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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

UFC's octagon comes to New York, goes no further than Times Square

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, from upstate

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, from upstate New York, inside the octagon in Times Square for an EA Sports UFC video game event on June 16, 2014. Credit: Newsday/Mark La Monica

There it was, an eight-sided topless cage sitting in Manhattan as Monday morning turned to afternoon. Fans surrounded it as fighters convened inside. Police officers stood around and did nothing. They didn't have any reason to act.

The fighters wore sneakers and jeans, not bare feet and board shorts. They had remote controls in their hands, not 4-ounce gloves.

That's what happens when the UFC's octagon is constructed in the open-air setting of Times Square on a sunny day as summer nears.

But, move that octagon 10 blocks south and stick it inside Madison Square Garden for a Saturday night of actual mixed martial arts rather than for promoting the new EA Sports UFC video game, and well, Jon Jones, Miesha Tate, Carlos Condit, Chuck Liddell and UFC personnel might very well risk being arrested and perhaps sued by the state instead of meeting and greeting with fans.

MMA, a sport that combines boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo and other martial arts such as Muay Thai and karate, is illegal in New York State. Of the 50 states in America, New York is the only one with a ban on the sport. It's legal and regulated in all of Canada and most of Mexico.

"Right now, this is the closest I can get to fighting in New York City -- playing a video game here, it's kind of sad," said Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion who grew up in upstate Endicott and now lives in Ithaca. "It's kind of sad to see so many people here and the support and the big turnout we had today and not be able to actually fight."

Put that octagon -- or any of the other shapes used by MMA promotions for enclosed fighting areas -- anywhere in the state of New York and the same legal risks apply. It's a battle of geography, not geometry.

"It's kind of ironic that I'm standing in the octagon in the middle of New York and I'm about to play a video game," said Tate, a top-ranked women's bantamweight fighter. "New York, they just need to get with the times."

For the past five years, the State Senate has voted in favor of legislation to legalize MMA. For the past four years, the State Assembly has done nothing. The bill has yet to reach the floor of the Assembly for a full vote. It will become a fifth year after Thursday when the legislative session ends for the year if no movement happens by then, a scenario growing more likely by the hour.

"With each year that goes by we continue to build support for the legalization of MMA in New York State, and I am confident that it is only a matter of time until this legislation passes in the Assembly," Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle said in a statement.

Morelle is the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, one that includes 56 other co-sponsors. A bill requires 76 yes votes to pass.

"Over these final days of session I will continue to urge my colleagues to join me in ensuring the safety of all participants by regulating MMA and bringing this great sport, with all of its economic benefits, into the mainstream in New York State," Morelle said.

Tate, from Tacoma, Washington, is no stranger to New York, having made several media appearances in the city and one lobbying trip to Albany. Tate's politicking focused on combating the commentary from opponents of mixed martial arts that the sport, in particular the UFC, is misogynistic and anti-female.

"People just want to say things that are negative, but they don't know what they're talking about," Tate said.

Tate, a former Strikeforce bantamweight champion, gave UFC president Dana White a hard time in social media several years back when he said women would never fight in the octagon.

That, of course, has changed, largely because of Tate's main rival, Ronda Rousey. Female fighters have headlined UFC pay-per-view cards, coached on "The Ultimate Fighter" and appeared as contestants on the show.

"It wasn't because we were women, it was because he thought there'd never be enough depth or enough talent to do that," Tate said. "And once he realized there was, he's been one of the biggest supporters, period. He's the one that was like, 'Yeah, you guys are going in, you're gonna do this. He pays us equally.

"It's really stupid," Tate added about the anti-female angle.

That's just one talking point, though. Critics also have pointed out the sport's violent nature as a reason to oppose its legalization. They cite the safety and long-term health of fighters, draw parallels to concussion issues involving the NFL and seek to avoid exposing the people of New York to such an intensely physical sport.

Yet, it comes down to this: The sport can be seen by New Yorkers on television, read about in newspapers and websites and downloaded to smartphones and tablets. It just can't be performed in front of a live audience in a New York venue. Unless of course, it's an amateur MMA event, one that need not be sanctioned or regulated by the New York State Athletic Commission. Those are perfectly legal and springing up all across the state. (The next one on Long Island is June 28.)

"We have an octagon here in the middle of New York and can't actually fight here in New York," Jones said. "Obviously there's an interest in the city. It's apparent how many people showed up here to this EA Sports thing, I can only imagine the turnout for the real thing, what that would look like.

"I do believe that MMA in New York State is inevitable," Jones said. "It's gonna happen."

A matter of when, not if. This is the fifth straight year for that, too.

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