Jun 27

No Resolution for Mixed Martial Arts

In the friendly confines of a fight cage, few mixed martial arts bouts last even three minutes.
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Times Topic: Mixed Martial Arts

In Albany, the clash will not end.

With the legislative session having ended, a bill to legalize the sport in New York has, once again, been relegated to limbo status. Last month, for the second straight year, the proposed legislation cleared the State Senate. It also passed with the Assembly’s Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee but never reached a vote before the Ways and Means Committee.

“It’s a promotion of violence at a time when we’re trying to eliminate violence,” said Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a Democrat from Clifton Park and opponent of legalization since the bill’s introduction in 2008.

For years, concern about the sport’s violence — some likened it to “human cockfighting” — caused a number of states, including New York, to officially shun it. But powered by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the foremost international promoter of mixed martial arts, the sport has achieved wider popularity and, in some circles, mainstream acceptance over the past half-decade.

Forty-five states now sanction mixed martial arts. New York, Vermont and Connecticut do not, though events are often held at casino resorts on Connecticut’s Indian reservations. Alaska and Wyoming do not have sanctioning bodies.

Fans of the sport and supporters of the bill have pointed to the potential economic benefits of legalization for the state, particularly at a time of great fiscal turmoil. According to a study commissioned by the U.F.C., holding two events in the state — one at Madison Square Garden, one in Buffalo — could generate over $15 million in revenue.

“New Jersey is making all the money off this, and we’ve got nothing,” said Carmine Zocchi, who teaches mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes on Eliot Avenue in Queens. “I’ve got to travel to take my fighters to shows. We should have them in the best city in the world.”

But Mr. Reilly has contested his Assembly colleagues’ claims about the economics of legalizing the sport. It might turn a profit, he says, just not for New York.

“Most of the money in sports today is in TV,” he said, citing the pay-per-view status of many marquee U.F.C. fights. “People would make money — people in Las Vegas and the U.F.C.”

On a micro-level, though, local gyms have long hoped that the passage of a bill could bolster their bottom lines. Peggy Chau, who operates Fighthouse in TriBeCa, says legalization would create a “domino effect.” An event at Madison Square Garden would draw increased attention to the U.F.C., she says, which would lead to greater interest in mixed martial arts classes at all levels.

Still, opponents of the bill cite health and safety concerns associated with the sport. In light of recent research on head injuries in football and boxing, Mr. Reilly says, promoting a combat sport sends the wrong message.

“If we wanted to legalize professional boxing today, I don’t think it would pass,” Mr. Reilly said.

According to Mr. Zocchi, recent rule changes have ensured that the worst excesses of mixed martial arts — eye-gouging and strikes to the back of the head or neck — have no place in the sport. His fellow fighters say the threat of injury lingers in any contact-heavy competition.

“Everything is violence,” said Marcelo Garcia, an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a background in mixed martial arts. “They don’t understand it’s just another sport.”

Mr. Zocchi and Mr. Garcia also noted the social benefits of organized fighting in a city like New York — benefits that would multiply, they say, with sanctioned competitions in the state.

Mr. Zocchi takes pride, he says, in taking undisciplined “street fighters” and teaching them the finer points of the sport: strategy, positioning, body control.

“People think it’s this barbaric thing,” he said. “This stuff is harder than calculus.”

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