What does the legalization of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the state of New York actually mean for the bigger picture? It’s a short term success that had been a long time coming. It’s more symbolic then a momentous occasion. The vote to legalize MMA won by a landslide nearly two weeks ago with the New York State Assembly approving the measure by a vote of 113-25. The fight to legalize MMA in New York State has been well documented since former governor George Pataki first banned the sport in 1997, a time when MMA was mainly a unregulated blood sport which celebrated having little to no rules. Other state athletic commissions eventually embraced the challenges of MMA in states like Neveda and New Jersey by creating the Unified Rules of MMA. Although it took years of lobbying, every state essentially signed on with the exception of New York. It seemed 2016 was the year to make the vote finally happen, especially with Governor Andrew Cuomo adding a provision for MMA in his yearly budget. However don’t be fooled by declarations of the arrival of the impending legalization. At this moment in time, MMA is in a state of Decriminalization. Two minor obstacles remain in the way for the UFC as highlighted by owner Lorenzo Fertitta:
“I want to assure our fans that if Governor Cuomo signs the bill into law and the State Athletic Commission puts in place the appropriate regulations, we look forward to hosting our first New York event in the world’s most famous arena — Madison Square Garden, home to so many epic sporting events throughout the decades.”
While the UFC owner echoes the excitement many New Yorkers have had for over almost two decades. In the world of the fight business you still need to expect the unexpected. As highlighted by Fertitta, realistically two minor obstacles remain in the way of full blown legalization. These ‘ifs’ he mentioned almost seem to be a formality. However minor they may be there is still a chance that the corresponding legislation may not be favourable to the UFC. In determining the chances of prolonged decriminalization period, one must determine any reason to as why Governor Andrew Cuomo would not sign the Bill into and any possible differences the Athletic Commission may have with UFC. While the Legislature is in session, the Governor has 10 days (not counting Sundays) to sign or veto bills passed by both houses. Signed bills become law; vetoed bills do not. However, the Governor’s failure to sign or veto a bill within the 10-day period means that it becomes law automatically. Vetoed bills are returned to the house that first passed them, together with a statement of the reason for their disapproval. A vetoed bill can become law if two-thirds of the members of each house vote to override the Governor’s veto. It’s unlikely the Governor will veto the bill as the Assembly overwhelming voted in favour of the legislation. A small minority spoke out against the legalization on MMA on the Assembly floor bringing into questions if in fact Governor Cuomo himself supports the Bill becoming law. Some of the dissenting politicians of the three hour debate argued against the legalization of MMA in New York were as follows:
Ellen Jaffee, Democrat, 97th district (MMA) harms the fighters, who risk their very lives and are often maimed, or sometimes killed. It harms women, who are victimized by the glorification of distorted masculinity that cage fighting represents. The violent nature is antithetical to the anti-violence message we are trying to deliver to our children and our communities. Charles Barron, Democrat, 60th district Boxing has protections, so does football. … But this one, this one, throwing two people in a cage, firstly, as an African-American, we’ve been in cages fighting on the plantations and other places, and people let (us) bite off each other’s ears and do all kinds of things until they regulated that and made it something different. But throwing two human beings in a cage, and you know how we used to say in our neighborhoods, you should have a fair fight? Even when the man is knocked down, when I grew up, you’re supposed to step back, let him get up and let’s start over again. This one, you can pounce on them, beat his or her brains out while on the floor, choke him – you know how we feel about the choke hold in New York City – put him in a choke hold, and then the ref has to be determining whether he got choked enough. It’s not something we should legalize or regulate. It should be banned. Deborah Glick, Democrat, 66th district Nothing in this bill will stop kids from getting into Fight Clubs. We tell kids, you can go out into the schoolyard, and you want to be a star in basketball, you’ve got to shoot hoops. Now, we’re saying there’s a career path (with MMA). What’s to say that some kid isn’t going to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to start practicing in the school yard?’ Not with a poor soul that doesn’t know what he’s getting into, but a couple of friends. Daniel J. O’Donnell, Democrat, 69th district Well, I should really like it. You have two nearly naked, hot men rolling around on top of one other, trying to dominate each other. And just in case you don’t know, that’s gay porn with a different ending. I won’t describe the ending for you, but as I’ve gotten older, the endings are less important. So … Catherine Nolan, Democrat, 37th district You can’t Google the word without reading incident after incident. We’re not talking bout cartoons in a video game. A video game is a cartoon. When you watch something on TV, sometimes it seems like a cartoon. But it’s not. It’s a real person, a real human life, perhaps, from a poor background, finding his or her way out of that background the only way they know how – with their fists. A person who is easily exploited because they perhaps don’t have the education, who look for that one in a million dollar. The truth is that most people who participate in anything like this never make a lot of money. A handful at the top, of course, but everyone else is a broken life, a battered body, and perhaps a family structure that’s more shattered that when they started. I never have been graphic on the floor, but some of the domestic violence stories are truly horrific. You feel nothing but sorrow and pity for the people who got suckered in, who thought if they could play this, they could make money, and instead they’re in prison, their partner a battered person with permanent injuries. I don’t understand why we think moving this to New York state is going to be helpful to these people. It’s not something we need for tourism. We have Niagara Fall. If you’re going to Niagara, you’re there for the falls, not the fights. If you’re going to Madison Square Garden, you’re there for a team sport, like basketball.
