Professional mixed martial arts is off to a rollicking start in New York state, two months after lawmakers ended its status as the only state to ban the popular sport.
While there have been a handful of bouts in the state since the change took effect, an upcoming UFC event at Madison Square Garden is expected to be the true coming-out party. Promoters say it's likely just the start of a long relationship between New York City and mixed martial arts.
"It should have been legal in New York 15 years ago," said Scott Coker, president of promoter Bellator MMA, which is hoping to hold an event next year at the Garden or at Barclays Center. "We're going to bring a big, big show, probably the biggest card in the history of Bellator."
The homecoming is particularly sweet for fighters from New York state who have had to travel elsewhere to fight professionally.
"This is a dream come true," middleweight Chris Weidman said in September. A native New Yorker, he who will be one of several fighters in Saturday's pay-per-view UFC event.
With its prominent place in boxing history, Madison Square Garden is a natural for mixed martial arts. Joel Fisher, an executive vice president at the Garden, said "it's only fitting that the first UFC fight in New York state is taking place at 'The World's Most Famous Arena,'" one of its nicknames
State lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed in April to end the two-decade old ban following years of failed efforts by MMA supporters. The law authorizing the sport took effect in September. Cuomo concluded the move would boost the economy by luring bouts to the nation's largest city as well as upstate venues, with one estimate that MMA could generate $137 million in annual economic activity.
In response to critics concerned about the sport's violence, lawmakers added provisions that raise the insurance required to $50,000 for fighter injuries, a $50,000 death benefit and $1 million for life-threatening brain injuries.
The law was also intended to regulate existing amateur mixed martial arts events. KTFO Fights, a Long Island-based promoter, held the first MMA event under the new law, according to KTFO President Nic Cannobio. He said that while UFC and other big promoters might be able to absorb the higher insurance requirements, many smaller promoters cannot.
"It's a huge expense for promoters like us, and that prevents guys just starting their career from being able to fight in New York," he said. He would like lawmakers to consider tweaking the law to reduce costs on smaller operators.
Still, he said, ending the state's long ban on professional MMA has been a great win for the sport.
"New York has some of the best fighters, the best gyms in the country or maybe even the world," he said. "These guys who had to go to Jersey or Pennsylvania to fight they can now fight in their backyard."