MMA in New York State still in the cage … for now

Look out, New York: Mixed martial arts is looking to make an impact in the Empire State. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- To its critics, mixed martial arts is ugly and grotesque. John McCain has railed against it on the floor of the United States Senate, calling it "human cockfighting."

To its fans, mixed martial arts is exciting entertainment and a legitimate sport.

Now MMA is at a crucial point in its evolution as a business. It's currently sanctioned in 35 states and in Washington, D.C.

The most important jurisdiction not yet in the mix is New York, which has a statute that specifically bans mixed martial arts competition. To overturn that ban, the state assembly and state senate must pass new legislation, which governor David Paterson must sign.

A bill currently pending in the New York State legislature would legalize combative sports in addition to boxing and place these sports under the auspices of the New York State Athletic Commission.

Right now, the action outside the Octagon is as rough-and-tumble as the action in it.

The prime mover in the drive to legalize MMA in New York is Zuffa LLC, the company that controls UFC. Marc Ratner, who served for 14 years as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, is UFC's vice president for regulatory and governmental affairs.

"We're the lead driver," Ratner said in regards to pushing MMA in New York. "The other organizations are just drafting on us."

In November 2007, Zuffa hired Brown, McMahon & Weinraub (an Albany lobbying firm) for a monthly retainer of $10,000. It also hired Global Strategy Group, a media-relations political consulting firm best known for being utilized by then-governor Eliot Spitzer.

Subsequently, Zuffa made generous contributions to Democratic and Republican campaign causes in New York.

In early '08, Assemblyman Steve Englebright sponsored a bill in the New York State Assembly to legalize MMA. Martin Goldin sponsored a similar bill in the State Senate.

Everything seemed on track for passage. Then the democratic process intervened.

On June 11, the state assembly committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development met for what was expected to be a routine vote to send the bill to the entire assembly. But a second-term lawmaker named Bob Reilly had different thoughts.

Reilly, whose district includes Albany and Saratoga counties, evokes images of James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He's a teacher at heart, having coached track and field for 26 years, 17 of them at Siena College in upstate New York.

Speaking against the legalization of MMA, Reilly asked his fellow committee members, "We ban cockfighting and dog fighting. Should we allow humans to enter a cage to knee, kick and punch each other?"

Reilly's impassioned plea carried the day. The bill to legalize MMA was defeated in committee. But like "The Terminator," it will be back.

Proponents of MMA point to the popularity of the sport and its potential to raise revenue, both in commerce and tax dollars, for the State of New York.

Jerry Izenberg, the dean of American sportswriters, is unimpressed.

"In order to be an MMA champion," Izenberg said, "you need every skill that's outlawed on the planet. The very things we pride ourselves on not doing, these people elevate to an art form. I wouldn't even try to dignify it."

Don King expounds on that.

"UFC ain't nothing new," King said. "They started with 'ultimate' fighting, and then they civilized it and made it into boxing. All UFC is doing is taking 200 years of rules and throwing them out the window."

Meanwhile, Reilly finds himself in an unlikely position.

"I consider myself the accidental opposition," Reilly told ESPN.com. "When I came to the committee meeting, I only intended to voice my personal opposition to the measure. But when I swayed enough people on the committee to vote against it, I became the point person in opposition."

Reilly accepts the role of boxing in today's society, although he's troubled by the damage that the sport inflicts on its participants. Mixed martial arts, in his view, goes too far.

"I'm opposed to the proposed legislation because of the brutality of the sport," he said. "The people who are drawn to mixed martial arts are attracted by the brutality of it, which goes above and beyond what you see in boxing. It seems, to me, beyond logic that we in the state legislature would consistently pass laws against physical abuse and physical intimidation, everything from domestic abuse to bullying in schools, and then allow this stuff. We should not be encouraging the glorification of this kind of violence."

And for the monetary issues?

"The argument about mixed martial arts raising revenue for the state is typical," Reilly said. "But our economy shouldn't be dependent on that sort of stuff."

Reilly also notes that the real "money" issue surrounding the legalization of MMA might be the financial resources that have been brought to bear in support of the proposed legislation.

"The battle here is difficult," Reilly said. "We're up against a tremendous amount of money that's available for lobbying as a consequence of the money that mixed martial arts would generate for those who are hiring the lobbyists. Money is the driving force behind this. You see the influence of the lobbyists in the fact that, under the proposed legislation, New York would only get a tax of 3 percent of the revenue generated and whatever we get would be capped at $150,000 for each event. Rhode Island gets 5 percent."

Reilly also believes that Ron Scott Stevens was removed as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission because he failed to embrace the campaign to legalize mixed martial arts.

On July 23, Stevens was notified by Secretary of State Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez that he was being replaced at the end of the week. Two days later, Gov. Paterson announced that Melvina Lathan (a vocal proponent of MMA) would chair the commission.

Thereafter, Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote, "Stevens got the boot for no apparent reason, unless you count the fact that he would not openly support the sanctioning of mixed martial arts in New York, where it is outlawed but facing serious lobbying pressure from UFC officials."

Reilly concurs.

"It's clear to me that this new person was put in her position because of her support for legalizing mixed martial arts," Reilly said. "Can I prove that? No. But if I see something that walks like a duck and it's quacking, I call it a duck."

One of the issues that the New York State Athletic Commission will confront if MMA is legalized is that the commission doesn't presently have the personnel to effectively regulate the sport. Meanwhile, the biggest problem that those against the legalization of MMA face is that no powerful interests are actively opposing the proposed legislation. The bill has passed under the radar of news organizations like the New York Times, which might influence the debate if its editorial board were aware of it.

The American Medical Association has been largely silent as well.

Indeed, Reilly notes, "This came to our committee without forewarning. It was under the radar and almost slipped through without serious discussion and debate. There was a vote. The measure was defeated in committee. And immediately after the vote, the lobbyists started working their phones again."

The bill to legalize MMA will be reconsidered when the New York State legislature reconvenes after the fall elections.

"Our representatives have continued to stay in touch with the appropriate government officials to make sure they understand the reasons why the law should be changed," Ratner said. "I feel very bullish that MMA will be approved in New York."

Reilly is afraid that Ratner might be right.

"I've gotten a lot of e-mail from fans of mixed martial arts," Reilly said. "Obviously, they're against the position I've taken. But when I talk with the people in my district, they don't like the idea of legalizing this form of brutality. The problem is, no one is mobilizing the general public on this issue, and I fear that some members of the Assembly and Senate who oppose the bill on principle will fold on this."

"That would be a shame," the assemblyman added. "I'm sure that some of the people who participate in mixed martial arts are good people. But in terms of what they do in this barbaric sport, they shouldn't be held up as role models. It would send a terrible message to the people of the State of New York -- and particularly to our children."

Thomas Hauser is the lead writer for Secondsout.com. His most recent collection of boxing columns -- "The Greatest Sport of All" -- has been published by the University of Arkansas Press. He can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com.