For the first time in the city's history, Watertown is hosting a mixed martial arts event, MMA fighting. The sport is actually banned in New York State, but only at the professional level. As our Brian Dwyer reports, the fighters set for Saturday night's bouts are amateurs whose careers, event promoters say, have been held back by the ban.
WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- There's no question mixed martial arts is a brutally violent sport. That's why nearly 20 years ago, New York State outlawed it. But fighters who travel the country say that's not what it's about. The structure. The discipline.
"If it wasn't for MMA, I'd be doing 15 years in prison, literally. It saved my life. I was one of those kids on the street hanging out and Ken Kronenberg, one of my teachers, picked me up and said you've got too much talent to be out here," said Saboor Coleman.
It's stories like that that leave many involved in the sport frustrated with the ban. Although, a small loophole has eased some of that pain. The state ban outlaws professional fights, meaning amateurs, those who don't get paid, to fight still can.
Amateur cards are starting to pop up all over the state, including this Saturday night in Watertown, the first in city history. And promoters of that event are quick to point out that New York amateurs often have more experience than many pro fighters.
"The more fights you have, the better you get, the better the skill. I truly believe that the amateur quality of fighters we're presenting are easily comparable to pro fights we'd see in other states," said John Gibbons of Ground Zero Promotions.
And Coleman is one of them. The Watertown fighter is planning to go pro after Saturday, but he says it'll be amazing to have his family there to root him on, something he couldn't afford to do fighting in other states.
"It means 100 percent,” Coleman said. “It turns the fighter from a 100 percent fighter to a 200 percent fighter just to hear the noise and know they're there for you."
And it's events like this that MMA fans are hoping open the eyes of lawmakers. They can see what it's all about and see the popularity and maybe get it legalized at all levels.
"It's number two in the world right now. Second only to soccer. That should say volumes. Most of the world can't be wrong on the quality of the sport," Gibbons said.
The bell rings on the Watertown fights, Saturday night at 6 at the Fairgrounds. General admission tickets are still available.
Earlier this year, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would have legalized MMA. But Assembly members, overwhelmingly against it, didn't even vote on it. The parent company of UFC has sued New York State and that is still pending.