ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The light heavyweight Liam McGeary, an English expatriate who lives in Brooklyn and fights for Bellator, isn’t the only mixed martial arts champion most New Yorkers have never heard of. But they may soon.
The more famous MMA promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship lobbied hard for years to convince state politicians to legalize it, bringing marquee fighters like Jon Jones and Ronda 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.
Although UFC opened New York’s cage door, McGeary, Bellator and others plan to storm into the lucrative new market now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law Thursday legalizing professional MMA in the last state where it was banned.
“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. “I believe there will be packed houses.”
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 Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, Coker said. “It’d be a great place to hold our inaugural event there in New York.”
The UFC, the sport’s largest promotion, which broadcasts shows on Fox television and major events on pay-per-view, announced plans Thursday to hold its first New York show Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden.
Cuomo signed the law there Thursday, saying it will boost New York’s economy. He was ringed by UFC fighters Rousey and ex-champion Chris Weidman, a Long Island resident. Weidman has a June middleweight title rematch with Californian Luke Rockhold set for Los Angeles.
“Madison Square Garden is the international icon for great sports events,” Cuomo said. “The economics that go along with the sport are undeniable.”
UFC President Lorenzo Fertitta said they’ll hold an upstate event this year and later others throughout New York.
Bellator is also considering the Garden and other New York venues, including Indian reservation casinos and Buffalo, Coker said. McGeary, coming off an injury, may fight again in July or August, but the state may not be ready by then.
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 in the combination of kickboxing, wrestling and judo often done inside a cage or other enclosure with small gloves and a referee.
Added provisions raise the insurance required to $50,000 for fighter injuries, a $50,000 death benefit and to $1 million for life-threatening brain injuries. 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.
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.”