NORTH TONAWANDA – A homegrown gym is on the front line in the fight to legalize mixed martial arts in New York.
Victory MMA and TNT Fight Promotions, born on Broad Street in the City of Tonawanda four years ago and now housed on the second floor of Sportsplex on Ridge Road, began challenging the state’s legislative ban on mixed martial arts events in 2012 with the first in a series of amateur fights.
Six shows into the TNT Fight Series, promoter Don Lilly is preparing to put on a professional card next year, encouraged by recent developments in a lawsuit arguing the state’s ban on “combative sports” is unconstitutionally vague.
Federal District Court Judge Kimba M. Wood ruled last week that Lilly and co-plaintiffs – including Ultimate Fighting Championships parent company Zuffa LLC and Ultimate Fighting Championship star Jon Jones, a Rochester native – have adequately alleged an as-applied vagueness challenge to the state law, written shortly after UFC 7 was held in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium in 1995 and passed two years later.
Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, New York is the only one with a ban on professional MMA fights. New York’s 1997 Combative Sports Ban specifically prohibits mixed martial arts, while boxing, wrestling and various forms of martial arts remain legal.
“Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, karate and any martial art is legal in New York. Every weekend, tournaments happen,” said Tom Neff, co-owner of Victory MMA with founders Lilly and Erik Herbert.
Wood dismissed five of the plaintiffs’ six claims against the law, but in declining to dismiss the vagueness claim, she noted the state’s inconsistent enforcement of the ban over the years, including exemptions made for professional martial arts bouts in Lockport sanctioned by the World Kickboxing Association.
“A plain reading of this provision suggests plaintiffs would be allowed to promote a professional MMA event in New York if the event were sanctioned by one of the exempt organizations,” Wood wrote.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in January 2012, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance wrote that the law “explicitly speaks to ‘professional’ combative sports and does not address amateur sports” and that it “does not treat amateur MMA bouts any differently from amateur bouts involving traditional martial arts.”
Upon learning this, Lilly organized the first TNT Fight card, which drew a capacity crowd of more than 800 people to the Rainbow Roller Rink in May 2012.
“Everybody told me that it can’t be done, that we were going to get shut down, I was going to get arrested,” Lilly said. “But I’m reading right there in black and white that amateur fights are legal in New York and I said why has nobody stepped up to do this yet?”
Lilly obtained sanctioning from the United States Muay Thai Association. He met with local government and police officials beforehand, laying out his plan to hire licensed professionals from out of state to ensure safety.
The event went off without a hitch, putting Lilly on the UFC legal team’s radar and creating a cottage industry. Seventeen other promoters have since held amateur MMA bouts in New York, Lilly said.
At last month’s TNT Fight Series show at Sportsplex, Lilly sought to further legitimize MMA events by booking matches sanctioned by USA Boxing on the card.
“I wanted to have all of these boxers and judges and boxing promoters there and show that these MMA guys are not all thugs, they are not all idiots, that the sport isn’t made of monsters,” Lilly said. “The state oversees amateur boxing, allowing USA Boxing to come in and sanction the event, but it’s saying MMA is not allowed.”
Lilly has not faced any legal action for promoting the amateur fights, but he receives a letter from the state Athletic Commission prior to each event warning of “civil penalties for any person who knowingly advances or profits from a combative sport activity.’”
Lilly, who wrestled in college and now coaches wrestling at Sweet Home High School, is firm in his belief that MMA should be legal in New York and regulated the same as boxing, wrestling and other martial arts.
“The laws are old and outdated,” he said. “It’s legal to do martial arts, but illegal to do combat sports. They say pro is a combat sport, but amateur is martial arts. What’s the difference?
“They’ve been allowing combat sports for years. There have been Muay Thai fights in Madison Square Garden. Amer [Abdallah] is doing his fights in Lockport. That’s great. Why can’t I do mine here?”
A bill to regulate MMA in New York passed through the State Senate in March for the fourth consecutive year, but it never reached the Assembly for a vote.
“Where is the democracy in New York State?” Lilly said. “I asked, and they couldn’t tell me a law that has been passed four years in a row and not voted on.”
Herbert, a Victory co-owner and the top-ranked 185-pound MMA fighter in the state, has to travel to Maine or Canada for professional bouts.
“I really thought the last few years it was gonna happen,” Herbert said. “It’s sad that so many people can’t watch pros live here in New York. It makes no sense. They allow fighting and combat sports, but they say if you’re a professional, you’re not allowed? How about a hockey player or football player being told you have to perform elsewhere – just not in your home state.”
“They are not protecting the athletes,” Lilly said. “They are allowing fights, but they are not allowing pros. You can fight, but you can’t get paid. You have to drive eight hours to Maine to get a pro fight, walk into an arena and get booed.
“Our fighters thrive on that, but they deserve to be able to fight on home soil, in front of their friends and families.”