The fight to legalize mixed martial arts in New York — the last state to prohibit cage matches with small gloves — resumed Tuesday with legislation advancing out of committee and some lawmakers advocating a special fund for brain-damaged fighters.
The Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation voted 4-2 to approve the bill that would give the New York State Athletic Commission authority to regulate the sport as it does professional boxing. Sen. Joe Griffo, an Oneida County Republican and the measure's sponsor, predicted it will pass the Senate again easily as it has before.
The bill contains a provision that would require fighters to get a neurological examination in advance and a further exam and brain scan if there is "any indication of brain injury." Sen. Betty Little, a Queensbury Republican who chairs the committee and voted for the bill, said the fund is something that could be looked at.
With proxy votes added, the bill to legalize and regulate MMA was approved 10-3, according to Little's office.
Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who voted against the bill, raised concerns about brain injuries, citing a Canadian study showing a higher head trauma rate with MMA than boxing or football. He said cognitive damage, as in football, may appear years later.
Professional mixed martial arts includes elements of wrestling, judo, boxing and kickboxing inside an enclosure with fighters wearing small, fingerless gloves and no headgear.
Hoylman has introduced alternative legislation that would regulate MMA in New York and establish a compensation fund for professional fighters, similar to New York's jockey fund, which would be paid by the businesses putting on fights. It would tax events with 8.5 percent of ticket receipts and 3 percent of gross broadcasting rights receipts.
"You're going to get hurt in this sport. The question came up: What does boxing give you? Boxing at least gives you gloves," said Sen. James Sanders, a Queens Democrat, who voted no. "We're seeing damage is going to be done. And we're not preparing for it. Under those conditions, we should not move in this direction."
Meanwhile, backers lobbied the new Assembly leader in an effort to break that chamber's stalemate on legalization.
Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx had been a sponsor but took his name off legislation after he was chosen leader of the Democrats with their two-thirds Assembly majority. Former Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan had been a critic.
Lorenzo Fertitta, chief executive of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's major brand, said no promises were made and no timetable set, but Heastie wants his caucus to "go through the issue" and proceed from there. He said UFC is open to the idea of a compensation fund and already provides full medical coverage to its fighters and accident insurance when they are not training.
Meanwhile, companion legislation to Griffo's bill has been introduced in the Assembly by Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Rochester Democrat, and more than 50 co-sponsors. A companion to Hoylman's bill to establish the compensation fund has been introduced by Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Herman "Denny" Farrell. Another bill introduced this year in both houses would continue the ban for two years and require a state health study of the dangers.
Officials from UFC say mixed martial arts has evolved over 20 years with many safety regulations to protect fighters, including mandatory suspensions after concussions. They say it's safer than boxing, with no history of deaths or traumatic brain injuries suffered in the ring. They are sponsoring a long-term study of active and retired fighters at the Cleveland Clinic.