For each of the last five years, UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta has made a trip to Albany, New York in an attempt to drum up support for a bill that would sanction mixed martial arts in the Empire State. Each time, he has made progress in convincing legislators of the sport's legitimacy as well as its health and safety record, yet each time, the bill has failed to reach its intended finish line.
Since 2010, the state's senate has voted in the bill's favor. That happened again on Wednesday when 47 of the 62 voters sided with bill 2755. But each year since then, the bill has stalled in the Assembly, where Speaker Sheldon Silver has declined to bring it to the floor for a full vote.
On Wednesday, Silver offered a glimmer of hope to the sport's supporters that MMA was coming to New York, even if the timeframe remains unclear.
"I think at some point there will probably be an approval in this state," he said. "I can’t tell you when."
On the senate floor, the talk was not so much about the sanctioning of mixed martial arts but about Silver letting the democratic process play out by allowing the bill to the Assembly floor for a full vote. Many believe there are enough votes to pass the bill. After that, only a signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be necessary to sign it into law. But the decision rests upon Silver, who said he will decide with his Democratic Assembly Conference whether it will be introduced for a vote at all.
If that seems like a power play, it is. Silver has enormous clout in New York politics, perhaps even more so than the governor, according to most insiders. If he chooses to shelve the bill, there will be no vote.
Fertitta, who visited the capitol along with women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and New York middleweight Chris Weidman, did not have the opportunity to meet with Silver on Wednesday, though UFC representatives have met with him in the past. In fact, according to both Feritta and Weidman, none of the bill's opponents accepted the offer to meet with the UFC delegation. Fertitta called that "disconcerting," but said they would push on.
"We’re hopeful we get a full vote," he told MMA Fighting. "We don't know. Nobody can predict that. The issue of whether or not the bill makes it to floor to be voted upon is in the hands of the Speaker, who controls the agenda. We know we have a lot of support. There’s a lot of support in the Assembly that wants to make this happen and that feels like it should happen. At the end of the day, we're going to continue to try to push and convince the Speaker that it deserves to go through the democratic process of being brought to the floor and going through the vote."
During a discussion on the senate floor before yesterday's vote, several senators implored Silver to allow the vote. Among those was Philip Boyle, who was a member of the state assembly when the sport, then mostly referred to as "ultimate fighting," was banned in 1997. Boyle was among those who campaigned against it, and he stood alongside Gov. George Pataki at the time when Pataki signed legislation to ban it.
These days, Boyle, like many, believes that the sport has grown up, and that with the added safety precautions and government oversight, is ready to be offered up to New York.
"If I can feel comfortable signing this bill, then anyone can feel comfortable signing this bill," he said.
Yet the sport is still actively fighting stereotypes and inaccuracies perpetuated over the years, and by interest groups that have lobbied against it.
Senator Liz Krueger, speaking against the bill, offered one up on the floor, saying, "There seems to be, a disproportionate -- and I find disturbing -- theme of Neo-Nazi messaging, tattoos, statements, referencing the Nazis and skinheads, supporting the killing of Jews."
While Krueger claimed to have learned about this while reading about the sport, it almost certainly was culled from a letter sent by groups opposing the bill to Silver, which cited as cause for concern fighters who have competed "bearing Neo-Nazi messages in tattoos and clothing."
"As the sport is advertised and marketed in the rest of this country and the world, it’s clear message is a message of violence," Krueger said. "No rules apply. Fight to the death. You get some blood on you? Even better."
Hearing that was bothersome to Weidman, who like many professional fighters, is college-educated and far from what Krueger was describing.
"It was interesting and frustrating to hear the people who were trying to reject the bill from going through," Weidman told MMA Fighting. "They had no idea what they were talking about. They really think it's two dirtbags outside of a bar trying to fight. They were basically calling us thugs."
Yet Krueger's views were in the minority on Wednesday, as the bill found broad support from both parties, including Democrat Gustavo Rivera, who refuted Krueger's latter argument, saying, "It is not a spectacle of violence, it is a spectacle of skill."
The takeaway from Wednesday was that Silver owes the bill a chance to pass or fail on its own merits. Senator Mark Grisanti boldly stated the bill has the votes to pass, if only it was allowed to be voted upon. He wasn't the only one that felt that way.
In the gallery, Fertitta watched. This is in many ways the same process that's played out each of the last five years. The plan now is to get as many co-sponsors on the Assembly bill as possible, showing Silver that the support is there. The movement already landed a major coup in the Assembly when Joe Morelle announced his intention to sponsor it. In January, Morelle was hand-picked by Silver to serve as the Assembly majority leader, the No. 2 position in the body. That means he has Silver's ear, and that means MMA has a fighting chance in 2013.
"If it gets voted on, I think it's definitely going to pass," Weidman said. "I spoke to a bunch of the Assembly members, and there's a lot of supporters there, too. So as long as it gets voted on, I think we're money in the bank."
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