Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Hope New Bill Will Legalize Sport in New York State

Originally published April 17, 2015 

Host Intro: New York is the only state in the country to ban professional mixed martial arts events. New York fighters have to travel out of state to compete and gain national recognition in the increasingly popular sport. Charlotte Gibson reports that momentum is growing in Albany to legalize the violent fight club events in New York.


Every Thursday, a dozen mixed martial arts fighters gather at the Renzo Gracie Academy just two blocks from the iconic Madison Square Garden. The sport is unarmed combat involving the technique and skills from different disciplines of the martial arts, including, without limitation, grappling, submission holds, kicking and striking.

AMBI PRACTICE SOUND – MAT WORK AND SPARRING  

Amateur fighters Brandon Vancleave and Ezekiel Okunola warm up on the large, blue mats spread across the bottom floor of the gym alongisde the other fighters. Then, they step into this enormous circular platform that is caged in by a black fence and padding wrapped around the top of the fence.  This fights takes place in what is called the Octagon and it literally looks like a cage for humans without a top.  Vancleave prepares to enter the cage and practice fight with with Okunola.

ACTUALITY VANCLEAVE“It’s a different world when the cage door locks. It’s the most peaceful place on earth and chaos at the same time and that’s what makes it beautiful.” (00:07)

The cage is 30 feet across and 6 feet high.  Its walls and padded surfaces protect fighters from falling out or getting thrown out during the fight.

AMBI SOUND PUNCHING

ACTUALITY VANCLEAVE: “When the bell rings, it’s like a snap and you do what you know and you do what you have been training and what’s your instinct more or else and nothing else matters.” (00:09)

Vancleave and Okunola walk into the cage.  They stand at opposite corners of the Octagon. They glare at each other, oblivious to everything else outside the cage. Then, they begin to pivot their feet and move towards the middle of the mat.  Okunola japs his fist towards the center of Vancleave’s chest.  Vancleave pivots to the left.  It’s like a dance.  After a few minutes, the two figthers switch positions.  Okunola kicks Vancleave in his side. Sweat drips from their foreheads but the two don’t even look out of breath.

What Vancleave and Okunola are doing is legal because it’s a practice fight.  What they can’t do is fight for money.  They said they have to travel out of states to places like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and California to compete in fights.

Across the gym, 26-year-old Jared Gordon is grappling with another opponent on a large blue mat. He said he started competing at the age of 16 in underground fight clubs around the city and didn’t like the experience.

ACTUALITY JARED GORDON: “It’s like a bunch of knuckleheads and they think they are martial artists but meanwhile these guys started fighting like a year ago they are like 30 years old fighting like 16 year olds, knocking guys out. And you know, it just makes a bad name for the sport.”  (00:15)

Gordon works out at the Renzo Gracie Academy almost every day because he wants to become a professional and do it the right way this time.

There’s a ray of hope for MMA fighters from New York like Gordon, Vancleave, and Okunola.

Last month, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would allow for legal fights in New York.

Democratic Senator Joseph Addabbo of Queens co-sponsored the bill and has long supported the effort to legalize the sport in the state.

ACTUALITY ADDABBO: “We are certainly missing out on the jobs and the revenue that’s why I support it but I also support it knowing that the safeguards are there. This is a regulated sport probably in my opinion more regulated than boxing.” (00:12)

Only 14 of the 47 Senators voted against the bill.  Democratic Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan continues to be one of the biggest opponents of the bill.

ACTUALITY KRUEGER: “Mixed martial arts is an incredibly dangerous activity that has displayed a pattern of unchallenged misogyny.” (00:18)

MMA is a combat sport and is indeed dangerous. About one-thrid of professional mixed martial arts matches end in knockout or technical knockout, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The study indicated a higher incidence of brain trauma than boxing or other matial arts.

MMA fighters and advocates disagree.

ACTUALITY CHISOLM: “It’s one of the safest sports out there.” (00:02) 

Ultimate Fighting Champion coach and mixed martial artist Tory Chisolm says that the mixed martial arts techniques used by the fighters are what makes the sport safer than it appears.

ACTUALITY CHISOLM: “You are using kicks, you are using submissions and takedowns. So the damage that’s afflicted goes all around your body.” (00:06)

Chisolm argues that MMA is safer than boxing.  He says that in boxing a fighter can be knocked out for up to 10 seconds and still continue a fight.  But, in MMA, the rules and regulations prohibit a fighter from continuing the fight if he is knocked out.

ACTUALITY CHISOLM: “In MMA if two of us are fighting and you hit me with a head kick or a really strong punch and I am not able to defend myself that fight is over.” (00:15)

Back at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Midtown, Vancleave finsihes up his afternoon practice.

Vancleave says his main focus right now is training.  He will travel to New Jersey on June 6th for his first professional fight and what he says is the start of his career.

ACTUALITY VANCLEAVE:  “I accomplish everything I set my heart on and this is just one more thing to accomplish so I am sure it is going to be a hard road and it’s going to be tough. And it already has been.” (00:10)

The bill to legalize the sport he loves is currently in committee in the New York State Assembly.  Backers are optimistic because the new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was once listed as a co-sponsor legalization bill. The New York Assembly will have until the end of June to legalize the sport.

Charlotte Gibson, Columbia Radio News.

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