What the New York State Assembly Taught Me About MMA

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle successfully fending off the MMA trolls

I don't drink coffee, I take tea and I like my toast done on one side. You can hear it in my accent when I talk, I am not a New York native and yet I—and thousands of others—tuned in to watch the four-hour long discussion and vote to determine the legality of professional MMA in New York. This was my first venture into U.S. state legislature and I went in prepared for a rough time, recalling that Bismark line about people with weak stomachs not needing to see how sausages or policy are made. What awaited me was not an array of smooth talking politicians in Mad Men suits, eloquently arguing the case of whichever side had paid them more. No, I was treated to four hours of strong opinions spoken with unreasonable confidence on a subject about which the speakers had not even conducted five minutes of Wikipedia based research.

I didn't expect this assembly to be fast out of the gate so as I returned to my laptop with a mug of tea and a bagel I almost choked on my own incredulity as Charles Barron played the race card almost immediately on an issue pertaining in no way to anyone's race. “Firstly, as an African American we have been in cages fighting on the plantations” Barron began. I'm fairly well read on the history of combat sports and have always had a fascination with its role in the social mobility of black people in the United States. As far as I know there is about as much evidence of black slaves being made to fight in cages as there is of the mythical blindfolded 'battle royale'.

As an interesting historical aside, in one of the few well documented cases of a slave fighting in the United States, Tom Molineaux volunteered to take part in a boxing match with a slave from another plantation and was given freedom when he won his owner the bet—this was his first fight. He promptly sailed to England where he renounced fighting and was never forced into that situation again. Scratch that, he went to England and fought a score more bouts, becoming a beloved and respected celebrity and challenging for the world title twice because people were willing to pay him for an athletic pursuit at which he excelled.

No one is going to argue that slavery wasn't abhorrent or that anyone should have to fight for their freedom, but making a link between slavery and legalizing professional fighting requires some enormous and disingenuous leaps in logic. I imagine that if Charles Barron were to tell top five bantamweight, New Yorker, and full time black man, Aljamain Sterling that he cannot be paid to compete in New York because that would be akin to slavery, Sterling would be left scratching his head. Fear not though, Sterling would still be welcome to ply his trade in his home state as an amateur, wasting away his athletic prime without being compensated for his work.

The race baiting continued as Barron complained that in MMA you are allowed to choke opponents, stopping to make an aside that 'you know how we feel about the choke hold in New York City'. Referencing the Eric Garner case of 2014—a real issue but again completely unrelated to the matter of a professional sporting engagement between two trained and consenting athletes.

Perhaps the daftest point that Barron made was that the state should not regulate MMA because that would not make it safer. This is a state in which there are already underground fights going on. Who ensures there is a ringside doctor for an underground fight? When has the involvement of a state athletic commission ever made a sport less safe? In Texas, maybe, but this is New York: the state's sporting history is built around boxing and the commission is among the best. Race baiting, unprovable references to historical atrocities, and a basic misunderstanding of how the sport and the bill would work, we were already off to an amazing start.

Shortly afterwards we were treated to the sound bite you have almost certainly heard this morning: “MMA is like gay porn with a different ending”. This time, perhaps for the first time, coming from a gay man. This was Daniel J. O'Donnell, brother of Rosie O'Donnell—a fact that he made sure to reference at least twice. If you have just seen the clip, you managed to miss out on ten to fifteen minutes of prattling on about tennis. O'Donnell had apparently been visited by the “Vice President of MMA” (reason enough to believe that he has no idea what he is talking about to begin with) and had since done research into the sport.

After explaining how tennis players will now deliberately double fault at specific times to win gamblers money on very specific bets, O'Donnell pulled up a piece from an Australian newspaper (always a bad source for your MMA news as many Australian rags are wholeheartedly set against the sport) which pointed to large bets placed on Holly Holm, an enormous underdog. Of course, had he seen the actual fight, he would have known that there was no sign of a fix, just some beautiful ringcraft. Whenever someone from outside of the fight media talks about a fight perhaps being fixed based on simply reading the odds in the aftermath, the chances are they are—with regards to this topic—a moron. If you can see a fighter's head being snapped back by punches for a round and a half, chances are they aren't working a fix. But O'Donnell concluded that he wasn't going to vote for the bill because 'something' didn't 'feel right'.

Then there came the parade of accusations of MMA causing domestic abuse. Dozens of references were made to it by numerous members of the assembly. No names were ever given, no specific examples, just that there was a high rate of domestic abuse in MMA. Of course, you could always compare what you know about domestic abuse in MMA to the nation's favorite sport. Football and concussions were brought up at every point in this assembly but you can be almost certain that most of the representatives present would do nothing to change that sport given the chance.

The confusion on both sides was astounding—at one point it was brought up by a representative in favor of the bill that while many of the 'no' voters were focusing on men competing in this traumatic sport and how this affects abuse of women, most if pushed to name an MMA fighter would only be able to name Ronda Rousey. This was brought up as an affirmation of MMA as a tool for empowering women, but obviously misses the point that Ronda Rousey bragged in her book about beating the snot out of an ex boyfriend without physical provocation.

This was the main problem with the debate: everyone watching from home or the gallery, everyone invested in it, could actually make a stronger case for either side than those who had the right to vote it into law. It is not hard to find some specific examples of domestic abuse in MMA, there are some terrible people involved in this sport—but that is what they are, terrible people involved in the sport, not an accurate representation of 'the mixed martial artist'.

