Overseer of Boxing, Supporter of MMA
Melvina Lathan, the chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, has a passion for boxing that “began in vitro,” she says, and would lead her to be a judge of 83 championship fights around the world.
But she appreciates mixed martial arts enough to want the State Legislature to legalize the sport it banned.
“It’s not something I rush home to see, but I recognize its athleticism,” she said. “I like the intelligence needed to get out of holds where so many disciplines are used. When they’re grappling, I grab the edge of my chair.”
Her three grownup sons, one of whom was a ringside doctor for the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament, and her husband, once the medical director of the athletic commission, gather occasionally to watch mixed martial arts videos.
“My sons know all the guys and their moves,” she said during a recent interview in the Manhattan office of her boss, Lorraine A. Cortes-Vazquez, New York’s secretary of state. “They say, ‘We’ll do this in New York, huh?’ ”
Legalization may come soon, 13 years after Gov. George E. Pataki scorned the sport as too dangerous and it was banned by the Legislature. In his proposed 2010-11 budget, which has an April 1 deadline, Gov. David A. Paterson included legislation to repeal the ban, a maneuver that is designed to accelerate approval and help raise tax revenue for the deficit-strapped state.
Assemblyman Bob Reilly, an upstate Democrat and a vocal critic of repeal, said, “The question is whether my colleagues who are opposed to M.M.A. on merit will succumb” to the idea of generating additional revenue.
A study for the state said that one mixed martial arts show in Buffalo and one in Manhattan would generate $1.2 million in state and local taxes. Lathan said the study underestimated the economic impact of legalization, which would almost certainly lure New York fans who are attending combat cards held in states where the sport is legal.
“Those are our revenues going outside the state,” she said.
But she said her enthusiasm for repeal was focused largely on improving safety for the fighters and to limit — or eliminate — illicit shows around the state.
“You don’t want underground smokers,” she said. “There is no pre- and postfight examination or on-site ambulance. They can get knocked out today and fight tomorrow.”
Ron Scott Stevens, whom Paterson dismissed as the head of the athletic commission two years ago in favor of Lathan, then one of the commissioners, disagreed. “Over time,” he said, “New York will find out that the injuries these people sustain will be very costly, not only financially, but to the human condition.”
The seriousness of injuries in M.M.A. — which combines disciplines like karate, judo, jujitsu, boxing, wrestling and tae kwon do — has long been a subject of debate. The sport has distanced itself from the no-holds-barred bloodlust of its early days and now rivals boxing as a television and spectator attraction.
Lathan agrees with the sport’s proponents, notably the dominant organization in the sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, that the worst harm is orthopedic, not neurological, as it is in boxing. She insisted that New York would have the nation’s strictest M.M.A. regulation.
“It’s nice to have an ally in the commissioner,” said Marc Ratner, the vice president for regulatory affairs for Zuffa, the company that owns the U.F.C. Ratner, who assigned Lathan to judge bouts in Nevada when he was executive director of the state’s athletic commission, said he knew she favored repeal “from our discussions” before she became the commissioner in 2008.
Lathan grew up in a family that watched boxing on television together. When she was 4 or 5 years old, she said, her grandmother introduced her to a renowned boxer as they were walking in Harlem.
“This African-American man was leaning on a pink car and said, ‘Hi, baby,’ ” she said. “And she said, ‘Hi, Sugar, this is my granddaughter.’ She later told me it was Sugar Ray Robinson.”
As a teenager on her way home from a job interview, she said, Sonny Liston invited her into a gym when he saw her wiping away frost from the window to peek at the boxers at work. She said she was less afraid of Liston and his fearsome reputation than her mother’s anger for coming home late.
“I have a picture of my hand in Sonny’s,” she said. “My hand fit into his palm. My father keeps it in his dresser drawer.”
She would marry, raise her four children (three sons and a daughter), design costumes and work in hospitals as a hematologist. She began judging amateur fights in 1988 and professional bouts in 1991.
Randy Gordon, a former state athletic commissioner who trained Lathan, called her a great judge “whose fight cards were hardly ever questioned.” He said that one standard to assess her effectiveness was that “she was rarely on the short end of a split decision — and when she was, she was probably right.”
Gordon, once a foe of mixed martial arts, is a convert who hosts a Sirius XM radio show on the sport.
“I’ve known for years that she liked M.M.A.,” he said.
If the ban on the sport is lifted, it will be in part the result of a long lobbying and public-relations campaign by the U.F.C., which has spent tens of thousands of dollars to convince legislators that mixed martial arts has changed. It is legal in 43 states.
Lathan said she has not joined the strategists’ efforts. But she is in their corner.
“Everyone at some point who was against M.M.A. says it’s entirely different now,” she said. “People change their minds. Governor Pataki did. Randy did.” She added: “We’ve learned a lot. We’re trying to make the law ours. It’s a good thing we’d be one of the last ones to join the show.”