The Ultimate Fighting Championship filed a lawsuit against New York State on Tuesday that challenges the constitutionality of the state's ban on the sport.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claims that keeping mixed martial arts illegal in the state -- a law on the books since 1997 -- violates the First Amendment, equal protection and due process.
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"All the disciplines that go into mixed martial arts are performed live in New York," said Lorenzo Fertitta, chairman of UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC. "It is only their combination that is illegal. Denying fighters the chance to exhibit their training and skills before a live audience and denying thousands of New Yorkers the ability to watch their favorite fighters perform live is not only an injustice to them, but to the local markets that would reap tremendous economic benefits from hosting competitions."
UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who is from Endicott, N.Y., and lightweight champion Frankie Edgar are among the named plaintiffs in the case. Other fighters listed as plaintiffs include Brian Stann, Matt Hamill and Gina Carano.
The bill to legalize MMA in New York was stalled in the state Assembly last June. It passed through the State Senate by a vote of 42-18 in May, then went through both the Tourism and Codes committees in the Assembly. The bill then stalled in the Ways and Means Committee and never made it to the Assembly floor for a full vote. It was the third straight year the bill was defeated.
"It is unfortunate that we were forced to take the step of filing a lawsuit to overturn this senseless law, but the ban on live professional MMA infringes on the rights of countless New Yorkers," said NYU constitutional law professor and plaintiffs co-counsel Barry Friedman in the statement. "Despite sincere legislative efforts, the ban remains in place based on a flawed assessment of the sport's supposedly 'violent message.' This rationale is a patent violation of the First Amendment. In live events, fighters showcase their talents, communicate their convictions, show respect for their opponents and the art and tradition of MMA, and convey the importance of discipline, training and hard work. They also entertain their fans. Not only does the law prohibit live events, but as it is written it purports to ban other speech including media broadcasts and coverage of professional MMA.
"There is no legal basis for this unconstitutional ban to persist."
Leon Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra, said that Zuffa LLC will need to prove that its safety regulations are beyond reproach in order to win the case on a constitutional basis.
"They would have to show that it really isn't dangerous at all, that it doesn't affect the physical well-being of the participants, that somehow it's no more dangerous than boxing, for example," Leon Friedman said.
Zuffa purchased the UFC in 2001 and quickly adopted the unified rules of mixed martial arts. Before that, it was basically anything goes, with no weight classes and very few rules guarding fighter safety. It was under that setup that led the state to ban the sport in 1997 under Gov. George E. Pataki.
Even if residents of New York are interested in competing in or watching mixed martial arts, the state still has "an interest in protecting the integrity" of its people, Friedman said.
"If the state has a compelling reason for the ban," Leon Friedman added, "they're going to win."
Since February 2010, the UFC has hosted events in new domestic markets such as Boston and Houston, and internationally, in Abu Dhabi, Toronto, Vancouver, Australia and Brazil. UFC will also host an event in February 2012 in Saitama, Japan.
"It's a shame that we have to go this way, but it's so important for us to be in New York," said Marc Ratner, UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs. "We've been knocking on the door for some time now. Every arena is asking us, the fans are asking us. and it's nonsensical that it's not there."