Good news for fans of mixed martial arts in New York came over the wires yesterday: According to the Albany Times-Union, four-term Democratic Assemblyman Bob Reilly, the most outspoken critic of the sport since John McCain labeled it “human cockfighting” nearly a decade ago, has decided not to run for re-election. For years, Reilly has been using his spot on the committee on Tourism, Parks, Art, and Sports Development to bitch about the supposed dangers of mixed martial arts and to kill any attempts to repeal the state’s 1997 anti-MMA law. Now it looks like his reign of old-codger squeamishness is finally coming to an end.
Still, even if yesterday’s announcement means MMA is on its way to New York (and there are no guarantees), it’s very possible Reilly’s longstanding reluctance has already put the final bullet in New York City’s long-diminishing reputation as the center of the fight world. Throughout the 20th century the city hosted legendary bouts like Ali-Frazier I and II, Rocky Marciano’s victory over Joe Louis, and the night Luis Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey clear through the ropes into a row of reporters, who promptly ignored rules about journalistic objectivity and pushed the champ back into the ring. And though a lot of similarly legendary moments have happened in MMA over the last 15 years—during which time, like it or not, it has basically supplanted boxing as Americans’ blood sport of choice—not one of them has happened in the so-called “Fight Capital of the World.”
Most politicians only believe in a cause as long as it’s beneficial to them, but give Bob Reilly credit: He was a devout, and shrill, anti-MMA advocate since he got elected in 2002, even as public opinion turned against him and the sport became one of the biggest money-making entertainments in the country. Reilly put martial arts in the same category as dog fighting, prostitution, and televised executions, claiming that two dudes fighting each other in a ring represented America’s darkest, most debased tendencies. “The main problem I have with mixed martial arts, or ultimate fighting, is that it’s violent,” Reilly once said. “And violence begets violence.” He was, on the other hand, totally cool with impersonating people with cerebral palsy, as Deadspin has noted.
Reilly’s not alone in despising the MMA, of course. When the UFC first started throwing fighters in cages in the early 1990s, it really wasn’t a whole lot better than “human cockfighting.” There were no weight classes, no time limits, and almost no rules. Giants pounded on smaller men and repeated shots to the groin were commonplace; there wasn’t much subtlety but there was a lot of blood. Crowds that were practically pre-modern in their bloodlust would writhe with delight at scenes of horrific violence, and it really did sometimes seem like the end of American civilization was at hand.
That might be how Reilly saw it, though the sport’s progress has been astonishing. Ultimate Fighting eventually became Mixed Martial Arts. The unregulated freak shows and mismatches got replaced by unified rules and trained referees and armies of disciplined young men entering the sport with one, two, even three black belts in different martial arts. Collegiate wrestlers were suddenly studying the mysterious art of Muay Thai; Japanese Judoka learned how to box; everyone became conversant in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which must be the most elegant way to cause enormous bodily harm to another human being. Untrained brutes and brawlers were quickly done away with in this new multicultural melting pot.
Guys like Reilly are still stuck back in the dark ages, howling about American bloodlust and claiming over and over again—despite all scientific evidence—that MMA is more dangerous than American favorites like football and boxing. (Ironically, the blood keeps MMA fighters safe—a small cut might be enough to justify stopping an MMA fight. Meanwhile, boxers, with their giant padded gloves, take countless blows to the head without so much as a mark while their brains rattle around in their skulls.)
Granted, the sport’s fans might not have been doing themselves many favors—MMA devotees can talk all they want about the subtleties of a well-executed Kimura shoulder-lock or the beauty of a double-leg takedown, but outsiders like Reilly take one look at all that blood, all those shaved heads, all those tattooed bodies, and all those unforgivable Ed Hardy T-shirts and see nothing but American civilization in decline.
So, good riddance to Bob Reilly and his fellow moralists, and here’s to MMA finally coming to New York. Before we start picking out seats in Madison Square Garden, though, I should point out that while Reilly may be the sport’s most vocal opponent in New York state government, he isn’t the most powerful. That title belongs to Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, who has been working behind the scenes for years to keep bills legalizing MMA from even coming to a vote. By all accounts, Silver is a shrewd politician who shares Reilly’s apocalyptic notions about MMA and the moral obligation of all state assemblymen to save us from our lowest instincts. And he’s not going anywhere.
Like violence (we mean "mixed martial arts")? Read this:
Watching Dudes Fight Is Pretty Cool