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New York State Assembly passes bill legalizing mixed martial arts

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest hurdle preventing the legalization of mixed martial arts in New York State has finally been cleared.

Long the only state in the United States which banned the sport, the Assembly in the capital city of Albany voted to legalize MMA on Tuesday on a bipartisan vote of 113-25.

The bill now moves to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has expressed his intention to sign it. From there, the New York State Athletic Commission has 120 days to adopt guidelines.

If all goes according to plan, the UFC will debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City in November.

"This has been a long time coming and on behalf of our New York UFC athletes and fans, I want to offer heartfelt thanks to Speaker Heastie, Majority Leader Morelle and all the Members of the Assembly - Democrats and Republicans - who voted for this bill," said UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.

Bellator MMA also issued a press release with a quote from president Scott Coker, who said the promotion has already been in contact with officials from Barclays Center in Brooklyn about running an event there "soon."

"The New York Assembly's vote to legalize MMA is a watershed moment for this incredible sport. As someone who has been promoting combat sports for more than 30 years, this is a very exciting time for mixed martial arts," Coker said. "We at Bellator MMA are very much looking forward to hosting an event in the 'Crown Jewel of America,' New York. Two Bellator champions, Liam McGeary and Marcos Galvao call New York home and I know it means a great deal to the both of them, as it does for the entire promotion. We've already been in contact with the great people at the Barclays Center and several other incredible venues, and we can't wait bring our world-class athletes and action-packed shows to an arena in the Empire State soon."

For longtime followers of the story, Tuesday's events had an almost surreal quality, as many had assumed legalization in the state to be a lost cause.  A law banning the sport in the Empire State was enacted in 1997 in the midst of an anti-MMA media hysteria during the sport's initial surge in popularity.

The current Unified Rules set which governs the sport was adopted in New Jersey in 2001, followed soon thereafter by Nevada. When current UFC owners Zuffa bought the company in 2001, they embraced athletic commission sanctioning as the means of removing the sport's lawless stigma, and sought legalization throughout North America.

But as one state and province after another signed on, New York emerged as the last major holdout. Seven years in a row, the State Senate passed bills legalizing the sport. But they never got to the floor for a vote in the Assembly.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- at the urging of Nevada union interests who are locked in a struggle with Station Casinos, which are owned by the Fertitta brothers, the majority owners of the UFC -- repeatedly refused to allow the bill to come up for a vote, even though it appeared there was sufficient support to pass the measure in recent years.

But Silver stepped down after being brought up on federal corruption charges in Jan. 2015, and is currently imprisoned after being convicted on seven counts.

The UFC had tried several angles over the years to pressure the Assembly to bring the measure to the floor. These included media campaigns, bringing MMA stars such as former middleweight champion Chris Weidman of Long Island, Frankie Edgar, and Ronda Rousey up to Albany to speak; attempting legal remedies through the court system; and announcing dates at Madison Square Garden before the legalization actually occurred, in hopes of pressuring the Assembly to act.

In the meantime, the UFC ran major cards in the area across the border in Newark, N.J. In addition to Madison Square Garden, New York state boasts several facilities, from Brooklyn to Albany to Buffalo, which could host large-scale mixed martial arts events.

The bill sped through committees Tuesday before reaching the floor for a vote. The Assembly's tourism committee voted 15-5 in favor; the codes committee 16-5; and the ways and means committee 25-7.

The State Senate approved the legalization by a 48-14 vote on Feb. 29.

The final bill came after several hours of contentious debate, as opponents of the bill made hysterical accusations in attempting to compare MMA to slavery, pedophilia, pornography, and public hangings. But their voices, while loud, were by far in the minority.

In a press release, the UFC said it would hold four at least four events per year for each of the first three years the sport is legal in the state.

"While there are still additional steps that have to occur before professional MMA becomes a reality in New York, I want to assure our fans that if Governor Cuomo signs the bill into law and the State Athletic Commission puts in place the appropriate regulations, we look forward to hosting our first New York event in the world's most famous arena - Madison Square Garden, home to so many epic sporting events throughout the decades," Fertitta said. "We also look forward to scheduling events in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, and Brooklyn.  We are excited."