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SportsMixed Martial Arts

With UFC scheduled for Madison Square Garden, New York’s MMA legalization battle continues in January

Luke Rockhold and his trainer Javier Mendez hit

Luke Rockhold and his trainer Javier Mendez hit pads at an open workout at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, 2015. He fights Chris Weidman at UFC 194 on Saturday. Photo Credit: NEWSDAY / JEFFREY BASINGER

LAS VEGAS — After three nights and 34 fights this past weekend, it may feel like December was the biggest month in UFC history.

From a fighting standpoint, sure.

But from the perspective of trying to legalize mixed martial arts in New York, January 2016 could be even bigger.

When the state legislature returns to session, the Assembly’s tourism committee plans to hold its public hearing on injuries in combat sports after canceling Friday’s hearing earlier in the week, and a ruling is expected on the UFC’s motion for a preliminary injunction allowing for its event to be held at Madison Square Garden on April 23.

UFC filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan last September challenging the constitutionality of New York’s ban on professional MMA, which was enacted in 1997. UFC also sought a preliminary injunction that, in layman’s terms, asks the court “before you decide the final merit of this lawsuit, we want to put this event on in April, and are we going to be OK doing this event in April?” said Lawrence Epstein, UFC senior executive vice president and chief operating officer.

A lawsuit filed by the UFC in 2011 was dismissed on March 31, 2015, when Judge Kimba Wood ruled the company lacked standing for its claims.

“In order to have standing, you had to 100 percent know you couldn’t do an event,” Epstein said.

Hence, the formal announcement of the April 23 fight card at MSG.

Epstein said final briefs are due this week on the preliminary injunction. It is up to the court, then, to decide on the motion.

UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said he’d need a decision “probably by the end of January” at the latest in order to build a fight card and promote it properly, as well as map out backup options for that fight date and marquee fighters. Epstein said they also have a possible backup date at MSG in September.

Assemb. Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth), head of the tourism committee, had scheduled a public hearing for this past Friday to hear testimony on injuries in combat sports. She canceled it on Wednesday because of “unexpected difficulties in scheduling the most appropriate witnesses and members of the committee to participate at this busy holiday time.”

Markey, an opponent of legalizing MMA, said she planned to reschedule it for a date in January.

Fertitta said Dr. Charles Bernick, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic, was among those prepared to offer oral testimony. Bernick was to explain preliminary findings from their Professional Fighters Brain Health study that began in April 2011.

“We were extremely disappointed that at the last minute Assemblywoman Markey canceled the hearing she wanted,” Fertitta said. “These stall tactics in New York, at some point it has to end. We want to go out there and present our testimony and present our facts as fast as we can.”

Added Esptein: “We’re always interested in having a robust debate on the issues surrounding mixed martial arts.”

UFC officials have been trying to legalize the sport in New York for close to eight years. New York is the only state still with a ban on MMA.

The state Senate has voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill each of the past six years (including twice during the 2015 session), but the bill never has reached the floor of the Assembly. A simple majority of 76 votes is needed to pass.

The 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 11.

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