This week Vermont became the 46th state to embrace the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, but a similar bill that would legalize it in Connecticut is stalled in the Senate.
The fast growing sport which combines wrestling, boxing, and karate has been met with opposition from the state’s labor unions.
Russell Leak, who owns Underdog Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Hartford where he trains MMA fighters, said he’s being told the perception of the sport is positive, but the unions are opposed because they’re trying to show solidarity with a Las Vegas union. Leak has spent the past few days at the Capitol talking to lawmakers about what he thinks are the benefits of the legislation.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said there are concerns about the bill both substantively, about the sport itself, and union related issues.
“There’s a concern about some of the promoters in other states that would be looking to promote this activity in Connecticut taking an anti-union stance,” Looney said Friday.
Lori Pelletier, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told the Public Safety and Security Committee in March that “people involved with the MMA world have created many problems for members of the Nevada AFL-CIO and we cannot in good conscience condone their actions by supporting this bill.”
“With nearly 87 unfair labor practices clearly these owners are not responsible partners,” Pelletier said.
Leak, who believes legalizing the sport will only benefit the economy, was surprised that a union issue in Las Vegas is holding up approval of the bill in Connecticut. He said most of the testimony on the bill was positive.
The fiscal note attached to the bill also was positive. The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates it would generate about $53,000 to $98,000 annually in licensing and admission fees.
“This bill is going to bring jobs to the state,” Leak said. “I have taken my fighters to other states to compete. So it’s not like this stops our guys from fighting.”
Fighters can train legally in the state and they can participate in bouts at the state’s two Indian casinos.
“The only thing it stops is the state from benefiting from having these events at these arenas that are looking to fill seats,” Leak said, referring to places like the XL Center.
When people leave these fights, Leak said, they “go out into the community and spend money at restaurants.”
But there are some like Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who don’t believe the state should be getting involved with an industry based around fighting.
Leak said there has never been a death attributed to professional Mixed Martial Arts. He said fighters have blood work and other health exams done on a regular basis.
The bill would also allow the state to more closely regulate the sport.
Asked why Connecticut shouldn’t regulate the sport, Bye said the state doesn’t regulate “cock fighting and dog fighting,” either.
“I don’t want to be part of the sanctioning of it,” Bye said.
However, Stacey Scapeccia, an MMA fighter who runs a training gym in Oakville, said lawmakers are looking at the issue with an untrained eye.
“They’re looking at the photos of the aftermath, they’re not looking at the athlete involved in it,” she said. “They don’t understand the techniques and tactics and different arts that go into training.”
Scapeccia said the object of the sport isn’t to hurt another person, it’s make enough points to win a match. Injuries are present in all sports, she said. Allowing MMA to be regulated would bring safety standards to fighters in Connecticut, she said. Unofficial matches are happening in Connecticut anyway, she said.
“It’s going to keep happening even if they don’t pass this bill. We need the bill passed because we need events to show kids out there that these are athletes who are training properly in school with certified coaches,” she said. “Without them seeing in in front of them in venues, they’re going to keep doing in the back alley venues without the proper training.”
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.