Hugh McQuaid Photo
Rep. Steve Dargan (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The House approved a bill Tuesday legalizing and regulating Mixed Martial Arts fighting over the concerns of some lawmakers who saw the legislation as an endorsement of a violent sport.

Connecticut is currently one of two states that does not allow Mixed Martial Arts, a popular but violent sport combining elements of wrestling, boxing, and karate. MMA matches already take place at the state’s two tribal casinos and proponents say removing the state’s prohibition of the sport could attract large crowds to matches at venues in Hartford and Bridgeport.

Although the House passed the legislation 117-26, it may have a tougher time passing the Senate, where both President Donald Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney have opposed it. Last year the Senate did not act on similar legislation.

This year the legislation has the support of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, who touted the sport’s popularity and economic potential in April. Following passage of the bill Tuesday, Sharkey said he did not know how it would be received in the Senate and that he had not spoken about the bill with Senate leaders.

“I think it’s an important enough bill that we should [pass it] . . . I don’t know what the inclinations are in the Senate at this point,” Sharkey said.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said MMA is currently the fastest-growing sport, particularly among young people.

“Hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents are already watching [Ultimate Fighting Championship] events on pay-per-view, cable television,” he said, adding that residents can also watch them at the casinos.

Dargan said economic projections anticipate a positive impact for cities with venues hosting matches. He said Hartford, which could host matches at the XL Center, could see more than $750,000 in “spin-off” revenue as people attending the matches book hotels, dine at restaurants, and pay to park.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates that the state would spend between $40,000 and $90,000 regulating the sport, but the matches would generate between $195,000 and $360,000 in additional tax revenue for the state in fiscal year 2015.

During a short debate on the legislation, opponents focused primarily on the sport’s violence. Rep. DebraLee Hovey, a Republican whose district includes part of Newtown where 26 people were murdered at an elementary school in December, said recent events have made her less tolerant of violence.

Hovey said the sport bothered her enough that she once left a restaurant that was showing a match on television. She compared the sport to gladiator fighting.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Rep. DebraLee Hovey (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“This is really back to the Roman times of people watching and viewing the brutalization of another human being, and personally I find it disgusting,” she said, adding that the state needs to be more thoughtful of the message it is sending. “This is, in my mind, a blood sport and I don’t believe that Connecticut has a place for it.”

Asked about the bill last month, Williams said he has similar concerns about MMA, especially in light of the Newtown shootings.

“At a time that we’re concerned about violence in our culture, I think we ought to take a look at things like this and think carefully before just simply plowing ahead,” he said.

Lawmakers also voiced reservations about the safety risks involved with participating in the sport. House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said passage of the bill would give the state the ability to regulate, and potentially make safer, an activity that is already occurring in Connecticut.

“If those of you, like me, are torn because of the nature of the sport, I think if you want to err on the side of caution, you would vote for this bill and I think so because without this bill there is no regulation,” he said.