UFC fighter Chris Weidman and UFC executives lobby for New York to legalize professional MMA

Buffalo conference wraps up lobbying tour through New York State

This may finally be the year that former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman has been waiting his entire life for – an opportunity to be cheered on by his family, friends and fans at Madison Square Garden.

Weidman, a native of Long Island, has had a lifelong dream to hear his walk-up music as he jogs down the ramp and into the octagon at the world’s most famous arena located in the heart of New York City.

But that opportunity has yet to come due to a ban on professional mixed martial arts (MMA) in New York State.

On Wednesday, Weidman and multiple UFC executives and staff members capped a two-day, four-city tour through New York State – beginning in Albany and ending at Pursue Martial Arts in the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo – to advocate for the legalization of professional MMA in the United State’s lone state with fighting restrictions. Many members of the conference, and MMA fans around the state, are confident New York will legalize the sport by the end of 2016.

“I haven’t been able to compete in my home state,” Weidman said. “Then you find out it’s legal in every other state in all of North America. It really doesn’t make any sense. It’s really a sickening thing that I’ve been dealing with since I got into the sport.”

Professional MMA is legal in every state – except New York. In order to legalize MMA in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo must have it as part of the state’s proposed budget for the year. The senate then has to pass a bill to legalize mixed martial arts, which is expected to pass in 2016 for a seventh year.

The problem lies in the New York State Assembly, which must then vote on the right to vote for the proposal, then vote for the legislation to pass. The Assembly has yet to reach the stage to vote on legislation.

Emphatic MMA supporters may be biased toward legalizing the sport, but there is reason for some concern. The main issue lies with health and safety procedures that are needed for to properly function as a professional sport. And there are risks involved with the sport due to its fast-paced and physical nature.

As of April 2014, there have been four confirmed deaths with a direct correlation to mixed martial arts. All fighters were between the ages of 29-35 and died due to either one or multiple blows during a fight.

UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein understands the severity of the sport, but doesn’t believe health and safety is a sufficient argument for the “deaf ears down in Albany.”

The first thing – the most important thing – is health and safety,” Epstein said. “One thing that comes with regulation is advanced health and safety for athletes. We’ve done thousands of events around the world. We’ve never had any significant injuries and we attribute that to a very strong safety record.”

The UFC is the biggest promoter of mixed martial arts with a fan base in an estimated 129 countries around the world. It also maintains it prides itself in its health and safety measures.

It’s legal to practice MMA as an amateur, but not as a professional. Weidman, a wrestler by trade, eventually got into MMA after college, but was unable to compete professionally.

The main difference between professional and amateur MMA is regulations. There are few to no safety regulations as an amateur fighter, which infuriates Weidman.

“There’s no regulation,” Weidman said. “There are no doctors. There’s no insurance. It’s very unsafe. You’re not getting blood-checked before every fight.”

The main idea of the sport is violence. It’s the nature of the sport. It’s hard to be a fan of the sport if someone expects two fighters to fight without fast-paced contact.

The fans like the violence, like Landin Murphy, a freshman communication major.

“It’s interesting because it’s the intensity attracts people,” Murphy said. “I know football is having a concussion problem. But people know what they’re getting themselves into [with UFC] and they don’t like being lied to.”

MMA is one of the top rising sports across the world, potentially topping sports like baseball in ratings and viewership. UFC has been around for 23 years and has quickly cemented itself as the premier MMA outlet with weekly television shows and monthly Pay-Per-Views.

Phil Berg, a junior exercise science major, attended the conference on Wednesday and considers UFC and NFL football his two favorite sports. But even a die-hard New York Giants fan couldn’t doubt the strides UFC has made since its inception nearly a quarter-century ago.

“It’s 23 years old this year, and it’s one of the most popular sports in the nation, possibly the world,” Berg said. “If you go back and look at when football was 23 years old and what UFC is now, it’s not even comparable.”

People like Berg, and the rest of New York State, may be a tremendous contributing factor to its success as well.

It’s estimated that if professional MMA were legal in New York, $67 million in revenue would be made through tourists, promotions and events per year, according to New York State Senator and MMA advocate Tim Kennedy.

“We are seeing movement this year unlike any year before,” Kennedy said.

Of course, New York City will be the state’s biggest moneymaker, with venues like Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center in nearby Brooklyn and the overpowering population of New York City.

Epstein, however, is thinking bigger than the Big Apple.

“Buffalo is a very unique and attractive market for mixed martial arts,” Epstein said. “We have a very strong local fan base in this area … It really works everywhere. We’re excited about doing events in Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center, of course – New York City is a tremendous city. But Central and Western New York, because of the fan base and because of the proximity to Canada, are going to be great markets for us also.”

Epstein said Buffalo was the No. 2 market for social media in New York State – next to New York City.

It’s still unsure whether or not the bill will pass by the end of the year – but that is the hope of lobbyists. And if so, Weidman’s dream will inevitably come true.

“It’s a dream come true,” Weidman. “And not only for me, but for my friends, my family, my fans and everyone who supported me from the beginning. It’s just a Long Island Railroad ticket into Madison Square Garden.”

Jordan Grossman is the co-Senior Sports Editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.