House endorses mixed martial arts

One legislator compared it to the blood sports of ancient Rome. Another called it “appalling.” But the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to legalize mixed martial arts in Connecticut, one of two states that ban the sport.

Queasiness over the nearly free-form combat sport was evident during the debate, but the real threat to legalization stems more from bare-knuckle politics: The Senate previously has blocked legalization in deference to organized labor.

The biggest promoter in mixed martial arts is “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” whose owners have a significant stake in Station Casinos, one of the few non-unionized casino chains in Las Vegas.

The political message to Ultimate Fighting has been clear: No unions in Vegas, no UFC matches at arenas in Hartford or Bridgeport.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, was non-committal Tuesday night about the bill’s prospects in the Senate, despite the overwhelming endorsement by the House on a 117-to-26 vote.

“I understand there are still some labor-based concerns, as well as some substantive issues,” Looney said. “We’ll have to see where we are when we caucus it.”

Lori Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said labor’s objections remain unchanged.

“Clearly the people that own the Ultimate Fighting Championship, who also are part owners of the Station Casino, are demonstrating they are not good corporate citizens,” Pelletier said. “Why would we want to reward them by letting them do business here?”

The other state that still bans mixed martial arts is New York.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta are brothers with an ownership interesting in UFC and Station Casinos.

“We are confident that if senators are allowed to vote on the bill, it will pass with strong bipartisan support,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, the chairman and chief executive officer of UFC.

A spokeswoman for Station Casino told the Wall Street Journal in March that the company is not anti-union. “We’ve made it really clear that the door is open for a secret-ballot election,” she said.

And the sport has some support from the friends of labor: Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport said his city’s Webster Bank Arena and its unionized labor would benefit from mixed martial arts matches.

Finch said in public hearing testimony in February that each event at the arena yields $30,000 in wages for union stage hands, $12,250 for union cops and $1,500 for union firefighters.

Keith Sheldon, the director of business affairs at the XL Center in Hartford predicted in public testimony that legalization “would result in one of the highest grossing sellouts in the XL Center’s long history.”

With an expected gross of $2 million, the state would collect $200,000 through its 10 percent admissions tax on every UFC event, he said.

Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Madison, said the sport was too violent for an already violet time.

“I personally find it disgusting,” she said.

Mixed martial arts allows punching, kicking, tackles and chokeholds, though its rules forbid head butting, eye gouging, biting, spitting, hair pulling, “groin attacks of any kind,” and “putting a finger into any orifice.”