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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

NY needs to wake up and finally legalize MMA

Georges St-Pierre easily beat Dan Hardy via unanimous

Georges St-Pierre easily beat Dan Hardy via unanimous decision to defend his UFC welterweight championship at UFC 111 in Newark. (March 27, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Mario Gonzalez

Thousands of fans went into a tizzy for a few hours inside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., late last night and early this morning. If you listened closely enough, you could hear hundreds of New York accents.

Across the river, all of eight miles away, Madison Square Garden sat quiet. The Ringling Bros circus already was over around 10 p.m.

Are you listening, New York politicians?

Maybe it's time to get yourselves organized and legalize mixed martial arts in New York State. Unless you want to see your constituents continuing to take the money they earn in your state and spend it in your neighboring states and elsewhere across the country.

"To hold the fans hostage for the sake of politics is wrong,'' said Marc Ratner, UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs. "What they're telling you is go to Philadelphia, go to Boston, go to Jersey. It just doesn't make sense economically.''

Ratner, the former head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, has spent the last four years educating other states' politicians. Mixed martial arts is legal in 44 of the 48 states with athletic commissions. Of those, only New York, Connecticut, Vermont and West Virginia ban the sport.

The arguments against the sport don't make much sense anymore. Sure, it's bloody. And yes, it's violent. But is it really any more ferocious than boxing or football?

Boxers spend every day getting punched in the head during sparring sessions, then step into a ring and land 200-plus shots to the head and body for up to 36 minutes. MMA fighters train in multiple disciplines and can spend an entire fight on the ground using jiu-jitsu and wrestling techniques.

Can you really say that a 265-pound linebacker with 4.4 speed running full steam at a 200-pound halfback isn't violent? Their pads can protect only so much. Don't we hear former NFL players complaining of serious medical issues every year?

But football is part of the American fabric, so we look the other way when analysts suggest that one team needs to knock the other team's quarterback out of the game in order to have a chance to win.

This is not 1997 when then Gov. George Pataki signed the bill to ban MMA. This is not anything-goes UFC. Not anymore. UFC has a set of rules and regulations specifically designed to clean up the sport for health and safety (and financial) purposes.

"There is no fathomable reason MMA is not legal in New York,'' Ratner said. "We're eight miles across the river, with approximately 60 percent of the people here from New York State.''

For all of his faults and issues, Gov. David A. Paterson got it right. He supports the legalization of MMA. Melvina Lathan, chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, is a proponent. Secretary of State Lorraine A. Cortes-Vazquez even wrote an op-ed piece in the Albany Times-Union favoring legalization.

The budget Paterson submitted for approval includes the MMA provision, as does the senate's budget. The state assembly? Not so much, thanks to Assemblyman Bob Reilly (D-Latham). The legislature must now negotiate.

Reilly, the most vocal opponent of MMA, on moral grounds, nevertheless said this past week that he would not vote against the state budget if it has a provision to legalize the sport. He said that MMA is a minor item in the overall state budget.

New York State needs money. A lot of it. And in the grand scheme of our state's economic woes, legalizing MMA can make only a small dent. A study commissioned by UFC in 2008 said an event at Madison Square Garden would generate $11 million in economic activity, and an event in Buffalo would generate $5 million. That includes hotels, restaurants, merchandise, tickets and everything else associated when 20,000 people from all over the world descend upon one city for a major weekend sporting event.

As it is, UFC 111 was expected to draw 17,000 people and do a $4 million gate, approximately half of which is estimated to be from New Yorkers.

That's a lot of money being exported across the river. Maybe some of that sales tax revenue could have helped fund a school in Nassau or aid a hospital in Suffolk.

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