By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY, NY-- The annual debate over New York's ban on professional mixed martial arts started anew this week, with a state Senate committee moving a bill to overturn it one step closer to a vote Thursday.
Officials from Ultimate Fighting Championship, the combat sport's largest promoter, are again optimistic that this is their year, buoyed by a number of fresh faces in the state Assembly and the retirement of their fiercest legislative critic, Albany-area Assemblyman Bob Reilly.
Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO and chairman of UFC parent company Zuffa LLC, said he's "optimistic" the ban may be lifted after several years of lobbying New York lawmakers to no avail. The Senate has voted each of the last two years to rescind the ban and allow the state Athletic Commission to regulate the sport, but Assembly Democrats have kept it from a floor vote.
Fertitta is scheduled to travel to Albany next week to make his case in person.
"We've spent the last five years educating legislators," Fertitta said in an interview Wednesday with Gannett's Albany Bureau. "We're hopeful that we have momentum because we put in a lot of time and energy and there's a lot of new, younger members as part of this legislative group."
But opponents of mixed-martial arts appear to be bolstering their efforts, as well. A letter signed by labor-backed organizations and faith groups was sent Wednesday to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, urging him to reject the sport they refer to as "cage fighting."
The letter -- signed by Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor and Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition executive director Michael Feinberg, among others -- cited the Newtown school shooting as a reason to reject mixed martial arts.
"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.
The letter was distributed to the media by a research analyst for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a Las Vegas labor group that has unsuccessfully pushed for unionized workers at Station Casinos, a chain of casinos majority-owned by Fertitta and his brother.
UFC officials have suggested the labor dispute has led the union and its umbrella organization -- UNITE HERE -- to lobby against mixed martial arts in New York. UNITE HERE, which also signed onto the letter to Silver, has said their concerns are rooted in how UFC treats its fighters.
"It's frustrating," Fertitta said. "They're taking a Las Vegas issue and they're bringing it into New York state politics, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
The Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation voted 11-3 early Thursday to move the bill to the Finance Committee. From there, it would head to the Rules Committee, its final stop before a full Senate vote.