The attempts to legalize MMA in New York State has a storied history due to the involvement of the Culinary Union and sand bagging of legislation by the former and now corrupt speaker of the house. Sheldon Silver served as leader of the state Assembly from 1994 through early 2015 and was consider by many as the biggest foe to MMA. It’s worth mentioning that Silver and Cuomo had close ties. As the Senate had already approved the legislation (as it has done seven times prior) there is little that the Governor can do as the Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of it upon its very first vote. The problem had always previously been getting the vote to the Assembly floor because it had stalled out in committee due to Silver’s intervention. Now facing 20 years in prison for fraud, Silver has been removed from the entire picture, loosening his once powerful anti-UFC grip. Signing the approved legislation into law, which Cuomo is expected to do following the the already scheduled budget measure for 2016 is nearly a formality. The only real speed bumps in that department remaining would be failing to fund the Athletic Commission required to regulate the upcoming influx of state wide MMA events via the budget. This also isn’t expected to happen. The last true hurdle standing in the way of the finish line is the ability of the New York State Athletic Commission to finalize a set of rules, which could take up to 120 days. It’s only after the rules have been put in place that the sport would be fully legalized in the state. However, these set of rules may not mirror that of the Unified Rules of MMA exercised by other state Athletic Commissions. New York is infamous for trying to be different. A differential set rules then the ones already exercised by the UFC could result in a troubling stalemate. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility. New York has time and time again proven to be that’s it feels the need to be different in comparison to other states. Although a minor indifference I point to the example of the Quebec Athletic Commission in banning foot stomps. A minor rule change to that of the Unified ones by that of a Athletic Commission that allegedly almost cancelled a scheduled event. It can happen. As the California State Athletic Commission talked about adding more strenuous regulations for promoters it was met by an immediate threat of a potential UFC boycott. The same could happen here in New York State immediately or over time. Despite the fact that the formal legalization of MMA is eminent, it’s so long overdue that the ripple effect will have little significance internationally. New York was basically the last ‘hurrah’. Removing the longstanding stigma that fighting for a living wasn’t universally accepted across America is beneficial for MMA in general. However, the only reason the brand in the UFC invested so much time and effort into New York State was because of its significance as another big venue and big revenue source. Complementary to the announcement of legalized MMA in New York State, UFC officials have announced a commitment to at least four shows in New York per year for the first three years the sport is allowed. Unsurprising, as the UFC’s popularity in that state will likely diminish after a three year state wide tour to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, and Brooklyn, all the while maintaining its ultimate goal of establishing Madison Square Garden as an annual UFC mainstay, only rivaled by the new Las Vegas Arena. The importance of setting a high standard economically is heightened by the fact that several notable UFC fighters hail from New York including former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, former middleweight champion Chris Weidman and top rising bantamweight star Aljamain Sterling. Potentially holding coveted title fights in New York City as a way of being a Fairy Tale ending to the ban of MMA in that State. With the losses of both Rousey, Anderson Silva, Paige VanZant, Sage Northcutt and Conor McGregor the announcement that New York State had finally came onboard might have just been the best possible news the UFC has gotten all year long. So let’s hope they make the most of it and discover the UFC truly loves New York.