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New York lawmakers vote to finally legalize MMA

After several years of lobbying efforts by Ultimate Fighting Championship officials and contentious wrangling behind the scenes, the New York State Assembly finally voted Tuesday to approve professional mixed martial arts.

Once Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the bill and the state’s athletic commission adopts rules and regulations in order to serve as the sanctioning body, the nation’s last ban on the sport officially will be lifted.

The bill passed 113-25, but opponents did not go down without a fight. While supporters mostly limited comments to reasoned takes on economic impact and the ability of constituents to already watch fights every weekend by turning on the TV or crossing state lines, dissenters made sure their objections were heard in often bizarre ways.

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee spoke first on the bill once it was brought to the floor, lashing out about the violent nature of the sport.

“Cage fighting, or mixed martial arts as it is called, has no place in a civilized society,” she said. “New York should continue to ban mixed martial arts.”

Assemblyman Charles Barron referenced slaves fighting in cages and police brutality in making his case against passage of the bill.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the older brother of TV personality Rosie O’Donnell, went a step further.

“You have two nearly naked hot men rolling around on top of each other,” he said. “That’s gay porn with a different ending.”

Several other members of the Assembly made their case to variously preposterous degrees, but the outcome of the vote was never truly in doubt.

UFC officials have spent more than seven years and millions of dollars lobbying the legislature to legalize the sport, which has established many more rules in the two decades since the ban went into place.

The state’s senate has passed a bill to legalize MMA for seven straight years, but it has stalled in the Assembly each time. But it moved quickly Tuesday.

“Jubilation,” Marc Ratner, UFC vice president of regulatory affairs, said of his reaction to the bill finally being passed. “I’ve been comparing it to an eight-year pregnancy, and finally the baby was born tonight.

“It was always a question of when, never if. It’s well worth it now that it’s done. I look forward to our first shows. I’m excited.”

The tourism committee passed the bill 15-5 early in the morning. It then went to the codes committee, which passed it 16-5. The final step before heading to a vote on the full Assembly floor was the Ways & Means committee, where it passed 25-7.

A simple majority of 76 votes was needed to pass the bill once it was finally brought up on the floor.

Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder released a statement when the vote was completed:

“We’ve finally delivered a knockout blow to Albany’s prohibition on mixed martial arts. With today’s vote, millions of fans across the state will soon be able to enjoy MMA right in their own backyard. This will make MMA safer for fighters and fans alike, as well as bring millions of dollars to the state and boost economic activity for our local businesses. I’m proud to join Majority Leader (Joseph) Morelle in ending this unnecessary chokehold on a sport that every other state in the country has safely enjoyed for years.”

According to Newsday, Cuomo again confirmed his support for the bill while speaking at an event Tuesday in Niagara Falls.

“I do support MMA because it is an economic generator,” the governor told the newspaper.

MMA events took place in New York in the sport’s early days, including UFC 7 in Buffalo in 1995. It was banned in 1997 when then-Gov. George Pataki pushed through a law.

Several of the UFC’s biggest stars are New York natives and have campaigned for inclusion on the first card at Madison Square Garden.

Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former middleweight champion Chris Weidman are among that group. Weidman has been active in lobbying efforts the past several years and participated on a bus tour around the state this year rallying support for the bill.

“There were times in the past I was discouraged,” Weidman said on a conference call Tuesday night. “There were a few points where I just said, ‘It’s not happening.’ I was optimistic this year, especially going around the state like I did. I felt we had overwhelming support and the people were educated. For it to finally happen, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Weidman said he will insist to UFC officials he fights on the first card at Madison Square Garden.

“I think everyone knows my expectations,” he said. “We’re on the same page, and I think everybody wants me to be happy. I’ve been fighting for seven years and missing out on the opportunity to fight in front of family and friends. It’s a dream come true for me and for New York fans who don’t have to worry about buying plane tickets to Las Vegas or taking long car trips to New Jersey to watch live events.”

The UFC, which has pledged at least four events per year in the state for the first three years, has reserved a November date at Madison Square Garden.

“I think it’s going to be an epic moment for our sport and company,” UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said. “When we go to New York and eventually debut at Madison Square Garden, we will be very focused on delivering for the fans. Believe me, we want to knock it out of the park.”

Fertitta said he is optimistic the UFC also can hold an event in upstate New York this year. He mentioned Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Utica as possible locations.

“The minute the vote passed, our team started calling arenas to see what dates are available,” he said.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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