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HOST INTRO: Mixed Martial Arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. But New York is one of only two states where the sport is banned. Tony Maglio tells us why 2013 may be the year that this changes. Or possibly why it won’t be.
If you’ve never seen a mixed martial arts — or MMA — match before, it can be tough to watch.
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At a 2010 event in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC – which is the “big league” of mixed martial arts — the heavy weight champion is about to lose his title. The challenger and soon-too-be-champ is on top, hammer punching his face and head. There is blood on the mat, all the champ’s. He has a bad cut under his left eye. It’s over quickly. A first-round knock out.
It is this kind of spectacle that led New York legislators to ban professional combat sports in 1997. In 2000, the legislature also cracked down on amateur bouts.
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But that has not put a damper on the dreams of Anthony Pipola. At a gym in midtown, he sees becoming a pro MMA fighter as a way out of his current life.
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Pipola: “Currently I dig holes for a living…and it kind of sucks. So I’d rather much try to beat the sh** out of people for a living.”
Pipola’s 31-years-old and from Queens. He’s currently 2-0 as an amateur.
Pipola: “The fighting’s the easy part, the training sucks. The dieting, the conditioning, the strength training, the living like a Buddhist disciple, pretty much removed from everybody and just concentrating on what you have to do – that’s the hard part. The nine minutes of fighting is easy.”
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Pipola alternates between two-minute rounds on the heavy bag and wrestling with his coach. He trains six days a week for his next amateur fight on May 25 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. But he would rather fight in New York.
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Some legislators, like Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman, want to keep the sport illegal.
Hoylman: “The reason I’m concerned about mixed martial arts is because I have a two-year-old daughter and the main venues where mixed martial arts at a professional level would be held are in my district.”
And there are activists on Hoylman’s side. One group hosts a web site called UnfitForChildren.org. Let’s break those initials down: “U-F-C.” The site accuses Ultimate Fighting Championship of sexism and homophobia, and accused one of its stars of having made a ‘how-to’ rape video.”
Mixed Martial Arts can be dangerous, too. Aspiring pro Anthony Pipola certainly has had a few injuries.
Pipola: “Uch, about 7,341.”
all sarcasm aside…
Pipola: “None during fighting, all during training and my conditioning routines. Three broken noses, broken ribs, sprained my back, sprained my knee…
Since MMA in New York is illegal, any bouts that do occur are unregulated. Stephen Koepher is Pipola’s coach and owner of the New York Sambo gym. He says that means anything can happen.
Koepher: “There was an incidence where a gentleman fought on an unregulated show in New York, and he was banned by the Association of Boxing Commissions for having hepatitis. So he couldn’t fight anywhere else, but he fought here in New York where nobody cared to check.”
And that’s not even as bad as it gets. In the past year alone, there have been three deaths in amateur mixed martial arts. Last month, a 35-year-old fighter collapsed and died following an amateur bout in Michigan. There was no doctor on site.
Koepher and other critics of the New York State ban say that legalizing the sport would make it much safer.
Koepher: “And New York right now having a blank slate, actually has an opportunity to make some really important changes.”
It could also be a boon to the state’s economy: The UFC’s own study estimates that legalizing and regulating MMA in New York State would bring in $23 million annually and create over 200 new jobs.
In 2013, for the fourth straight year, the state legislature has taken up a bill to legalize the sport. The past three efforts failed. This year’s bill has passed through the senate and into the assembly. That’s where it sits now.
The reason the bill has been shot down over and over is … a union dispute 2500 miles away.
Culinary Union Local 226 is by far the largest union in Nevada. And it’s locked in a battle with the Fertitta brothers, who own Station Casinos in Las Vegas. The National Labor Relations Board found Station Casinos violated U.S. labor law 82 times in efforts to block the Culinary Union from organizing its employees. Stephen Koepher of New York Combat Sambo says there’s one more thing the Fertitta’s own…
Koepher: “They are also the owners of he UFC. So their beef in Nevada has dragged its way over here to New York. So both parties are sort of using New York MMA as a proxy battleground to take shots at each other. And New York, being a union-friendly state, obviously has some ears that are listening to what the union is having to say.”
New York Legislators are listening because this culinary union is a part of a larger union, UNITE HERE, which has a major presence in New York. Sources with knowledge of the situation in Albany confirm that it is union pressure that has killed the bill to legalize MMA in the past.
And remember that website “UnfitForChildren” which bashes the Ultimate Fighting Championship? That website is connected to Culinary Union Local 226. Though you’d really only know that if you emailed them. Which Uptown Radio did. No one at the website responded to multiple requests for comment, nor did the culinary union or UNITE HERE.
The bill is still up for consideration as the legislative calendar year approaches its summer recess. And some backers are hopeful. But with only about four weeks left for the bill to get going, other backers say they’ve used up all of their optimism in the past.
Tony Maglio, Columbia Radio News.