Mixed martial arts fighter Dennis Bermudez would love a chance to grapple in New York.
A Saugerties native who trained for years in the Capital Region, the 26-year-old now competing in the featherweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship can envision what it would be like to fight before a roaring crowd in an arena like the Times Union Center — the feeling of thousands cheering on his every move. But landing a sanctioned match won’t be possible for Bermudez or any other mixed martial arts fighter unless the state Assembly takes up the cause.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said during an exhibition Tuesday hosted by the UFC at the Times Union Center.
Bermudez was among four fighters who showed grappling techniques to a group of 70 youths from Journeymen Wrestling, a Capital Region organization founded by Frank Popolizio Jr., a standout wrestler from Niskayuna. Prior to the event, both UFC’s executives and a handful of fighters visited the state Legislature to lobby for legalization of the sport.
New York and Connecticut are the only two states that prohibit mixed martial arts events. A bill that would essentially legalize the sport was passed again this session by the state Senate, only to languish so far in the Assembly, where the Democratic majority hasn’t taken action.
Opponents of the sport point to its inherent violence and the bloody images that sometimes emerge from bouts. Bob Reilly, a former assemblyman from Clifton Park and vocal critic of mixed martial arts, once equated legalizing the sport with turning New York “into a veritable Coliseum.”
But Reilly didn’t run for re-election last fall, giving proponents of the sport hope legalization might gain traction.
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said the bill still needs to be discussed among members of the Democratic conference but suggested the topic could arise in coming months.
“It will likely be discussed before the end of the session,” he said Tuesday.
Mixed martial arts proponents were also given some hope from the state’s executive branch. During an interview Tuesday on WCNY-FM’s “Capitol Pressroom,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he understands the “theoretical debate” about the violence in the sport, but is looking at its potential legalization in New York from an economic perspective.
“I’d like to know what is the economic impact for the state and are we talking about significant economic advancement,” he said. “If we are, then I think it’s something we should take seriously.”
And that impact could be more than $100 million, claims Lorenzo Fertitta, chairman and CEO of UFC, which hosts many of the top-ranked fighters in the sport. He said the estimate is only a ballpark figure.
“We’re just asking the state to do its job, and that is to regulate this sport,” he said.
State legislators didn’t attend the exhibition, though two Albany-area politicians turned out to offer support for the sport. Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares likened the popularity of mixed martial arts with the bygone era when boxing was the sport of choice among many inner-city youth.
“These kids are going to be the future of this sport,” he said. “They’re never going to have a chance to have the home advantage unless it’s legalized.”
Albany County Executive Dan McCoy estimated the sport could result in millions of dollars for the county that is now being lost to other states. He also credited the sport for promoting healthy living among youths and young adults.
“It keeps you in shape, and it keeps you off the streets,” he sad.
Popolizio sees mixed martial arts as an opportunity for athletes like wrestlers to continue to compete even after they graduate high school or college. Failing to legalize the sport in New York means accomplished athletes like Bermudez are seeking opportunities in other states.
“A guy born and bred here,” he said, “it seems almost preposterous he can’t fight in New York.”