UFC's fight to legalize MMA in New York

UFC chief executive and chairman Lorenzo Fertitta.

UFC chief executive and chairman Lorenzo Fertitta. (Credit: FX)

Lorenzo Fertitta sat in the front row at a mixed martial arts fight in New York.

The problem for Fertitta, chairman and chief executive of Ultimate Fighting Championship, was that front row's location -- the Capitol building in Albany, high above the action on the floor of the state Senate instead of in Madison Square Garden.

Fertitta and a number of other UFC officials, fighters and lobbyists sat in the Senate gallery last Wednesday and watched elected politicians from around New York State discuss whether or not to legalize MMA. The sport was banned in New York in 1997 under then Gov. George E. Pataki.

The debate lasted more than an hour that day, and it ended with an expected victory for Fertitta and proponents of MMA as the Senate passed the bill for a fourth consecutive year. The vote was 47-14, up from 42-18 last year. The Assembly must pass its bill -- 76 yes votes are needed -- in order for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to be able to sign it into law and make mixed martial arts a legal sport. Last December, UFC president Dana White said he asked to reserve a date at the Garden for this November. That process is expected to begin this week, and with more Assembly members signed on as sponsors than the 47 on the last year's bill. The bill would start in the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development and work its way through more committees, provided it passes each one.

"The fact that we got more votes and we had a wider margin of victory than we did last year is a good sign," Fertitta told Newsday. "I'm no expert on politics, but you don't see very many bills get passed with that wide a margin. That's a landslide victory. Hopefully, that's a message to the Assembly to say, 'Hey come on, let's get this thing to the floor, let's debate the issues and let's take a vote.' "

Weighing pros and cons

Those issues, on the pro side, include the sport's proper regulation (unlike the no holds barred days in the mid-1990s), fighter safety and the economic impact MMA can bring to the state. The anti-MMA politicians and groups cite the violent nature of fighting, the use of chokeholds, safety of the fighters and that the sport is unfit for children.

Each year, the margin of victory in the Senate grows wider. Each year, the bill doesn't reach the floor of the Assembly for a vote.

Politics is part of the reason, as is opposition from groups such as the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, the New York State Catholic Conference and the Culinary Union of Las Vegas.

In a letter written to state lawmakers on March 12, Tucker cited tweets and videos from UFC fighters that were offensive to women.

"We oppose it until such time as they adopt a really legitimate code of conduct and start to hold people accountable for disrespectful ways of talking about women or minorities," said Deborah D. Tucker, executive director of the NCDSV. "We're not saying forever and ever and amen, people who want to do this shouldn't be able to do this."

The UFC announced on Jan. 24 that it has instituted a written code of conduct for their fighters. It is expected to be made available to the public in the coming weeks.

"I would hope the next thing they do is to facilitate training on that policy," Tucker said.

Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) led the Senate debate against the bill last week, touching on the topics of submissions and chokeholds, the marketing of the sport to children and offensive symbolism on clothing and tattoos. Those items were quoted nearly verbatim from a letter to state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from opposing groups, including Unite Here, parent organization of the Culinary Union.

"As the sport is advertised and marketed in the rest of this country and the world, its clear message is a message of violence," Krueger said on the floor of the Senate. "No rules apply. Fight to the death. You get some blood on you? Even better."

There are more than 30 rules that apply to MMA (no headbutts, eye gouging, groin kicks or kicks to the head of a grounded opponent, for example), and there has never been a death in the UFC's octagon. In the thousands of MMA fights since 2007, UFC or otherwise, there have been two deaths in the U.S. linked to a sanctioned event by a smaller promoter.

"They were mentioning fighters that supposedly were UFC champions that I never heard of," Fertitta said. "Just a bungle of misinformation and mistruths. Fortunately, there were 47 senators that actually did understand the issue."

Sen. Joseph Griffo, the Senate bill's sponsor, defended each point and made clear that the sport is "mixed martial arts" rather than "cage fighting" as Krueger said repeatedly.

"They talk about submissions like they're terrible," UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey said. "I mean, I did them in the Olympics. I did chokes and armbars in the Olympics, and they applauded me like I was an American hero. Then when I hear people talk about something I devoted my life to, was proud to represent my country doing, as something that's terrible, it's disappointing, a little bit insulting."

Rousey became the first American woman to medal in judo, earning bronze in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

When, not if

As Fertitta, joined by Rousey and No. 1 middleweight contender Chris Weidman of Baldwin, met with legislators in the Capitol, their outlook grew positive.

At times during the whirlwind day in Albany, they were educating political reporters on what MMA is. (No, they don't wear helmets. No, this is nothing like professional wrestling.) Other times, there were handshakes and hellos with state senators, assemblymen and aides throughout the Capitol.

Weidman is a husband and father of two with a degree from Hofstra.

"I think I'm a good guy and I can portray that to them, especially to the guys that might think we're just brutal fighters, that we're malicious, out to hurt people, thugs . . . all the words that some of the opposing people used," said Weidman, 28. "If they see a guy like me, or Ronda, or anyone else in the UFC, we're human beings, and we're just doing our job to provide for our family. We found what we're good at and we're trying to do the best we can to use it."

The positive feeling that 2013 could be the year MMA becomes legal in New York -- after five-plus years of lobbying -- stems from three things in the Assembly.

Bob Reilly (D-Latham), the most vocal opponent of MMA, retired last year.

The sponsor of the bill is Joseph D. Morelle (D-Rochester), the Assembly majority leader appointed by Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Silver, the most powerful official in the Assembly, said last week that MMA will "at some point probably" be approved in New York, but he was unsure when that would happen.

