The UFC and Bellator weren't the only fight leagues that scored a knockout victory last week when the Assembly passed a bill that overturns New York's 1997 ban on mixed martial arts. Local gym owners and smaller fight promoters said they had plenty to celebrate as well.
“We actually popped champagne in the middle of class,” said Stephen Koepfer, owner of New York Combat Sambo, a martial arts academy, and an activist with the Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York. “It’s been a long fight.”
The state Senate passed the bill seven times in the last six years but it had always died in the Assembly, where former speaker Sheldon Silver was an outspoken opponent of legalizing mixed martial arts. MMA fans have waited anxiously for the ban to be overturned ever since Silver was convicted on federal corruption charges in November 2015. Gov. Cuomo is expected to sign the bill, which passed the Assembly by a vote of 113-25.
The New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing matches, will sanction MMA fights under the new rules. The current law bans professional fights, but allows amateur matches, which are completely unregulated.
Lou Neglia, a fight promoter from Long Island whose company, Ring of Combat, has only produced events outside of New York because of the ban, said the bill would end the proliferation of dangerous, unsanctioned fights in New York.
“This is regulation it’s obvious that we can use,” Neglia said. “It’s definitely not good for underground shows. They’ll be stopped.”
Neglia said unregulated fights are often held without trained referees, proper weight classes or medical professionals on site.
“I think if this didn’t happen someone would get killed,” Neglia said. “New York legalizing MMA stopped a murder.”
Thomas Sconzo, a promoter with the New York Fight Exchange, said there were as many as 50 unregulated mixed martial arts bouts in New York every year.
“They were literally throwing two young kids in a cage and telling them to fight,” Sconzo, 59, said. “That’s really what was hurting the sport.”
Neglia and Sconzo both said they support the new rules created by the bill. Fight promoters will be required to have insurance, trained referees and emergency medical technicians on site.
The 1997 ban came at a time when the UFC resembled the unregulated fight scene. Its original rules allowed head butts and groin strikes, and fighters of vastly different sizes could compete against each other. The format has its roots in Brazil, which has a tradition of “vale tudo” — or anything goes — fighting. The Gracies, a prominent family of martial artists from Brazil, hosted the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in Denver in 1993. One of their fighters, Royce Gracie, won four of the first five contests. The family later sold their interests in the company. One of its current owners, Lorenzo Fertitta, is on the Forbes Billionaire List.
This YouTube video from SERGIO762 shows the first match broadcast at UFC 1. Warning: the content is graphic.
The UFC has introduced several rules since the 1990s intended to professionalize the sport. They include strict weight classes, the introduction of timed fighting rounds and protocols for medical care. The company has lobbied against the New York ban for years, and sued the state twice on constitutional grounds.
Koepfer, 47, from the Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York, credited the UFC for listening to local promoter’s concerns as it lobbied to repeal the ban.
“They were fully supportive of our demands as locals, for example, of including regulation of amateur mixed martial arts,” Koepfer said. “Two years ago the bill only dealt with professional.”
Koepfer discussed amateur and professional fighting Wednesday at his gym. Excerpts are in the video below.
Koepfer said legalization and a well-regulated amateur fight scene will increase opportunities for aspiring professional fighters. At least one of those opportunities is already in the works. Neglia said he is negotiating an event at Madison Square Garden.
“I will definitely be doing shows in my home state,” Neglio said. “I fought at Madison Square Garden as a kickboxer and now finally the greatest sport in the world can be there.”