ALBANY - Clergy members have jumped into the New York fight over legalizing mixed martial arts competitions in the state, lobbying Tuesday against what they called a vicious "blood sport" that appears to hold special appeal for some hate groups.
Opponents including a priest and rabbi who visited individual lawmakers in Albany said the sensationalized violence of cage fighting has no place in civilized society.
In a letter to legislators, they called professional fights public displays of "hate" where the goal is to beat senseless, choke out or disable an opponent and are especially troubling in marketing to children. They cited press accounts of fighter deaths from amateur or professional fights in South Dakota, Texas and the Ukraine.
"This truly is a moral question," said the Rev. John Duffel, associate pastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Manhattan. "We should wipe out the whole of cage fighting as well, even in the amateur stuff."
The New York State Catholic Conference, in a memorandum of opposition to legalizing the sport professionally, predicted it would generate "copycat" incidents where children accidentally injure or kill each other, as well as serious injuries and possibly deaths of fighters. "And it would surely generate a coarsening of our culture, something we can hardly afford."
They're urging New York's Assembly, which has blocked legalization for seven years, to continue the ban. Opponents noted that when professional fighters put on a workshop last week in Albany, media reports showed that many of those who turned out for demonstrations and autographs were boys, 8, 9 and 10 years old.
The state Senate has passed legislation to legalize and regulate the sport like most other states. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said he's not opposed to legalizing it, urging the sport's promoters to make their case for a likely economic boost.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said recently he expects it to be legalized, but isn't sure when.
Backers argue that the sport is already here in amateur gyms and even underground, with thousands of participants, and regulation will improve safety while generating money for the state from professional events across the state. One of their goals is access to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, a large venue they say they can fill with big fights. The sport is already widely viewed on television in New York.
"I think efforts would be better served to clamp down on what is happening," said Rabbi Debora Gordon of Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy. "I mean cock fighting is illegal in New York state, isn't it?"
Joseph Fahey, a theologian who chairs Catholic Workers for Social Justice, said a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found mixed martial arts especially attracts "racist skinheads and other young extremists with a thirst for violence," while some cage fighters have competed publicly with neo-Nazi messages in tattoos and clothing.
Steven Greenberg, spokesman for Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's major brand, said it is legal in 48 states, actively regulated in 45. He said a Johns Hopkins study found mixed martial arts safer for participants than boxing or football and said there have been no major injuries in the UFC's many regulated matches, which have referees, rules, doctors in attendance and created economic opportunities for its athletes.
"We have amateur MMA going on in this state unregulated," Greenberg said, including thousands of adults and children who would benefit from regulation. While the UFC has spent about $1 million on lobbying over the past six years for legalization, he said it's "a red herring" to say the sport's backers are buying legalization, noting other more expensive lobbying efforts haven't all resulted in the stadiums or state support sought by sports franchises.