"We've sort of gotten over the 'if' question, and I think that is a result of the education and that the facts and the policy are on our side," said Lawrence Epstein, UFC executive vice president and general counsel. "Now we're in sort of the 'when' game. It's always difficult to predict the political process. The good news is I think Shelly is saying it's going to happen. Now does it happen in a month? Does it happen in six months? Does it happen in six years? I don't know."

Last year, Silver said he didn't think there was enough support in the Assembly for it to pass. The bill never even was voted out of the Assembly's tourism committee.

"How can it be that much different over in the Assembly?" Fertitta asked after the Senate passed the bill. "You're all elected leaders of various parts of New York State. You can't be that different. I can see if it was a one-vote, two-vote margin. You're talking about a massive margin. It's obvious that the constituents of this state have spoken and spoken very clearly that they want their legislators to allow this to be regulated."

MMA could also be legalized as a part of the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Each house submits a budget proposal, as does the governor, and the negotiating begins. The deadline for a state-approved budget is April 1.

Last week, Cuomo made his first public comment on MMA since taking office in 2011, saying it could be a good source of revenue for the state. On Tuesday, he added that he is not personally opposed to the sport.

That McCain quote again?

Fighter safety was a topic of much debate. Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), a member of the Senate Health Committee, spoke in support of the bill. Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) asked, "What's next, the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum?"

And yes, the John McCain "human cockfighting" quote from 1995 re-surfaced. That didn't sit well with Fertitta.

"Not coming back around and saying, oh by the way, John McCain now supports this and is OK with it, is kind of disingenuous," Fertitta said.

There were no rules then, no regulations, no weight classes. By 2001, a set of rules were written and enacted in New Jersey, and since adopted and adapted by other states and countries. Each state athletic commission can establish its own set of medical requirements for fighters and reserves the right to ban certain types of strikes. Some states are less stringent than others. UFC self-regulates on most of its international cards, including pre- and post-fight testing for both performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.

Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) made clear during the debate that amateur MMA fights are already happening in the state. Those are legal, according to the 1997 statute, but they are also unregulated.

"The regulation by New York State Athletic Commission will ensure that this sport is done safely," Zeldin said. "That there will be medical oversight at the bouts. There will be MRIs and CT scans done beforehand. The standards that the athletic commission put out in their rules and regulations will ensure that professional MMA is done as safely as possible.

"Currently there are amateur MMA bouts going on all over the state, it's unregulated. So for anyone who has any health or safety concerns, this actually makes the sport safer."

On Saturday, March 23, there is a "Kings of New York" amateur MMA event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. One night earlier, at Capitale, there's a kickboxing event with both pro and amateur bouts on the card. Kickboxing is not against the law. Nor was the New York Open Team Judo championship on March 3. Take-On Productions has promoted Muay Thai events at The Theater at Madison Square Garden and Resorts World Casino.

"All the martial arts that comprise mixed martial arts are legal in the state of New York," Fertitta said. "The only thing that's not legal is doing it the right way, which is regulating it, testing fighters, making sure they're safe and having events that are safe."

Money matters

The economic impact of MMA could be felt across the entire state. Zeldin said hotels in Buffalo anticipate a 10-percent increase in occupancy if the UFC were to bring an event to the First Niagara Center. That would likely include an influx of tourists from Toronto, one of the most popular MMA cities on the UFC's schedule. More than 50,000 fans flocked to Rogers Centre when the Toronto stadium hosted UFC 129 in April 2011.

Under the proposed bill, New York State would collect 8.5 percent sales taxes on gross ticket receipts and 3 percent of gross receipts for broadcast rights, capped at $50,000. Plus, there's the additional economic impact from hotels, restaurants, shopping, etc. -- an estimated $23 million per year statewide, according to a 2011 independent study by strategic firm HR&A Advisors.

"It's a rough sport, but it's a safe sport," said Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn), adding that he and his son regularly watch the fights. "Those revenues are now going to Atlantic City. They're going around Philadelphia. They're going around the country, Las Vegas. We should be doing them here in the state of New York. We need to be able to put those resources to our police departments, to our fire departments, to our hospitals, and this would obviously help us greatly to do that."

'The Union'

What does a union that represents hospitality industry workers in Las Vegas have to do with a sport's legalization in New York? UFC officials have stated publicly many times over the past few years that the issue stems from the Fertitta brothers owning non-union casinos in Las Vegas. Multiple calls and emails to the Culinary Union seeking comment were not returned.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, co-owners of UFC parent company Zuffa LLC, also own the Station Casinos, a non-union gaming entity with 10 casinos across Nevada. UFC is based in Las Vegas. The Culinary Union, Nevada's largest labor organization, and the Station Casinos have battled for years over the unionization of workers.

The union has actively lobbied against the legalization of MMA in New York, including the creation of websites such as unfitforchildren.org and zuffainvestoralerts.org and Twitter accounts such as @FightFairMMA. These websites and social media accounts, among other things, highlight aggressive and insensitive comments from fighters and UFC president Dana White.

The sport is already here

As the fight for fighting continues, the sport's exposure to state residents is readily available. New Yorkers can watch MMA on pay-per-view television, cable TV and free-to-air networks. The UFC's "Ultimate Fighter" airs Tuesday nights on FX. Fox airs live fights several times a year, as does its all-sports network Fuel TV (which will become part of Fox Sports 1 this summer). Bellator airs fights live Thursday nights on Spike.

New Yorkers can easily consume content on their computers, smartphones and tablets.

"The only thing the state legislature is protecting their constituents from is actually making the ultimate opt-in choice, which is to buy a ticket and go watch it live," Fertitta said. "That's all they're preventing people from. It makes no sense."

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