by Christian W. Peck
Public Information Officer
Niagara County Public Information Office
A pair of Niagara Falls lawmakers from opposing parties won the backing of a unanimous County Legislature Tuesday to urge Albany to stand up for Niagara Falls-born mixed martial arts champ Rashad Evans and become the 49th state to legalize the popular fighting sport.
Evans, currently the No. 2-ranked fighter in Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts competition, is the former world heavyweight champion. Saturday, he will seek to reclaim his title, squaring off against Jon Jones, a native of Endicott.
Ironically, even as two upstate New Yorkers seek the top spot in MMA competition, they'll have to duke it out in Atlanta. A title bout at Madison Square Gardens or Buffalo's First Niagara Center—or even a downtown Niagara Falls venue—is not possible, because New York remains one of only two states that bans the increasingly popular sparring contests.
Niagara County Legislators Chereé J. Copelin, R-LaSalle, and Owen T. Steed, D-Niagara Falls, said that's wrong, and asked their colleagues to join them in calling on Albany to do what every other state in the Union except Vermont has done: legalize MMA.
LISTEN to Niagara County Legislators Chereé J. Copelin, R-LaSalle, and Owen T. Steed, D-Niagara Falls, calling on state lawmakers to make New York state the 49th state to legalize mixed martial arts competition.
Within hours of the resolution's passage on the floor of the Niagara County Legislature, a state Senate bill that would lift the legal barriers to MMA passed that chamber Wednesday by an overwhelming 43-14 margin. Companion legislation remains stalled in the Assembly, however, although some observers are optimistic about the bill's chances this year in the lower chamber.
"We hope New York state will follow the lead of other states and lift the ban on mixed martial arts, that's costing our state potentially millions of dollars by missing out on events that could be happening here, but instead are happening in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania—and Atlanta," Copelin said.
She has hard numbers to back up her claim. A UFC-funded study suggests that by holding just two professional MMA events a year—one at Madison Square Gardens and one at the First Niagara Center—New York could realize $16 million in additional revenue from UFC events alone.
That study found that a UFC event in New York City would generate $11.3 million in net new economic activity, with $5.3 million in direct event spending, $1.4 million in non-lodging visitor spending, and $4.6 million in spin-off benefits. The 2011 study found that a UFC event in Buffalo would generate $5.2 million, with $1.7 million in direct event spending, $1.4 million in visitor spending and $2.1 million in spin-off activity.
The study also notes that the MMA events would create 138 new jobs.
So far, opposition from Assemblyman Bob Reilly, an Albany-area Democrat, has bottled up every effort to legalize MMA in New York for several years. Copelin scoffed at Reilly's suggestion that mixed martial arts competition should continue to be banned because it is "dangerous" or "violent."
"Mixed martial arts is a combination of judo, karate, wrestling and boxing—and all of these sports are currently legal in New York state," she said. "They say that it's less violent than boxing at times, and yet boxing is legal. I think this just another example of New York state regulating and telling us how we should live our lives."
Copelin and Steed took particular umbrage at the ban forcing two of New York state's most successful young athletes to seek out a distant venue for their title bout—when that particular draw would have, if anything, boosted ticket sales.
"I think Rashad being from Niagara Falls means the title bout should be brought to Niagara Falls," Steed said.
"When Rashad came back home three years ago, he received the key to the city," Steed said. "Mayor (Paul) Dyster and the City Council presented him with the key to the city, and there was a full house there to see Rashad. We keep losing our hometown heroes, and letting them go—whether it's (Green Bay Packers Running Back) James Starks or (Portland Trail Blazers Point Guard) Jonny Flynn. Here, we have a chance to bring our hometown boy home—and we should!"
Steed also echoed Copelin's concerns about New York state's failure to capitalize on a potential revenue generator, noting that, in addition to larger venues cited in the UFC study, medium-sized venues like those present in Niagara Falls are perfectly tailored to MMA competition. In recent years, the state's Indian casinos have played host to boxing competitions, such as the 2008 "Brawl in the Falls."
"I agree with Legislator Copelin that this could bring revenue to Niagara Falls—a city that doesn't have anything right now," Steed said. "UFC did a study and found that bringing MMA to just two venues in New York City and Buffalo would bring in $16 million. Niagara Falls could use $10 million right now."
Steed also noted that county lawmakers had earlier Tuesday listened to an annual report by Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. CEO John Percy, and was perplexed that state law was chasing away the type of sports competition that could draw crowds to either the Seneca Niagara Casino or the Conference Center Niagara.
"The chance to bring Rashad Evans back here, to the Seneca Niagara Casino or to our Conference Center, I think goes well with us working to regain our casino money," Steed said, noting that a lack of funds from Seneca Niagara Casino slot revenue had increased fiscal pressure on Niagara Falls. "In a city that's having financial trouble right now, we can use all the help we can get."
Still, the most telling voice on the matter may be Evans himself, who was quoted in a story about Saturday's title bout in the Buffalo News, saying: "I'm a Western New York guy. We don't have a lot of guys who come out and make a name for themselves. It's disheartening, to be honest. ... It would be great to have all our friends and family be able to come to the fight—right down the street."