There was a time, more than 20 years ago, when professional mixed martial arts was allowed in New York.

UFC, the sport's top promoter, held a fight at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo on Sept. 8, 1995. The bout, billed as "The Brawl in Buffalo," drew a crowd of 9,000 people for fights featuring Marco Ruas, Ken Shamrock and Oleg Taktarov.

A poster for the event featured the slogan, "There are no rules!"

Leading up to the Buffalo fight, there was criticism of the event due to the sport's violent nature. At the time, New York didn't have any laws on the books allowing or prohibiting MMA.

Despite growing opposition, New York legalized MMA in 1996 — the first state to enact such a law.

MMA's days as a legal sport in New York, though, were numbered.

After more opponents spoke out against the sport, the state Legislature reversed course and voted to ban MMA. Gov. George Pataki signed the measure into law on Feb. 25, 1997.

Since that date, professional MMA events have been prohibited in New York.

In recent years, there has been an aggressive lobbying effort to legalize MMA. The state Senate has voted seven times to allow MMA. However, the state Assembly hasn't brought the measure to the floor for consideration.

Supporters think they're close. There's hope that 2016 will be the year MMA is legalized in New York. But opponents, who have legitimate concerns about violence and the health and safety of the sport's competitors, stand in the way.


THE FIGHTERS

While it isn't legal in their home state, several New Yorkers have enjoyed success in MMA. 

UFC fighter Jon "Bones" Jones was born in Rochester and hails from Ithaca. He held the UFC light heavyweight championship for more than four years.

Chris Weidman, a lifelong Long Island resident, was the UFC middleweight champion for more than two years until his recent loss to Luke Rockhold at UFC 194.

There are other New Yorkers in UFC and other MMA promotions who are looking for their shot at glory, including Brewerton native Mike Mucitelli.

Mucitelli has a 7-3 record in MMA. Between 2012 and 2014, he fought seven times in Bellator, a major MMA promotion.

It hasn't been an easy road for Mucitelli. Since he can't fight in New York, he heads out of state for competitions. He's fought in Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Rhode Island. Usually, his opponent is a local fighter.

Those fighters tend to have more than just a home-field advantage over Mucitelli. There are local companies that produce MMA gear in their area and other opportunities for sponsorships. 

"These are all things that I don't get to be a part of because we don't have it in this state or in this area," he said.

Mucitelli has been, in many ways, his own lobbyist for legalizing MMA in New York. He has reached out to local media outlets to better inform journalists about the sport. He's provided supporters with the email addresses of key Assembly members. He's visited local gyms.

He acknowledged that "battle fatigue" has set in after years of work, but he hasn't given up hope that he will be able to compete in the Syracuse area.

"To hear some cheers instead of the usual cascade of boos," he said. "That'd be nice."


THE UFC

When the UFC held "The Brawl in Buffalo" in 1995, the company was under different ownership. Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, purchased UFC in 2001.

The "There are no rules!" approach also changed. The UFC adopted the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, which provides strict guidelines on how fights are conducted.

The MMA lobbying effort in New York has been spearheaded by UFC. Lorenzo Fertitta, the company's chairman and CEO, has traveled to Albany several times to meet with state legislators. A slew of fighters, including Jon Jones and former UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, have pushed for passage of the MMA legalization bill.

In 2015, UFC was confident they could secure enough support in the state Legislature to pass the MMA bill. The state Senate approved the legislation on two separate occasions, but time ran out in the state Assembly. The legislative session ended with the Assembly not voting on the measure.

Michael Britt, UFC's vice president of business development and government relations, said it was a disappointing outcome.

"We had more support, not just when it comes to the vote count in the legislative body, but when it came to the fan base," he said. "I think they saw that this thing was very close and you saw that engagement more than you ever saw it in the past."

Heading into the 2016 legislative session, UFC is once again ramping up its lobbying machine, which includes the relaunch of a New York-specific website designed to build support for legalizing MMA.

UFC touts the potential economic impact of holding MMA events in New York. The company released a report in 2013 that found legalizing MMA in the state would generate $135 million in annual economic activity.

Britt said if MMA is legalized, UFC would hold five fights in New York — two in downstate and three in upstate — within the first couple of years.

One of the reasons why UFC wants to hold events in upstate New York is the sport's popularity among Canadians.

"We've had some of our biggest fights ever up in Canada," he said. "We know they'll come down to New York for those fights in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester."

He added, "This isn't just a downstate thing. This is for the entire state of New York."


THE LEGISLATURE

The arrest — and eventual conviction — of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on public corruption charges was a turning point in the MMA legalization effort.

UFC and others on the pro-MMA side have long blamed Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, for holding up the MMA bill in the Assembly.

Silver believed in order to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, there needed to be enough votes from the Democratic conference in order to pass it without Republican support.

The magic number — 76 in the 150-member chamber — wasn't there.

When longtime MMA supporter Carl Heastie took over as Assembly speaker, fans of the sport felt that was all they needed in order to get the legalization bill across the finish line. But Heastie, much like Silver, said he would let the Democratic conference determine whether the measure would get a floor vote.

According to Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, the sponsor of the MMA bill in the chamber, there may be enough support to allow a vote on the legislation. He said close to 70 percent of the Democratic conference supports legalizing MMA.

"I think it's fair to say every year we seem to be gaining more and more support," Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat, said in an interview. "We're nearing the point, if we're not already at that point, where I think the number of votes necessary to get this bill on the floor is just about at hand."

There are state legislators who remain opposed to MMA and won't be changing their minds any time soon.

When the bill is brought to the state Senate for a vote, state Sen. Liz Krueger is the most outspoken critic of MMA.

For Krueger, the sport is too dangerous. She cited medical research which shows that MMA fighters have a higher risk of traumatic brain injury and could develop Alzheimer's disease and dementia at early ages.

"I just don't know why the state of New York should want to encourage more young people to do great damage to themselves that will actually cost the people of New York state quite a bit of money over their lifetimes," she said.

Krueger also criticized the violent nature of MMA.

"It encourages and glorifies at a pretty damn scary and high level the notion that violence against each other is a good thing, that bashing someone's head in is a good thing, that fighting with no rules applied is a good thing," she said.

Morelle said they have addressed health concerns in the bill. An amended version of the legislation would provide protections for amateur MMA bouts, which are currently held in New York, and other combat sports, including boxing.

One key provision would require MMA promoters to carry a minimum of $50,000 in accident insurance and a new $1 million accident insurance policy would be established for fighters with competition-related brain injuries.

Morelle also offered a response to opponents who say the sport isn't appropriate or it's too violent — a group he says claims they're protecting the public from MMA.

"To them I say don't watch it on television or don't participate," he said.


2016

Will 2016 be the year for MMA in New York?

We could learn its fate in the next couple of months.

There's no doubt the state Senate will pass the MMA legislation. The focus will then turn to the state Assembly.

The chatter out of Albany is that supporters hope to have the MMA bill finalized early in session, possibly before March 31 — the deadline to pass a new state budget.

UFC has booked a date — April 23 — at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The announcement was part of a lawsuit filed by the company challenging the state's MMA ban.

Britt said UFC's goal is a legislative solution. But are the votes there, especially among Assembly Democrats, to legalize MMA in New York?

"Absolutely," he said. "We had the votes at the end of session this year and we're very confident that not only do we have the right number, but we've increased that number."

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