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Mixed martial arts champions fight to legalize sport in New York

Forty-five states would welcome the upcoming mixed martial arts title fight between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans. Their home state of New York still isn't one of them.

Both light heavyweight champion Jones and ex-champ Evans have personally lobbied New York lawmakers to legalize the sport, and they say they have a lot of family, friends and fans who would pack the house here. Instead, they'll fight April 21 in Atlanta.

"I think it would be a huge reward for the people of New York to be able to watch their champion compete in their backyard," Jones said. The Ultimate Fighting Championship title holder at 205 pounds, who lives in Ithaca, said putting the event in Madison Square Garden would generate money and jobs. "We both have huge fan bases. It would sell out so fast."

Evans, a Niagara Falls native who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., agreed.

"Being able to fight at home, it would mean the world," he said.

Each fighter visited Albany last year to meet legislators in the effort by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's major brand, to make New York the 46th state to legalize and regulate it. The bill passed the Senate but died in the Assembly, where some legislators said MMA is too violent and sets a bad example for children.

Backers counter that the popular televised sport, with elements of boxing, judo, grappling and kickboxing, has evolved from its rough early days with rules and protections for fighters that would be enforced by the New York State Athletic Commission, the agency that regulates boxing. They point out that the contests sell out big venues in other cities while some bouts have topped a million pay-per-view customers.

The debate came around again this year. New York's Republican-controlled Senate, which passed the bill last year, included legalization in its budget bill this year. Opponents in the state Assembly refused to approve it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not taken a position, spokesman Josh Vlasto said.

Assemblyman Steven Englebright, a Long Island Democrat and sponsor of legislation to legalize MMA, said it sometimes takes a few years to pass a bill in New York. He noted that Assemblyman Robert Reilly, an Albany Democrat and outspoken critic of the sport, is retiring after this year.

Reilly said opposition will continue, noting several other Assembly opponents who helped defeat it for the past seven years who are sticking around. He also pointed to large cash bonuses the UFC pays for the best knockouts as evidence of a bad emphasis.

"We find that, especially the UFC, but all of mixed martial arts, is going in exactly the opposite direction of the other sports, primarily football and hockey, in that they literally promote concussions where other sports are working to eradicate concussions," Reilly said.

UFC spokesman Steven Greenberg said fast-growing MMA is one of the safest contact sports for its athletes. That group uses rules established by New Jersey Athletic Control Board that include stoppages by referees and ringside doctors and prohibit fighters from head butting, biting, gouging, stomping a downed opponent, groin attacks, throat strikes and several other potentially injurious moves.

"It's absurd that New York is just one of two states where it is illegal," Greenberg said. There are three states, Alaska, Vermont and Montana, where it's unregulated and where UFC won't go. Only New York and Connecticut outlaw it, though professional fights are held at Indian-owned casinos within those states, he said.

Fights are on mats in octagonal cages and end in knockouts, submissions from choking or limb twisting, referee stoppages and judges' decisions. Fighters wear only shorts and small gloves.

So, how do two guys from a state where it's illegal make it to the top of their sport?

Jones, 24, who grew up in Endicott, won a state high school wrestling championship then wrestled at college powerhouse Iowa. His older brother Arthur played football for the Baltimore Ravens last year while his younger brother, Chandler, played for Syracuse University.

The 32-year-old Evans won his high school sectional wrestling tournament and finished fourth in the state twice for Niagara-Wheatfield High School. He went on to wrestle at Michigan State. He says New York's competitive scholastic sports provide an advantage because athletes have to be tough to get beyond their sectional tournaments.

Neither worries about getting hurt, including during their upcoming fight that will be broadcast on pay per view.

"I've been fighting for five years now and I've never had a concussion, never a bloody lip, never a black eye ... I've been completely healthy and I fight every day," Jones said. His professional record is 15-1. Becoming a martial artist has made him more centered and laid-back, and less confrontational, he said.

"The reason I do this is because it's fun," said Evans, with a 17-1-1 record. He had to postpone a tentatively set fight with Jones last year because of a dislocated thumb. "I'm from the school that if you worry about it, you're inviting that bad energy."