John Fulcher photo
Wang Sai socks it to Brett Oteri during a WCMMA event at Foxwoods on Sept. 15, 2012. (John Fulcher photo)

Connecticut’s legislature may have approved mixed martial art matches, but promoters are concerned a budgetary provision that makes event organizers liable for fighters’ health care costs will limit their ability to book venues outside the two casinos.

The sport, also known as MMA, blends boxing with kicking, wrestling, and submission holds. The matches usually take place in a chain link cage or a boxing ring.

The sport is perhaps best represented by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, which began holding events 20 years ago. The sport was previously considered illegal under the state’s prizefighting statute, according to a 2008 legal opinion from then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. In that same opinion he also clarified that the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville and the Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard would be able to host MMA events because they are sovereign nations.

A bill legalizing the sport statewide was first introduced in 2009. At the time, former state Sen. Jonathan Harris argued that it could generate revenue for the state while having a positive economic effect for local bars and hotels. Last year, the bill met with resistance from the AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor organization. Leaders of Connecticut’s AFL-CIO criticized the owners of an MMA organization in Nevada for bad labor practices and urged legislators to vote against the bill.

This year, the bill finally passed with the vocal backing of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and was signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on July 11. The new law takes effect Oct. 1.

Its passage leaves New York as the only state where MMA is illegal, although Wyoming and Alaska can’t host the events because these states lack the necessary sanctioning bodies, according to information provided by the UFC.

“It opens up doors for new Connecticut gyms, as well as the growth of already existing facilities,“ said Hartford native Matt Bessette, who is a professional lightweight fighter. “If and when a bigger promotion comes to Connecticut, it can only benefit the economy. There are so many plus sides to MMA becoming a worldwide phenomenon that it was just a matter of time before it was legalized in Connecticut.”

Parker Porter, a professional heavyweight from Southington, expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m very excited about the passing of this bill,” said Porter, who trains with Bessette at Underdog Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Hartford. “It gives local fighters trying to get to the next level a huge opportunity to get local sponsors and have a hometown crowd. I really like the idea that there’s a possibility of one day having an event at a place like the XL Center only a few blocks away from my gym.”

Both fighters will compete in preliminary bouts during a Bellator event on Sept. 7 at Mohegan Sun.

But dreams of fighting in front of a hometown crowd may still be a long way off for Porter and Bessette.

Joe Cuff, a spokesperson for the Connecticut-based MMA organization Reality Fighting, expressed doubts that it would hold events outside the casinos.

Cuff pointed to a provision in the law that states; “Any person, firm or corporation that employs, or contracts with, a person to be a competitor in a mixed martial arts match conducted pursuant to chapter 532a of the general statutes shall be liable for any health care costs incurred by such competitor for the diagnosis, care and treatment of any injury, illness, disease or condition resulting from or caused by such competitor’s participation in such match for the duration of such injury, illness, disease or condition.”

John Fulcher photo
Matt Bessette, in purple at left, fights Jeff Anderson during a Reality Fighting event at Mohegan Sun on January 5. (John Fulcher photo)

That language buried in a budget bill may have made it cost prohibitive for promoters to hold events outside the casinos — where promoters only need insurance for the event.

“I do not see it happening,“ Cuff said. “We are happy with our Mohegan home and with our grappling tournaments. “It is very difficult to fit more MMA shows into our schedule. Even if we had time, I doubt we would do shows in Connecticut outside of Mohegan Sun. The liability a promoter has to take on is huge.”

It’s a big hurdle even for large companies like UFC.

“Connecticut is the only state that has such a provision,” Michael Mersch, senior vice president for business and legal affairs and assistant general counsel for the UFC, said Wednesday.

“Every other jurisdiction requires the promoter to carry a defined amount of insurance coverage that the participants can use to cover the cost of medical care emanating from a mixed martial arts event,“ he said. “In fact, this is the current law in Connecticut for boxing matches held within the state. The amount of such insurance is set by the legislature or the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the sport.”

It’s a fight after all.

“Fighters get hurt, that is why we are required to get insurance for each event,“ Cuff said. “I am not sure if this is a proper analogy, as I am maybe not interpreting the law correctly, but I feel it is like getting into a car accident when you have insurance but expecting the vehicle manufacturer to pay for the hospital bills.“

“If they are negligent in some way then sure, they pay,” Cuff said. “Otherwise I am unsure as to what they are trying to accomplish other than legalizing MMA but trying to keep shows from being allowed within Connecticut’s borders.”

Lt. J. Paul Vance, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Public Safety, said legal counsel for the state is examining that provision of the law to determine how it should be interpreted. He said the department plans to clearly post regulations on it’s website before the bill goes into effect.

Mersch said the UFC is considering whether to hold a Connecticut event in 2014 once the regulations are posted.

“The UFC has worked closely with Webster Bank Arena to change the law in Connecticut and looks forward to discussing the possibility of bringing a live event to Bridgeport, as well as looking at other markets across the state,” Mersch said mentioning Hartford.

He added that the organization would consider Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods as well for matches.

“The UFC will consider all options that would allow it to bring a live mixed martial arts event to Connecticut,“ he said. “However, the UFC looks forward to working with the members of the Connecticut Senate and House to address the concerns raised by the existing language.”