Ellen Jaffee made reference to people being 'often maimed' in MMA, again with zero examples and seriously stretching the meaning of both words. This was doubly infuriating because any MMA fan present could have given eight or nine specific examples not of maimings but of things that would make someone reluctant to vote to legalize professional MMA. Just a month ago Bellator MMA, the second biggest company in professional fighting, encouraged a 300lbs non-athlete to cut forty pounds and get in the cage for the first time in their co-main event and he almost died of heart failure against an experienced professional fighter who was juiced to the gills! MMA can be a scary business but no one present actually bothered to get any sport specific facts together.

And so the grand standing raged on between those against the bill who clearly had no idea what MMA was, and those for it who apparently didn't either. Half a dozen representatives stood up to rave about the benefits of martial arts as if teaching martial arts was the issue at hand. Two women especially went on at length about nunchucks—or 'nut chucks' as one thought they were called—seemingly unaware that MMA is an unarmed sporting pursuit.

The brief segment from Angela Wozniak will make you uneasy about the sort of people who are voting on changes of law in your state. Wozniak asked Morelle, the sponsor of the bill, what this bill would do to prohibit sex offenders working with children. The bill governing mixed martial arts competition. Once again there was a difficulty in differentiating between owning a martial arts gym which teaches MMA, and competing in the sport of mixed martial arts. She also asked who is regulating choke holds, because they are dangerous to children.

Patricia Fahy spoke for ten minutes about how head injuries in children are tremendously dangerous, before admitting at the end of her rant that this bill has nothing to do with children as it would not allow children to fight professionally. She was one of many who brought up the nebulous 'fact' that MMA is 'more violent' than boxing: the sport in which you can be knocked down, suffer a concussion, and allowed a period of time to recover before going back in to get hit in the head more. Then Catherine Nolan, who spent a good deal of her time making it clear to everyone that when you see a fight on TV, the people are not cartoons. More prattle about brain injuries, numberless accusations of drug abuse and domestic abuse, and a complete missing of the point that the vote was not to allow MMA or not, it was on whether people can be paid for it in that state and whether the athletic commission should regulate it.

Richard Gottfried stood up only to say he was impressed by the no voters raising good points (they hadn't) and that to give a self congratulatory lecture to the press about how many people were watching today, how important and smart he and all his colleagues were, and how this many people should always turned out. He then sat down and while the camera cut away from him, I am certain that he farted into the palm of his hand, wafted it into his nostrils and sighed in ecstasy at a job well done.

The star of the show, however, was Deborah Glick. She started out pretty well, questioning Morelle on the time needed between the passing of the bill and the staging of a professional MMA event. When Morelle answered a hundred and twenty days, Glick pointed out that the UFC had scheduled a date at Madison Square Garden in April. That was the UFC's posturing almost coming back to bite it in the rump. She continued to ask thoughtful questions on the taxing of events and insurance and seemed to be one of the few people there who had actually done some preparation. Then she pointed to an interview with a coach that she had read wherein he had said the main benefit of the bill would be that now his athletes could make money selling tickets. This is where things got a little goofy. Glick's reasoning against the bill was that the money in the sport is generally not good enough to make a living, so kids shouldn't even try. Because MMA fighters don't get paid enough, New York should not make it legal to pay MMA fighters. A brilliant logical paradox. Glick continued, “Nothing here will stop kids getting into fight clubs, nothing here will stop violence” and expressed concern that just as a child will practice his free throws in the school playground, he might start practicing his fighting skills there too. She concluded with perhaps the most patronizing line of the afternoon:

“Kids, we're the adults, we should be making certain that kids don't get the impression that New York State thinks this is a good idea”

It was Glick's return to the floor later in proceedings which demonstrated how much one can find to support one's own argument while never actually learning about the issue. Glick insisted that MMA is less safe because it doesn't use head gear—pretty much accepted to add weight to the head and increase the impact of blows and the likelihood of concussion, and recently dropped in the olympics to much applause. She continued into the damning statement that there are no gloves in MMA. Not only is this false, if you are arguing in favor of more protection for the brain, no gloves would be a good thing. Gloves too add weight to blows, but also allow fighters to throw with more force without fear of injuring their fingers. Glick made the day of every fan in the MMA sphere by referencing a tweet just sent to her from the fake Edmund Tarverdyan account, 'trainer to the stars', then proceeded to insinuate that MMA fans were probably Trump supporters. Finally she threw a hissy fit on Twitter:

Props are due to Joe Morelle who, when bombarded with a hundred non-facts, actually called people out on studies and referenced his own, with figures. Morelle also had answers for every question pertaining to the specifics of the bill, no matter how daft, and showed the patience of a saint getting it through. The entire debacle can be found and downloaded here, and thankfully the vote got through with ease. There were 113 votes to pass the bill and just twenty-five against it. What this vote really did for me was serve as an eye opener. Elected officials hold sway over laws that they often don't even understand or sometimes even attempt to. Democracy really is a strange thing. Still, as a British citizen I cannot jibe too much, we still have a House of Lords.

After twenty years of trying, MMA in New York is in and for me that means a chance to sit ringside at Madison Square Garden like all of my heroes in the boxing press of old. It might be a strange reason for someone with no home in New York to stay up into the night watching four hours of angry, confused ranting, but it's the only one I can give you.


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