With more at stake than ever, both sides dig in for annual battle to legalize MMA in New York

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

It's become a rite of spring, the UFC's executives voicing guarded optimism that the time has come for mixed martial arts to be sanctioned in New York, and the bill's many opponents coming out of hibernation to begin their efforts against it.

The 2013 fight is now underway, after the state senate's committee on cultural affairs, tourism, parks and recreation voted 11-3 on Thursday morning to move the bill on to the finance committee. It is just one step in a lengthy process that has ultimately led to disappointment for several years.

Lobbying of the state began in July of 2007 as the sport continued an explosive growth phase. At the time, it seemed like a near certainty that New York would jump aboard the bandwagon.

"Look at our track record, and I don't see how you cannot sanction us," UFC president Dana White said then.

Yet nearly six years later, he's still waiting to bring his brand of entertainment to the Empire State.

There are promising signs, however, that 2013 will be the year for White and other MMA promoters to make their plans to visit.

Earlier this month, in a hearing of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, the state attorney general's office acknowledged that the state's written ban against MMA did not preclude a pre-approved third-party sanctioning body from overseeing an MMA event.

That effectively means that professional mixed martial arts matches can be staged in New York. And as a result, Judge Kimba Wood pushed the two sides to settle their case.

With professional events likely to be staged in the near future, New York's continued refusal to sanction MMA would cost the state money.

With much at stake, the UFC is, of course, planning increased lobbying efforts. Next week, Zuffa CEO and chairman Lorenzo Fertitta is scheduled to travel to Albany and meet with legislative leaders.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a letter from groups opposing the bill was sent to state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. Among those signing the letter urging Silver to uphold the MMA ban is a representatives of labor union UNITE HERE. According to New York's Journal News, the letter was distributed to the media by a research analyst for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a Las Vegas union group that is often cited by White and Fertitta as the main opposition for the bill.

"In the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it is unthinkable that lawmakers in any jurisdiction would risk exposing our children to an activity that involves extreme violence and brutality," the letter reads in part. It also cites as cause for concern fighters who have competed "bearing Neo-Nazi messages in tattoos and on clothing."

Despite the steady stream of objections to the bill, support for it has grown year-by-year. In 2012, it passed easily through the state senate by a 43-14 vote, and made it through several state assembly committees before Silver declined it to bring it to the floor for a full vote.

For 2013, MMA may have a key proponent in Rochester Assemblyman Joe Morelle, a bill supporter in the past who was recently named the chamber's majority leader, an influential position.

Zuffa has promised that upon the sport's sanctioning, they would promote two events within the first calendar year, which would generate around $16 million in economic activity. The first of those events could be a windfall for both Zuffa and the state. With the promotion's 20th anniversary looming, there is a hope to stage the November 2013 event at Madison Square Garden. If all went right, the promotion could boast a superfight main event pitting light-heavyweight champion and New York Native Jon Jones against pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. That would be the first UFC event in New York since 1995, before the ban was signed into effect.

For now though, the November show is just a loose plan. Several things would have to break Zuffa's way for it to happen. Until then, the legislative process will grind ahead while interested observers are left to wonder if this is finally the year.

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