MMA fighter Adam Pakiela explains his sport’s appeal.

Fans of the fighting sport Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are grappling with a small group of legislators in Albany to get their full-contact pastime licensed in New York State.

MMA combines striking based martial arts such as Karate, Muay Thai, and boxing with submission wrestling, Judo, and Jiu Jitsu. Tickets to events held by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the sport’s premier organization, often sell out in minutes.

Championship MMA bouts could generate $11 million in tax revenue for New York state, according to a Price Waterhouse study cited by UFC Chairman Dana White. Yet New York, which recently cut education and social services in an attempt to close a $10 billion deficit in the state budget, remains one of only four states that forbid professional MMA fights within its borders. The ban forces the question; why, at a time of fiscal crisis, does the potentially lucrative sport of MMA remain unlicensed while other full-contact sports, such as boxing and football, enjoy Albany’s approval?

The answer, according to a lobbyist on behalf of Zuffa LLC, which owns the UFC, lies in the opinions of several senior state Assemblymen and Senators.

“They saw something that was disturbing and just closed down on any logical thinking, notwithstanding the facts,” the lobbyist said via telephone, adding that despite its appearances, MMA is a well regulated, safety conscious athletic pursuit.

To many, MMA does look disturbing. Fighters wear four-ounce, open-fingered gloves that allow them to grab an opponent and manipulate limbs into painful positions, causing the opponent to submit. MMA gloves lacerate the face much more easily than boxing gloves.

Bob Riley, identified as “the face and voice of the opposition” to professional MMA events in NY, said that sanctioning MMA would be hypocritical because “we are passing laws all the time here in an attempt to eliminate violence.

“Why should we want to expose people, especially children, to more violence?” he asked rhetorically.

Matthew Derosa, an MMA fighter and instructor from Manhattan, said Riley and his allies in Albany had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his sport and its rules.

“I don’t think it’s that violent,” Derosa said. “I think people see the blood, and they react strongly.

“When I fight, I’m not out to hurt the other guy,” he added.

Riley also expressed concerns for the safety of MMA fighters, given rules that “allow you to grab a persons head and slam it into your knee. To take your elbow and slam it into their head.”

Proponents of licensing MMA point to a John’s Hopkins study that found that “the injury rate in MMA competitions is compatible with other combat sports involving striking,” and that MMA fighters were less at risk for brain injury than boxers or football players.

Riley, however, said he was not convinced.

“When people ask me about damage,” he said, “I say, just look at Muhammad Ali.”

Ali suffers from Parkinson’s connected to his storied career. Other professional boxers, such as Freddie Roach, have also developed Parkinson’s as a result of absorbing repeated blows to the head.

Riley said that there was no contradiction in allowing boxing and football and not MMA, as the object of football is not pain but a touchdown. As for boxing, Riley said licensing the sport in its current form was a costly mistake.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that if we had professional boxing up to be legalized – in hindsight we can look at the corrupt history and physical dangers – I think we would not permit it today.”

Legislation to license MMA has appeared in Albany three times, twice in stand-alone bills and once as part of former Governor David Patterson’s budget. The first time, according to Weinraub, the knockout punch came not from any particular person but from the state government’s collapse following the defection of several Democrats to the GOP.

On both other occasions, the bill has made it past the Codes and Tourism Committees in the Assembly, only to be taken down in the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Denny Farrell.

“He’s a great man,” the lobbyist said of Farrell, “but he’s got a point of view and he doesn’t like it.”

Farrell refused to comment when contacted at his office in Albany.

Jonathan L. Bing, an Assemblyman from Manhattan who supports licensing MMA competitions in NY, said that MMA’s rules made it safer than boxing or football and that the discussion about the violence of the sport was moot.

Bing, who said he does not watch MMA events, said basis of debate “should not be based on whether any individual legislator in the state would order a Pay-Per-View of it.

“It should be based on what’s best as a whole for the state and the community.”


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