New York ended its ban on professional mixed martial arts — the last hold-out in the nation — opening the cages for major fights in its big venues and lower-level scraps across the state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the move as a boost to the state economy as he signed the law Thursday at Madison Square Garden, ringed by Ultimate Fighting Championship ex-champions Ronda Rousey and Chris Weidman, a Long Island native.
"Madison Square Garden is the international icon for great sports events," Cuomo said. "The economics that go along with the sport are undeniable."
The UFC, the sport's largest promotion, which broadcasts shows on Fox television and major events on pay-per-view, announced plans at the signing to hold its first New York show Nov. 12 at the Garden.
The law doesn't take effect until September, giving the New York State Athletic Commission time to add two members, adopt regulations, train staff and begin licensing promoters, trainers and fighters.
The sport's violence drew opposition from some lawmakers and proposals from others to better protect fighters, who wear small gloves and engage in a combination of kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, often inside a cage or other enclosure.
Provisions added to the law raise the insurance required to $50,000 for fighter injuries, a $50,000 death benefit and $1 million for life-threatening brain injuries, and it authorizes the state to study potential funding mechanisms for long-term care of fighters who develop degenerative brain conditions. It's also designed to bring the amateur sport, which has grown unregulated across the state, under state-authorized supervision.
UFC lobbied hard for years to convince state politicians to legalize it, bringing marquee fighters like Jon Jones and Rousey to Albany's Capitol. Meanwhile, Rousey became a model and action film star with an entourage. Jones, a native of upstate New York, is widely regarded as the best fighter, pound for pound, on the planet.
There are many lesser-known fighters training in New York who expect now to make some money in the last state where pro fights were banned.
"I believe there will be packed houses," said Liam McGeary, an English expatriate who lives in Brooklyn and is the professionally unbeaten light heavyweight champion for Bellator.
"There's a lot of fight fans over here who don't get to experience the fight shows we do over on the West Coast," said McGeary, who has fought in California and other states. He predicted many local fans, as well as others from England, will turn out to New York venues.
Bellator's principal owner is New York-based Viacom, whose Spike TV broadcasts the fights to 150 countries.
Promotion President Scott Coker said they put on 16 cards last year, plan to do 29 this year and are averaging 1.2 million viewers per show. "We're building our roster every month. We're going after some of the big free agents. We're building some fighters from the ground up," he said.
Among venues they're talking to is Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Coker said. "It'd be a great place to hold our inaugural event there in New York."
UFC Chief Executive Lorenzo Fertitta said they'll hold an upstate event this year and later others across New York. Weidman is already scheduled for a middleweight title rematch in June against Californian Luke Rockhold in Los Angeles.
Bellator is also considering the Garden and other New York venues, including Indian reservation casinos and Buffalo, Coker said.
The governor's office estimated the sport will yield almost $140 million in annual economic activity in New York from gym expansions and about 70 yearly MMA events.
Duff Holmes has a roster of about 20 fighters who train evenings and weekends at his gym in suburban Utica. Former UFC light heavyweight Matt Hamill trained with him.
"The last few years in New York, the highest level amateurs were basically pros," Holmes said. Several of his guys had 15 or 20 amateur fights, while in other states most have only four or five before turning professional. For the New Yorkers, travel would have cost anything they made. The ability to sell hometown tickets could change that math, though the high insurance requirements may keep smaller promoters out of the market, he said.
However, Holmes has at least two fighters, featherweight Eric Mendiola and lightweight Pete San Antonio, who've each fought professionally twice for smaller promotions following long amateur careers. "They're at the level that's going to be noted," he said.
There are a dozen or more amateur promotions in New York, including some that sell tickets to mismatches with barely trained fighters, Holmes said. "That's one good thing that's going to come out of this. They're going to go bye-bye."