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New York’s Professional MMA Ban Is Actually Posing a Health Crisis Now


Despite calling it my home for some 22 years, I have long since given up on the idea of MMA being legalized in New York. We’ve had the carrot dangled in front of us several times before, sure, but when push came to shove, the rug was always pulled out from under us thanks to what I can only describe as “bureaucratic big-whiggery bullshit.” I blame you for all of this, Bob Reilly, you rat-faced c*cksucker.

While the fight towards professional MMA legalization in NY rages on, there have been some small steps made over the years, mainly in the realm of amatuer MMA. Unfortunately, the lack of anything resembling regulation has created something of a health crisis, with athletes that have previously tested positive for everything from HIV to Hepatitis C flooding the state to compete in unsanctioned MMA and kickboxing matches after being banned from doing so in states with actual regulation. As Jim Genia wrote in a recent piece for Deadspin:

Nick Lembo, chief counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and overseer of all things MMA in the Garden State, lays out the issue as straightforwardly as anyone could.

“There have been many contestants who have been banned from regulated combative sport in New Jersey because of subdural hematoma, hepatitis C, HIV, detached retinas, and other medical concerns who have competed freely in amateur MMA and kickboxing in New York under the direct supervision of state-approved sanctioning bodies, or at shows without such direct supervision,” he says.

He can’t name these athletes—New Jersey privacy laws and federal HIPAA regulations prevent that—but according to him, dozens of them have fought and bled in New York rings and cages.

The paradox is that this is happening because the state is the last holdout from a time when MMA was an underground sport, consigned to Indian reservations and foreign shores. New York banned professional MMA in 1997, at a time when it was more a Thunderdome-esque spectacle than anything else. It was probably the right thing to do; it was certainly what almost every other state was doing. When evolution took hold, though, transforming “two men enter, one man leaves” into a legitimate sport, legislators acknowledged the new reality. MMA is now legal and regulated throughout all of North America. 

In addition to the rampant, unregulated health problems that arise when no regulatory board is placed in charge of an increasingly-popular combat sport, the medical suspensions being placed on athletes in areas like Pennsylvania and New Jersey are all but impossible to uphold should a fighter simply choose to take his next fight in NY. This means the potential for multiple concussions sustained over short periods of time and the fatal health hazards that come with them.

“There’s no question it’s a problem,” says Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. Like New Jersey, Pennsylvania has a vibrant amateur MMA scene that often sees New Yorkers showing up to throw down. Like New Jersey regulators, he can’t work with New York—ensuring, for instance, that fighters aren’t getting in the cage during the routine medical suspensions given to victims of knockouts—because there’s no one to work with.

“Once they fight here and we suspend them, I really have no way of knowing that’s being upheld,” he says.

“It’s very hard to know what you’re getting when you bring in a New York fighter,” says Sirb. “We don’t know if he’s been knocked out recently, we don’t know what his experience is. If I’m not comfortable with the kid, we just deny the fight. It’s not worth the risk for me as a regulator to say, ‘Come on in, you’re OK to fight.’ We’ll just deny the fight.”

Bernie Profato, executive director of the Ohio Athletic Commission, agrees about the reporting problem. “I don’t follow a fighter’s record and if they fight in New York, which is unregulated, no one would know if they fought because the results are never posted anywhere.”

Says Sirb of the situation in New York: “It’s simply a mess.”

And a mess that is currently causing way more complications than the actual legalization of MMA ever could. While some of the organizations putting on these events, like the World Kickboxing Association, are adequately funded and manned, how are the low-level organizations supposed to properly protect their fighters when they lack the proper governing bodies, or simply the bodies, to ensure that everything runs as smoothly and safely as possible?

Take the show sanctioned by the Muay Boran League in the Bronx last September, where a water bottle was left in the cage between rounds and stepped on by a fighter mid-fight. Or the PKF-sanctioned show in Deer Park last January, where a bout began with one of the fighters’ stools still in the cage. The same event, according to Genia, “was held in a catering hall, where the cage was elevated and so close to the ceiling that the taller fighters on the card were in danger of hitting their heads on a chandelier.”

For Christ’s sake, many of these unsanctioned, New York-based amatuer MMA events lack even the proper medical staff to assist the fighters in case of the most basic injuries, instead relying on “paramedics, acupuncturists, or calls to 911 operators.” Blood tests results are overlooked, documents are forged by coaches, and physicians are sometimes replaced by f*cking veterinarians cageside. It’s criminal negligence on a mass scale, except there are no laws in place to be broken, as Genia puts it.

Suffice it to say, New York has reached a point where the willful ignorance of its lawmakers (and the personal vendetta against the Fertitta brothers/Station Casinos spearheaded by the Culinary Union) could result in deaths. How long will it be before an amateur fighter dies at one of these unsanctioned events, like what happened in Michigan last year?

Check out Genia’s article in its entirety here.

-J. Jones

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