MMA amateurs say NY should let them turn pro here

COLONIE, N.Y. (AP) At the gym just down the road from New York's Capitol, Jimmy Bruce lands a classic left-right boxing combination to the head of Asi Somburu, who responds by dropping and tackling his opponent, a smooth wrestling takedown that has their coach yelling praise.

Then they grapple on the mat, trying to set and counter various jiujitsu holds, despite wearing boxing gloves and shin pads. They get back up and spar again. This time Somburu opens with a roundhouse kick, that karate staple, to his opponent's ribs. They're fast, and accurate, but holding back on force despite the repeated thwack of contact.

Both have amateur MMA fights coming up, one in Albany, the other in Massachusetts, and say it's time for New York to follow 49 other states and allow the professional sport in New York. Such a change could mean money not just for fighters but also promoters who would be able to stage fights in big New York venues, including the legendary Madison Square Garden.

''If it works out, I'd like to go pro within the next couple fights to see how I do,'' Bruce said. ''If there were more local events, it would give us more opportunities to compete.''

That legislation has been blocked for eight years in the state Assembly, where some lawmakers say the sport is too violent.

But that chamber's majority Democrats are expected to consider it again in the next several weeks. One subtext is labor opposition from the Culinary Workers Union and its affiliates since the owners of Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA's biggest franchise, are majority owners of non-union Station Casinos in Las Vegas.

Even without pro fights in New York, amateur action has grown in gyms across the state. Bruce, 28, will soon have his third amateur fight, the one in Massachusetts. That's inconvenient, adding the six hours of driving and medical checkups to family time, night school, training and his full-time job as operations manager for a tire wholesaler.

He competed in taekwondo for years before turning six years ago to jiujitsu and MMA as an adult. ''I've always just loved the competition and the camaraderie of it. ... It's also a good outlet. If I don't make it to the gym one week, I kind of get in a bad mood.''

At Brian Beaury Jiu Jitsu, where they train, the walls are lined with medals and trophies from victories in that ancient martial art that favors throwing opponents to the ground and bending joints to make them submit. An hour earlier, the small gym was filled with pairs of competitors ''rolling'' on the mat, including several women.

''My only goal is to develop as a martial artist and a man,'' said Somburu, a 31-year-old medical student who has no intention of turning pro. ''But I do support those who want to to feed their families.''

He spent 13 years studying and competing in karate, where point sparring means light contact. In actual MMA fights, he has to remember to hit with conviction, he said.

''My only fight in life was in the cage,'' said Somburu, who will soon have his seventh. He came to Albany Medical College from San Francisco. ''I've never been in a street fight or anything. The mental part is a whole other thing,'' he said.

Heather LeFevre, a 31-year-old hairdresser and mother of two who also fights in amateur MMA, took a break from training with a foot sore from kicking coach Guillermo Couvertier's elbow, an error he attributed to bad kicking form. She also has history as a girl in a particular martial art, aikido, and then wrestled in high school. She's been doing MMA for five years and wants to turn pro, saying the fighters already give their blood, sweat and tears and money would be good.

''I feel like I'm kind of part of this movement. MMA is getting really big around here,'' LeFevre said. There are a lot of gyms, she's trained at many, and says she finally found one where women are treated equally and nobody's trying to hurt her.

One argument by advocates for legalizing the sport is that it's here, and unregulated, as an amateur activity and New York needs to regulate it on both levels.

''Everybody's careful,'' Couvertier says of the gym, where he said people are like family. His own children, 8 and 10, were in and out, watching and playing. He's not worried about anybody hitting too hard in training. ''Whoever does, we pull them aside and talk to them. We don't want them to get hurt. We want them to fight,'' he said.

Chris Campanella, director of fighter relations for Cage Wars, said their 30th amateur MMA show in six years is scheduled at the Albany Armory on May 2. They usually have 10 to 15 fighters. ''We can't offer much in a pro circuit,'' he said.

While the sport grew around the Capitol deadlock, the landscape has also changed inside. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was an opponent, has been replaced this year as Democratic leader by new Speaker Carl Heastie, who has been a supporter. Nearly half the 150 Assembly members have co-sponsored the legislation.

The state Senate has approved it for five straight years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he's supportive.

Advocates on both sides said there's been some shift from previous years, but nobody's betting yet with certainty on the outcome in the Assembly.

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