Wanderlei Silva poses for photographs and signs autographs.
He beams at the awestruck students who will spend the better part of the morning at Empire Martial Arts in Colonie watching him demonstrate mixed martial arts moves and practicing those moves themselves.
A charming, bearish man who also happens to be one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top guns, Silva strides to the front of the gym. The students break into applause and gather around him in a circle.
Silva is allowed to teach mixed martial arts in New York. But he cannot compete here.
The rapidly growing sport’s largest promotion company, the UFC, is recognized and regulated by 36 of the 44 states that have athletic commissions, but not New York.
Since 1997 the state has banned mixed martial arts, which its detractors call barbaric, violent and dangerous. U.S. Sen. John McCain once described the sport as “human cockfighting.”
Mixed martial arts is a combat sport that combines fighting techniques including Thai kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both are taught at Empire Martial Arts.
Fans say the fights have gotten safer, noting new rules implemented by the UFC since the sport first emerged in the early 1990s. They say it’s no more dangerous than wrestling or boxing, and that legalizing it would provide much needed economic benefits.
“It’s becoming one of the most popular sports,” said Alan Condon, who owns Empire Martial Arts. “With proper rules, with proper regulations, it could be a great economic boost, which is what New York needs right now.”
In the Northeast, mixed martial arts is banned in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island. It is legal in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Maine has no state athletic commission.
One of New York state Legislature’s leading opponents of legalizing mixed martial arts is Assemblyman Bob Reilly, D-Colonie.
“The sport is violent, and violence in society has a negative effect on children and adults,” Reilly said. “In the Legislature, we’re always passing anti-bullying laws and anti-domestic violence laws. It seems contradictory to promote mixed martial arts.”
Last year, a bill to legalize the sport died in the Assembly’s Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development, on which Reilly sits, and he predicted a similar fate for the bill this year.
In the past couple of years, the UFC has stepped up its efforts to overturn the ban in New York. The organization has hired the law firm Brown, McMahon & Weinraub to lobby legislators, and a consulting firm, the Global Strategy Group, to handle public relations.
A study put together on behalf of the UFC by New York City-based HR&A Advisors, Inc., estimates that legalizing mixed martial arts in New York would generate $16.5 million in economic activity and points to the increased revenues that would result from allowing venues such as Madison Square Garden to host UFC fights. The report notes that nationally the sport generated $3 million in gate revenues in 2008, and that its pay-per-view numbers have increased dramatically during the past few years.
“There’s a movement of mixed martial arts here,” said Silva, who is originally from Brazil and now lives in Las Vegas. “Fighters from New York need to be given the opportunity to fight.”
He said he hopes the Legislature will overturn the ban. “New York is a big, big market,” he said. People who oppose the sport, he said, “don’t understand the rules and the techniques.”
But Reilly said reports of increased economic activity were overblown and suggested that very little of the money generated by UFC events benefits the local community. He also dismissed claims that the sport is safe. “The UFC touts the holds [that] fighters are no longer allowed to do,” he said. “But they don’t tell you about all the moves they can do, and these moves are violent and harmful.” One concern, he said, is the lack of protective headgear.
The American Medical Association also opposes mixed martial arts. The Medical Society of the State of New York has “not had reason to take a position on this issue, but if we were asked to study it, we would most likely agree with the AMA,” spokeswoman Lynda Lees Adams said in an e-mail. “Lacking our own position, we support the AMA’s by default.”
Ultimate Fighting Championship was founded in the early 1990s, and promoted a no-holds-barred style of fighting that was particularly brutal. But when the sports promotion company Zuffa purchased the UFC in 2001, it began establishing rules and regulations in hopes of gaining greater mainstream acceptance. The rules permit striking and grappling techniques, both while standing and on the ground. One tactic, called the ground and pound, involves taking the opponent to the ground and then striking him or her with fists or elbows.
Bob Belber, general manager of the Times Union Center in Albany, would like to see mixed martial arts legalized. “The ban isn’t good for sports or the economy of New York,” he said. He said the UFC could probably sell out the center. “That would be huge,” he said. “That would be $1 million to $2 million in economic spending.”
Belber said he wouldn’t have supported legalizing mixed martial arts 15 years ago, when the rules and safety measures weren’t as strict. “We would not have come out in favor of [legalization] strictly because of the economic benefit,” he said. “The safety of the fighters is our first and foremost concern.”
Rotterdam resident Mike LaDuke, 24, a professional mixed martial arts fighter who trains and teaches at Empire, travels to New Jersey to fight. He said he wrestled all through high school and became interested in mixed martial arts after watching it on television. “I just like the competition, the benefits of being in shape and training.”
Condon said people don’t realize how skilled the mixed martial arts fighters are. “There’s a conditioning aspect, a strength aspect,” he said. “In reality, it’s self-defense. You’re preparing for situations that might arise. If someone knocks you to the ground, you can fight back.”
Condon became a fan and practitioner of mixed martial arts before it was popular. He trained in a hybrid martial arts called Kajukenbo, which combines boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, karate and kung fu, and practiced shootfighting, a combat sport and martial art that was a precursor to mixed martial arts. “There were no weight classes, and you never knew who you might end up fighting,” he recalled. “It was a true test of ability.”
In 2004, Condon opened Empire Martial Arts in a 1,400-square-foot space in Colonie Center with about 40 students. Two years later, he moved to his current location, which is about 6,500 square feet.
He has almost 160 students.
Condon said Empire Martial Arts attracts different types of people: police officers and soldiers who want extra training; regular people who like the workout; former wrestlers and boxers who enjoy combative sports; and men and women interested in learning self defense. “What makes our program unique is that we stress the self-defense aspects,” he said. “We don’t force people to compete.”
Last weekend about 40 people attended Silva’s class at Empire.
“I’m a huge fan of the UFC,” said Sarah Westcott of Guilderland, whose three children, ages 6, 4 and 2, participate in the kids’ program at Empire. “The sport is fast-paced. It requires a tremendous amount of skill. In mixed martial arts, you’re working with people who have multiple black belts. That takes years of training.”
A chiropractor, Westcott had volunteered to treat people in the Silva clinic. But mostly she was there to see Silva.
“This is more to get my picture taken,” she explained, while watching the class.
She said she became interested in mixed martial arts years ago, when her husband rented the first season of Ultimate Fighter, the reality TV show where up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighters square off against each other.
Rhiannon Fenton, 27, of Albany, said she first came to Empire Martial Arts in July 2007, hoping to learn how to “protect myself and empower myself.”
“It’s not just a great workout,” she said. “You gain confidence, self-respect. It’s about being a whole individual.”
Fenton is also a fan of Silva. “It’s amazing that he’s here,” she said.