Punch Drunk Love: Fighting to Bring Mixed Martial Arts to New York

M.M.A. does have some strong political advocates in New York, including State Senator Kevin Parker, who holds a black belt in Tang Soon Doo. Asked to describe his fighting style, Mr. Parker kept it simple. “It’s what Chuck Norris does,” he told The Observer by phone.

Over the past few years, legislation that would allow professional M.M.A. in New York has repeatedly been passed by the State Senate. But legalization has been held up in the Assembly, where M.M.A. has several impassioned opponents, including upstate politco Mr. Reilly. “They won’t even bring it to the floor. My thing is, let’s get the proposal out there and see where the votes fall,” Mr. Parker said.

In his latest effort, Mr. Parker presented some compelling evidence to his fellow legislators about the safety of M.M.A. compared with more traditional contact sports. Despite the opposition of the American Medical Association and the deaths of two fighters following state-sanctioned bouts (Sam Vasquez in 2007 and Mike Kirkham in 2010), studies from John Hopkins and the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggest that the sport is actually safer, in terms of brain damage and fatalities, than its counterpart, boxing. And following the recent studies about brain damage in football, gridiron great Herschel Walker, who has taken up M.M.A., told USA Today, “People shy away from it because they think it’s a brutal, brutal sport. Guys, M.M.A. is safer than football and boxing. And people tell me they don’t believe it. Am I not the most credible person to give you the answer to that?”

This weekend, the sport’s biggest promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, will make its network debut on Fox after years during which it was televised only on pay per view cable. Coincidentally, it will be going head to head with a welterweight boxing match featuring Manny Pacquiao. Proponents of M.M.A. like Mr. Parker are eager to draw attention to the irony: in New York it’s legal to kick someone in the head during a karate match or knee someone in the face during a muy thai fight. Boxers can punch each others brains out and grapplers can choke each other. But combined into the modern sport of mixed martial arts, these acts are illegal.

That said, Mr. Parker may not be the best advocate for M.M.A. In 2005 he punched a police officer and, in March of this year, attacked a photographer from the New York Post. When we mentioned to the senator that Brazilian jiujitsu was a hobby and invited him to our gym for a sparring session, he replied, “That sounds like something we’ll have to do. But not till I’m off probation.”

Though the sport remains illegal in New York, the state is home to some of the top fighters and trainers. Jon Jones, the U.F.C.’s light heavyweight champion, and the youngest man to hold the strap, was born and raised in Endicott, N.Y. Georges St-Pierre, the league’s welterweight champion, travels from Montreal to study Brazilian jiujitsu at the Renzo Gracie Academy on West 30th Street (disclosure: this reporter also trains there). Lightweight champ Frankie Edgar studies muay thai with Phil Nurse at the Wat Gym in Tribeca.

Some see issues other than health and safety behind New York’s ban, pointing to a union dispute in Las Vegas. The owners of U.F.C., Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, also own several nonunionized casinos in Las Vegas, which Nevada’s Culinary Union is eager to organize. The union is an affiliate of Unite Here, a national labor organization that has spearheaded opposition to M.M.A. in New York. “The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of [New York],” U.F.C. president Dana White said at a recent press conference “because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest nonunion gaming company in the country.”

“It’s a blood feud,” said a veteran labor attorney in Las Vegas, who requested anonymity.

But Unite Here’s “Memorandum of Opposition” to the bill legalizing M.M.A. points to “coercive contract provisions” that they see as exploitative. The Observer reached out to the organization, but has so far received no comment.

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