With the vote to legalize MMA in New York squashed for another year, but an amateur MMA event still going on in the northern part of the state next week, there is a lot of confusion among casual fans as to what exactly is happening between mixed martial arts and The Empire State. For quick reference, below is a condensed timeline of every major legal and social event regarding MMA in New York from 1997 to this week.
1997- New York State becomes one of the first governing bodies in North America to regulate the sport of mixed martial arts with a rules set that combined that used with the UFC and Extreme Fighting.
Just a few weeks later, then governor George Pataki goes on a major campaign to get the sanctioning overturned and mixed martial arts banned in the state of New York. Pataki echoes the sentiments of Senator John McCain that the sport is “human cock-fighting.”
A law is passed that makes all combat sports besides boxing illegal in New York. A provision to the law is added that allows pre-approved sanctioning bodies such as USA Judo and the WKA to regulate “martial arts competitions.”
The lack of government supervision caused administrative problems and serious issues of corruption within kickboxing and other fringe combat sports in New York. These problems still linger today.
1998-2002- The provision to allow “martial arts competitions” is used between ’98 and ’02 for smaller shows to put on amateur MMA events in New York. Because they were not professional bouts, the loop hole applied.
The State Athletic Commission reacts poorly to MMA still being held in New York on a technicality. The body begins to send letters to local authorities detailing how putting on MMA events cause a “high risk of riot” and other social problems.
In response, local authorities begin cracking down on amateur MMA events, enforcing liquor laws to push events out of towns. Lou Neglia’s “Vengeance at the Vanderbilt” on June 28, 2002 is the last MMA event to occur in New York before promoters give up and go to New Jersey, where the sport was then fully regulated by the state government.
2003-2008- New UFC owners Zuffa Entertainment begin to hire lobbyists to campaign for the sanctioning of mixed martial arts in New York. Their primary lobbying opposition comes from Unite Here, a Union organization who Zuffa executives Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta have butted heads with over unionizing issues with Station Casinos in Las Vegas.
By 2008, Unite Here stops spending on any official campaign against MMA in New York. However, they still use the political pulpit in New York to make public statements against the way the Fertittas operate businesses. A semi-truce begins between Unite Here and Zuffa on the subject of MMA in New York.
The first bill to re-sanction MMA in New York does not gain any traction in either legislative house. The uncertainty from most of the members on the bill was later attributed to the fact that most New York lawmakers at the time had no idea what MMA was.
2009- A new bill to regulate MMA in New York, A 2009-C, is introduced and taken much more seriously. Democrat Assemblyman Bob Reilly, an outspoken opponent of MMA, becomes the poster-child of the opposition.
The Republican lockout of the State Senate is going on at the same time. While several assemblyman claim that the political feud clogging up the Senate have no effect on the sister house in the Assembly, a majority of the bills under discussion time out in the turmoil. A 2009-C does pass through Parks and Tourism before timing out, which is the committee that Bob Reilly sat on.
2010- A 2009-C is reintroduced, this time with the full support of then governor David Paterson. With the lockout resolved, the sister bill very quickly passes through the State Senate.
The bill is added to the budget proposals of both the governor and the Senate as one of the many sources of revenue that the cash-starved New York needs.
Bob Reilly protests that trying to pass the MMA bill through the budget rather than on its own merit is a subversion of the lawmaking process. Still, the bill passes easily through Parks and Tourism as Reilly’s protests start to seem ineffectual.
Majority leader Ron Canestrari joins with Reilly, calling MMA a “barbaric” practice. Together they drum up enough support to get the bill taken off the budget and have it go back to the committee process as an individual bill.
The solo MMA bill makes it to the Ways and Means Committee fairly easily. Ways and Means never puts the bill on their schedule to vote and the year ends without a decision being made.
Neither the chair in charge of Ways and Means scheduling, Herman D. Farrell, nor the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who works very closely with the committee process, issues any statement regarding MMA.
2011- A grass-roots group headed by local coach Steve Koepfer called the Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York begins a letter writing campaign in favor of MMA in the Empire State. The group also organizes the first pro-MMA rally in New York, which was held in front of Sheldon Silver’s Manhattan office.
Behind the scenes reports say that Silver was trying to keep his influence in the bill passing behind the scenes. Anonymous sources close to the situation said he was furious when the rally showed up at his doorstep.
A newly numbered MMA bill with very similar content is introduced. Once again it passes easily through the State Senate.
Newly elected Republican Assemblyman Dean Murray becomes an outspoken supporter of MMA. He shows up, unannounced at a UFC press conference in Madison Square Garden and declares his support for the sport.
A local union group loosely affiliated with Unite Here writes a letter to the Senate slamming the UFC and its business practices. John Gold, the writer of the letter, later clarified that his organization had shared members with Unite Here, but they were not the same organization.
Zuffa sees the Gold letter as a break in the truce and an all-out political war reignites between Zuffa and the Unions. At this point, both parties spend more advertising dollars and effort making each other look bad than they do on the actual MMA bill.
Preliminary head counts show that the MMA bill would pass the floor vote by an overwhelming majority. Still, when the bill hits Ways and Means, it is never put on the schedule and stalls out. At this point, Herman Farrell is accused of using his scheduling powers to personally block the bill that would pass on a vote. Farrell’s office declines all comment.
Zuffa and several other defendants file a class action lawsuit against the New York State Attorney General claiming that the ban on MMA is a violation of first amendment rights. The suit makes several major points against the ban in New York, one important one for setting legal precedent being that professional mixed martial arts is a form of expression that should fall under protected speech.
2012- New York State Attorney General moves to dismiss the suit. In the initial response, the Attorney General admits that amateur MMA is legal in New York per the provision that allowed it a decade earlier. Proceedings with the lawsuit continue to date.
The former bill sponsor Assemblyman Steve Englebright steps down as a committee chair and bill sponsor. The new bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Morelle. A rush of Assembly members from both major parties co-sponsor the bill.
The Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York holds another rally, this time in front of the newly elected Governor Cuomo’s office. The Governor still has made no conclusive statement regarding his stance on MMA.
A local promoter and fighter, Erik Herbert, becomes the first man in a decade to use the permissions in the law to hold an amateur MMA event in New York. It is scheduled to happen on May 19 just north of Buffalo.
Assemblyman Bob Reilly announces that he will retire after this year.
The bill once again passes through the Senate, this time by a landslide.
Assembly democrats hold a meeting to see if they will rush the MMA bill to a floor vote. With the senate already passed, a floor vote would essentially guarantee MMA in New York.
Sheldon Silver reports back that there is not enough support for the bill within his party and that the democrats will not let the bill see the Assembly floor.
Reports from within the meeting begin to surface that the vote was highly suspect. Some sources say that over a third of the democrat members were missing from the meeting. Others say that those members that did vote supported the bill over 2-1, but Silver insisted that there was a 50-50 split.
Dean Murray calls the unilateral decision to block MMA for another year “just wrong.”
Update: As Fellow MMA journalist Jim Genia pointed out after this timeline was published, that New York has had a thriving unsanctioned or “underground” MMA scene since post-2002. During this time, several events have used different setups, such as shootfighting rules, to distinguish themselves from the expressly banned mixed martial arts bouts. One notable organization is the UCL, which has held events consistently throughout the MMA ban.