Law legalizing mixed martial arts in New York includes insurance requirements that could render boxing cost-prohibitive in the state
Boxer Magomed Abdusalamov, right, suffered a brain injury in a November 2013 fight in New York and sued the state. ENLARGE
Boxer Magomed Abdusalamov, right, suffered a brain injury in a November 2013 fight in New York and sued the state. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
By Alex Raskin
Aug. 31, 2016 8:42 p.m. ET
The New York State Athletic Commission voted Wednesday to approve rules and regulations governing combat sports, finalizing a bill that will make New York the 50th U.S. state to legalize professional mixed martial arts.
The law marks a huge victory for mixed martial arts and its purveyors, most prominently the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But not everyone it governs is pleased. Some elements in the law, ostensibly included to make combat sports safer, will threaten the business of professional boxing in New York, according to multiple promoters.
The bill, passed by the state Assembly in March, specifies new insurance requirements for both boxers and MMA fighters, most notably a $1 million per-fighter policy covering any potential life-threatening brain injury. According to several local boxing promoters, including Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia, the requirement will disproportionately affect boxing, rendering it cost-prohibitive in New York state, particularly at the lower levels of the sport.
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Both DiBella and DeGuardia condemned the bill and its brain-injury insurance requirement during a 45-day commentary period leading up to Wednesday’s vote. “We respectfully request that the NYSAC eliminate the life-threatening traumatic brain injury limit set forth,” the two wrote in a joint comment submitted to the NYSAC.
For the UFC, MMA’s largest promoter, paying the premium shouldn’t present much of a problem. After spending $2.2 million in lobbying efforts over the past eight years, as a spokesman confirmed, the Las Vegas-based company plans to apply for a New York promoter’s license on Thursday. While the NYSAC reviews the application, the UFC can prepare for its first events in the state: one at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12, another slated for Dec. 9 in Albany.
‘We have to ensure that New York state has a sound set of rules and regulations to protect our fighters.’
—Anthony Giardina, New York State Athletic Commission executive director
“It’s a very exciting moment,” said UFC executive Michael Britt. “It’s been eight years of hard work and now we’re starting the process for it to become official.”
Boxing’s next steps aren’t so certain. Unlike the UFC—a singular organization that recently sold for a reported $4 billion to a group led by WME-IMG—boxing is a complex mix of sanctioning bodies, television networks, athletes, managers, trainers and lawyers all working toward various ends with varying means.
The financial burden of the brain-injury insurance provision is placed on promoters, who finance the sport. Prior to Thursday, New York had hosted 26 boxing shows in 2016. Over the remainder of the year, however, there are just three fight cards scheduled, all in New York City. Noticeably absent are the litany of smaller club shows that typically populate the boxing calendar.
According to Anthony Giardina, who was named NYSAC executive director on Wednesday, the commission opted to keep the $1 million brain-injury insurance provision despite protests from the boxing community.
“We have to ensure that New York state has a sound set of rules and regulations to protect our fighters,” said Giardina, who previously served as executive deputy secretary of state. “We’ve worked very hard to facilitate the adoption of an insurance product in New York that will be affordable for all promoters—small, medium and large.”
Rafael Natal punches Kevin Casey in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at the Prudential Center on Jan. 30. ENLARGE
Rafael Natal punches Kevin Casey in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at the Prudential Center on Jan. 30. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images
The origin of the $1 million brain-injury insurance requirement remains a bit murky. According to a UFC spokeswoman, the company “did not advocate for the insurance language in the statute.” The bill was co-sponsored by Republican state Sen. Joseph Griffo and Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, but according to staffers for both legislators, it was opponents of the bill within the Assembly who pushed for the brain-injury coverage.
One local fight in particular underscored the dangers inherent in combat sports. In November 2013, Russian boxer Magomed Abdusalamov suffered brain damage during a fight at Madison Square Garden. He has since filed a lawsuit against the state, his attorney Paul Edelstein said. According to an investigation by State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, the NYSAC’s “practices, policies and procedures were either nonexistent or deficient, specifically those relating to post-bout medical care, tactical emergency plans and communication, and training.”
Not everyone agrees that the new insurance requirement will make fighting safer. “All it does is provide financial protection for a potentially negligent and responsible parties—so presumably Athletic Commission officials and doctors,” Edelstein said.
But there are aspects of the law that should make combat sports safer in New York. It creates standards for amateur MMA, which was previously legal but unregulated. The law also changed the minimum injury- and death-coverage requirements to $50,000 apiece from $10,000 and $100,000, respectively. That brought New York in line with other states like Nevada, California and New Jersey. But the additional $1 million brain-injury insurance requirement is unlike anything else in the country.
“It’s good that people are thinking about the sport and thinking about ways to improve it—the most important thing is fighter safety,” said Dmitriy Salita, a Brooklyn-born boxer-turned-promoter. “But there’s a fine line, because something like this will eliminate the ability to work for most boxers.”
Ryan Bader was tended to after losing a mixed-martial arts fight in Newark on Jan. 30. A new law legalizing MMA in New York includes a costly insurance requirement. ENLARGE
Ryan Bader was tended to after losing a mixed-martial arts fight in Newark on Jan. 30. A new law legalizing MMA in New York includes a costly insurance requirement. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images
Others, such as Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, who opposed the legalization of MMA in New York, feel the requirement fails to protect fighters any more than previous legislation because of the narrow language used to define brain injuries.
“I don’t understand how it’s ever really going to be used by athletes,” Krueger said. “You would basically need to prove that the life-threatening brain injury sustained was from a specific fight within an extremely short timeline of the fight.”
Currently, there are no insurance underwriters offering $1 million brain-injury insurance, although Giardina said he spoke with one company that is filing with the New York State Department of Financial Services in hopes of offering such a policy.
Prior to the law’s enactment, a typical boxing event cost promoters about $2,500 to insure completely, according to two underwriters. Now, with the updated injury and death requirements, along with the new $1 million brain-injury minimum, that figure could soar.
“At one point in time I was told $50,000,” said Laurence Cole, an underwriter from Texas who provides boxing insurance and also works as a referee. “Being realistic, $7,500 is on the low end and $15,000 on the high end.”
‘I don’t understand how it’s ever really going to be used by athletes. You would basically need to prove that the life-threatening brain injury sustained was from a specific fight within an extremely short timeline of the fight.’
—Sen. Liz Krueger
Unless the commission reconsiders the $1 million brain-injury insurance requirement, New York’s days as one of boxing’s premiere settings could be numbered. “Who really gets hurt here are boxing fans and New York City fighters,” Salita said.