assembly," Epstein said. "That's what this is all about. Let's have the debate like we just had in the Senate, have everybody raise their hands and let's count the vote."

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