By JON CAMPBELL
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Representatives from Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top mixed martial arts promoter, took to the halls of the state Capitol on Monday, attempting to sway on-the-fence lawmakers and push through legislation that would legalize and tax the sport in New York.
A bill that would allow the state Athletic Commission to regulate the sport and place an 8.5 percent tax on box-office revenue at mixed-martial arts events was passed by the state Senate last week. Gov. David Paterson has been supportive of the Measure, saying the sport could generate $2 million in revenue on the ticket tax alone, and the bill is now being considered in the Assembly. Mixed-martial arts events were banned in New York in 1997 by then-Gov. George Pataki, but the sport has since adopted stricter regulations that have made it safer, a UFC representative said.
"The proof is in the pudding when it comes to regulation," said Lawrence Epstein, general counsel for UFC. "We've put on about 2,500 fights over the years, and we've never had a serious injury. We attribute that to regulation." The most serious injury sustained during a UFC fight was a broken arm or leg, Epstein said.
UFC officials were scheduled to meet with several lawmakers throughout the day, Epstein said, but not Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. Silver said last week that he opposes legalizing the sport, but would allow his conference to debate the bill.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, and Assemblyman Steven Englebright, D-Setauket, Suffolk County, faces an uncertain future in the Assembly, however. Democrats, who maintain a large majority in the house, appear to be split on the bill.
"Most of us believe this is a brutal sport," said Assemblyman Robert Reilly, D-Colonie, who has been one of the Legislature's most outspoken critics of the sport. "Some of us are willing, however, to legalize it because of the money it brings in, and I find that a pretty horrific type of attitude and position to have, because we're trying to stop bullying in schools, we're trying to stop gang violence and domestic violence."
Assemblymen Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, Rockland County, and Jonathan Bing, D-Manhattan, appeared at a press event Monday with UFC representatives, pledging their support for the bill.
"This is a regulated sport. Is it a tough sport? Yes, it's not golf, no one is going to try and debate that," Zebrowski said. "But we have a lot of tough sports out there in America, and I don't see anybody trying to ban any of those."
Both Zebrowski and Bing said they expect the bill to pass if it comes to the Assembly floor, while Reilly said he expects it would be defeated. It narrowly passed the Senate, 32-29, in a bipartisan vote.
Republicans come down on both sides as well, said Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua, Ontario County. Kolb said he is leaning toward supporting the bill, but hasn't made an official decision.
But even if the bill is shot down by the Assembly, it could be included as part of a state budget package. Both the governor and the Senate included revenue from mixed martial arts events in their independent budget proposals, and the bill could be included with other budget bills when the Paterson and the Legislature come to a budget agreement.
The state budget is now more than 80 days late. Reilly said if the legislation were included in the budget, he would have a hard time voting against it.
"We wouldn't have a choice," Reilly said. "It's very difficult to vote against $140 billion budget because of $2 million."
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