Fighters with HIV and Hep C are competing in New York

New York leads North America and beyond in finance, in theater, and a host of other vital endeavors. However, in the world's fastest growing sport, New York is in very last place. MMA is legal and regulated everywhere in North America, except for New York.

The reason for this hole in the regulatory grid is almost incomprehensibly bizarre. The UFC is owned largely by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also own Nevada's Station Casino chain. Station Casinos has long agreed to a union vote via private ballot, so that workers can vote their conscience, without fear of intimidation. However, the union has insisted on a card-check vote, a public statement of yes or no.

In response, the Las Vegas based Culinary Union has attacked the UFC with a long, strange series of wholly created front organizations. None of the efforts have been successful, save one – keeping mixed martial arts from being regulated in New York state.

As a consequence, professional MMA is illegal in New York, and amateur MMA is legal but unregulated. Without regulation, fighters with HIV, hepatitis, and a host of other conditions that prevent them from being licensed anywhere in North America are fighting in New York.

This is one of the most important stories of the year, and it was broken by Jim Genia.

Nick Lembo, chief counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and overseer of all things MMA in the Garden State, lays out the issue as straightforwardly as anyone could.

“There have been many contestants who have been banned from regulated combative sport in New Jersey because of subdural hematoma, hepatitis C, HIV, detached retinas, and other medical concerns who have competed freely in amateur MMA and kickboxing in New York under the direct supervision of state-approved sanctioning bodies, or at shows without such direct supervision,” he says.

He can't name these athletes—New Jersey privacy laws and federal HIPAA regulations prevent that—but according to him, dozens of them have fought and bled in New York rings and cages.

In 2013, there were 47 amateur MMA events in New York, and an even greater number of kickboxing shows. None of these was overseen by the New York State Athletic Commission—the 1997 law made it clear the NYSAC could have no role in such things—and so privately run organizations like the World Kickboxing Association, the International Sport Karate Association, the United States Muay Thai Association, and others have stepped in to handle all the sanctioning work.

Some of these organizations are meticulous and conscientious; some aren't. Either way, they operate outside the reciprocal regulatory framework that governs the fight game in the rest of country.

At a show sanctioned by the Muay Boran League in the Bronx last September, a water bottle was left in the cage in between rounds and a fighter stepped on it mid-fight. At a show in Hauppauge last October sanctioned by the IMMAF, a referee started a bout while the cage door was open. At a PKF-sanctioned show in Deer Park in January, a bout began with one of the fighters' stools still in the cage.

At a Hammerstein Ballroom last year, sanctioned by the IMMAF, the lone medical professional present was a doctor who'd never even seen an MMA bout before. He had to be told what sort of injuries to look for by the photographer standing next to him.

Some events don't even have doctors. They rely instead on paramedics, acupuncturists, or calls to 911 operators.

As for the quality of the “trained” officials, the incompetence and lack of judgment of some referees working in the state is liable to get someone seriously injured, or worse. At one event in Queens earlier this month, a fighter ate 28 unanswered blows before a referee stepped in. At another, last year, a referee failed to notice that a fighter had been choked unconscious.

It would all be criminal, if not for the fact that no law had been broken.

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For the fifth year in a row, the New York Senate has passed an MMA bill. And it looks as though for the fifth year in a row, the democratic process will remain stifled by the union's machinations – the bill will never be brought to a vote in the Assembly.

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Image courtesy of Jim Cooke.