Battleground State: The Fight to Legalize MMA in New York (Part 4)

The Politician

In Ratner’s eyes, the man holding the people of New York hostage is State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a Democrat from Colonie. Reilly has been a steadfast opponent of legalizing MMA in New York and believes it is his responsibility to make sure MMA remains an illegal, outlaw sport. “First and foremost, it is a violent sport,” said Reilly. “It’s like pornography. Like the Supreme Court says, you know it when you see it. For example, I watched an event recently because I felt obligated to. One fellow was sitting on another’s chest and hit him in the head at least 14 times.”

Reilly is also concerned about the effect of MMA on impressionable minds. “Violence begets violence. When you show young children violence and tell them its okay, it’s the wrong message,” said Reilly. “It’s harmful to our entire society.”

But mostly Reilly is upset about what he believes is the UFC’s distortion of the facts, especially regarding the economic benefits to the state. To support his position, Reilly prepared a report last year entitled “The Case Against Ultimate Fighting In New York State.” In the report, he argues that the economic benefit of legalizing MMA would be almost negligible. “[A]n event at a site such as Albany would have a gate of approximately $4 million with $500,000 being added to the local economy; however, $3.5 million would be taken out of the local economy and sent to Las Vegas where Zuffa, LLC [the parent company of the UFC] is located,” Reilly wrote. Reilly says fighter safety is at the heart of his opposition to MMA. He takes issue with the UFC’s use of the Johns Hopkins study, arguing that the study actually bolsters his case that MMA is a dangerous and violent sport. “Of the 171 ultimate fighting matches examined, 40.3 percent ended with at least one injured fighter not including knockout victims,” Reilly wrote in his report.

Reilly also cited a 2009 study by National Geographic, which studied the science behind MMA fighting. The study found that, due to gravity and recoil, a fighter’s punches to a downed opponent were more than four-times as powerful as punches to a standing opponent. “The claim that the standing boxer receives less powerful and severe blows than the downed ultimate fighter is clearly incorrect,” wrote Reilly.

There have been two confirmed deaths in MMA matches: Sam Vasquez died as a result of brain damage sustained in a 2007 fight in Texas, and Douglas Dredge was killed in a 1998 fight in Ukraine. Reilly claims that there have been as many as 13 additional deaths but concedes that the records are inconclusive. Reilly also cites a March 2009 fight in World Extreme Cagefighting, a sister organization of the UFC, in which one fighter, Marcos Galvao, suffered a seizure after being knocked out. His opponent, Damacio Page, took home a $7,500 “Knockout of the Night” bonus.

Public opinion may be on his side. Regarding the negative Marist College poll on the proposed legalization of MMA, Reilly said: “I ran my own poll in my home district and it was pooh-poohed by the MMA people. I found 67 percent of my constituents didn’t want it. In the Marist poll, it was 68 percent. That’s virtually identical.”

One person who sees eye-to-eye with Reilly on almost every point is former New York state athletic commissioner Ron Scott Stevens. “In general, it’s not the kind of activity that adds to the culture where we’re looking to have an improved society, not one that is returning to a more barbaric time,” said Stevens.

Stevens also points out the differences between boxing and MMA and does not see how the two are comparable. “In MMA, you can hit and kick an opponent on the ground. You can choke them,” said Stevens, who was a boxing promoter in New York before becoming a regulator, and is currently a playwright. “When boxing was first legalized in New York in 1920, all these things that MMA allows, boxing said no to. I don’t see boxing as dangerous. I don’t see boxing as being deleterious to society.”

Reilly believes that Stevens was removed by Governor Paterson in 2009 because of Stevens’ opposition to legalizing MMA. Stevens, however, maintains that he does not know why he was replaced by current commissioner Melvina Lathan, an outspoken supporter of MMA legalization, other than being told that the state wanted to go in another direction. “I never expressed my concerns about MMA on the record while I was commissioner,” said Stevens a registered Democrat who had been appointed commissioner by Republican governor Pataki in 2003. “If I was still athletic commissioner today and MMA became legal, then I would regulate it. My emphasis would be on health and safety. However, as a regulator, I did not believe I needed to have a position. That’s not what a regulator does.”

Stevens also calls upon his experience as a regulator by emphasizing all the manpower and resources that go into sanctioning an event in the state. “One of the things you need to consider is what will it take to get licensed in New York?” said Stevens. “Will they require bonds? Medical insurance? What medical exams will they require? Also, how financially sound will these promoters be? Can they cover the expenses in case a fighter gets seriously injured? Also, you have to look at the state. Assuming there will be a lot more events, are they going to hire the personnel to regulate these events? Right now, they’re talking about cutbacks and trying to streamline the state’s workforce.”

However, not everyone in the State Assembly shares their views. Jonathan Bing, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has been a long-time advocate of legalizing MMA in New York and was a co-sponsor of the 2009 bill. Bing says he is not a fan of MMA and admits that he probably would not order an event on pay-per-view. Bing, however, sees MMA as a moneymaker for a state that operated with a $2.1 billion budget deficit last year, and is looking at a deficit in excess of $7 billion in 2010-2011.

Bing disagrees with many of Reilly’s points, especially regarding economic benefits. The way Bing sees it, Reilly’s claim that most of the revenue from an MMA fight in New York would go to Las Vegas isn’t entirely accurate. “The hundreds of employees that will be hired in order to hold these bouts aren’t going to be from Vegas,” Bing said. “It’s about net economic activity in addition to ticket sales. You need hundreds of workers to take tickets, to usher the fans to their seats, and be involved in putting together these competitions. In addition, fans would come from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and even Canada to attend an MMA competition. They’ll stay in a hotel, eat in a restaurant, go see another cultural or sports event, and this money won’t go to Las Vegas but will stay in the state of New York.”

To Bing, it’s a simple argument: why should New York State ignore the possibility of making millions of dollars that could be spent on important programs and services, when many other states don’t seem to have the same qualms? “It makes no sense that we’re not licensing this sport when most other states do so. It’s ridiculous that we can put billboards up in Times Square advertising MMA bouts but not be able to hold them in Madison Square Garden a few blocks away,” said Bing. “I don’t necessarily believe that just because 42 states are doing it, New York should, too. But here’s a case where we’re giving away revenue, and the amount of money we’re losing out on by not having MMA in our state more than dwarfs the amount of money we’d be sending to Vegas.”

Bing dismisses the idea that MMA is too violent and is unduly dangerous to the health and welfare of the fighters. “Should we outlaw skiing because people have been killed doing that? What about bicycling? Or snowboarding? Compared to what New York already allows, including boxing, MMA is more highly regulated than anything New Yorkers do on a daily basis,” said Bing. “Five of the sports that make up MMA are Olympic events [boxing, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, judo and taekwondo]. MMA is different from the way it was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s extremely regulated, the participants are drug-tested regularly, if they have a concussion or a knockout, they can’t participate in another match for a certain period of time and there’s a doctor at the ring.”

Perhaps concerned that the pro-legalization forces were gaining momentum, Reilly recently floated a compromise proposal, whereby he might be willing to allow MMA events in New York if fighters were banned from hitting opponents who were down on the floor. Reilly didn’t see it as a surrender, saying that eliminating ground strikes has always been his goal. Ratner was critical of the idea and pointed out it was important to have uniformity in the sport. “Ground strikes are part of the sport,” said Ratner. “It’s sanctioned in the Unified Rules. You can’t have one set of rules for New York and a different set for the rest of the country. That’d be like saying you can tackle quarterbacks, but not if they play for the Giants or Jets.”