It’s a good thing a select group of participants in the upcoming Liberty Games, a successor to the Empire State Games, are amateurs. Otherwise, they could be breaking state law.
They are mixed martial arts fighters, competing in a modified version of a sport that has grown exponentially since the 1990s, but which remains an illegal activity in New York state if professional bouts are involved.
A total of 15 Liberty Game events will be held July 11-20 in Schenectady, Colonie, Saratoga Springs and Albany. Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest promoter of the sport in the country, will be sponsoring the modified version of a mixed martial arts event, to be held at Mekeel Christian Academy in Scotia.
The state Senate has voted to permit professional bouts, but the bill has been rebuffed in the Assembly despite a long-running bid to allow and regulate the sport in New York. Organizers of Liberty Games hope that legislators note that the positives of the sport can extend down to the youngest levels.
“They don’t see MMA for the benefits,” said Anthony Mills, executive director of the Empire State Sports Council, which has run the Liberty Games since its debut in 2012. “We want kids to gain a sense of self-discipline.”
Ron McEvilly is the master at the Tigon Academy for Mixed Martial Arts in Watervliet, the 2006 National U.S. Cup champion in taekwondo and MMA coordinator for the Liberty Games. When he has to explain to students why professional mixed martial arts is not legal in New York, he tells them “some people just don’t understand it.”
McEvilly said one of the most important reasons to legalize pro MMA is it could enable the state to monitor various schools that are popping up.
“That’s where the sport gets a little hairy and unsafe,” he said. “We want to be able to sanction it all and regulate it all.”
UFC spokesman Steven Greenberg said sponsoring a portion of the Liberty Games is just part of UFC’s philanthropic endeavors in New York. He agrees the lack of regulation impacts amateurs.
“The only thing we don’t have in New York is professional MMA,” he said. “In any given week you can find amateur MMA throughout the state — and it is unregulated. How is that safer for athletes?”
The mixed martial arts at the Liberty Games, open to all ages, is a modified form that breaks down kickboxing and grappling elements. Bouts are waged on a mat with lines rather than in a caged octagon ring.
At a news conference Wednesday in Latham announcing the games, former New York Giant linebacker Byron Hunt was introduced as a spokesman for the competition. Organizers expect to host nearly 4,000 athletes from across the state, double the total from Year Two in 2013.
The Empire State Summer Games, funded by the state, ran from 1978-2008. The Liberty Games rely on sponsorships and registration fees that organizers said average around $25 per athlete. The events differ from the old Empire Games, including flag football, BMX and road racing, in addition to more traditional track and field, basketball and lacrosse.
For more information on the Liberty Games, go to http://essportscouncil.org/liberty-games/.