Michael Mersch has been in airports before. But this time was different.
He sat in the Delta Sky Club at JFK Airport, waiting for his flight while his laptop gobbled up as much Wi-Fi as possible to watch something he spent years working toward finally come to fruition.
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Formerly assistant general counsel for UFC, and now the chief operating officer of World Series of Fighting, Mersch watched a live stream of the New York State Assembly’s debate about legalizing mixed martial arts.
“Half a dozen, a dozen people walked by me, they’re like, ‘Is that the MMA vote, is that the MMA vote?’ ” Mersch said. “Everybody knew what was going on.”
Moments before the final boarding call for his flight on March 22, after an hours-long debate that included some remarkable sound bites fit for “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the final vote took place. By a 113-25 margin, New York became the final state to vote in favor of legalizing MMA.
When Mersch landed at McCarron Airport in Las Vegas, his phone lit up like a slot machine that just hit on a progressive jackpot.
“I was personally gratified to receive, literally, hundreds and maybe even a thousand different congratulatory messages from people all over the country,” Mersch said. “Frankly, other athletic commissions all around the country had people sending me text messages and emails saying thank goodness.”
As UFC’s senior vice president of business and legal affairs for several years, Mersch did his fair share of work to educate elected officials on the sport in New York and elsewhere around the world. He was part of a team of Zuffa executives who regularly lobbied and worked with legislators and athletic commissions on legalizing the sport as well as its regulations in each state.
But New York was different. It took more than eight years to reach the Assembly floor for a full vote. The State Senate had passed the bill for seven straight years, including twice in 2015. But it stalled in the Assembly every year. Until 2016.
“There’s nothing that I’ve seen in my 15 years working in combat sports, in my 20 years of being attorney that even comes close to comparing to what transpired in the New York legislature, really the New York Assembly over the last eight-and-a- half years,” said Mersch, who served as general counsel for the Nevada Attorney General’s Office after leaving the UFC and before joining World Series of Fighting. “ It really was truly difficult to understand in many, many ways.”
UFC has promised four fight cards across the state in each of the first three years after passage, including Madison Square Garden and upstate cities such as Syracuse, Albany, Rochester and Buffalo. On the night of the Assembly vote, UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said it was possible they could do two cards in 2016 once it officially becomes a law.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must first be presented with the bill. The governor included MMA revenue in his 2016-17 proposed state budget earlier this year. Should Gov. Cuomo not sign or veto the bill within 10 days of it being sent to him, the bill automatically goes into effect. The athletic commission has 120 days to establish its rules and regulations.
Mersch said bringing a WSOF card to New York is 2016 is “realistic.”
On April 1, WSOF announced that it signed a letter of intent to acquire the MMA World Expo. The expo, which began in 2009, has been hosted by the Jacob Javits Center and featured amateur fights as well as jiu-jitsu tournaments and seminars and attracted fighters such as Anderson Silva, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones, Matt Serra and Randy Couture.
“There are a lot of venues out there that certainly can utilize this type of content,” Mersch said. “Filling up those venues is a benefit to everybody. It’s an ecomonic development tool for everybody.
“Obviously, we’re not looking to immediately go into Madison Square Garden in the big building right away, but we can certainly do something in The Theater.”