He saw Lennox Lewis box Evander Holyfield here. Plenty of Knicks and Rangers games.
But this one, this one is different for Marc Ratner.
This is UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the culmination of an eight-year battle as tough as anything the UFC’s octagon ever has witnessed.
“Fulfilling is my favorite word,” Ratner told Newsday. “And a little overwhelming. I haven’t been this overwhelmed except at the boxing hall of fame.” (Ratner was inducted last summer for his 20-plus years with the Nevada State Athletic Commission.)
As the UFC’s vice president of regulatory affairs since 2006, Ratner oversaw the legalization of mixed martial arts in each state and subsequent regulation. When he began, MMA was legal and regulated in 22 states. Ten years later, he’s a perfect 50-for-50.
Ratner has kept a map of the United States in his office in Las Vegas, with states that regulate MMA marked in green and the others in red. One by one, red turned to green.
New York, however, remained red for eight years. It was the last state — and the last geographical entity in North America to keep its ban on professional MMA intact. That law was enacted in 1997 under then Gov. George Pataki when the sport was not regulated, had no weight classes and few very rules.
More than two dozen trips to the state capitol and several million dollars in expenses provided Ratner and his UFC associates a close-up look at the underbelly of New York politics. How a bill becomes a law differs in real life than in elementary school textbooks.
The State Senate voted in favor of the bill eight consecutive times over the course of seven years. But it always stalled in the State Assembly.
Ratner’s “when not if” mantra helped him keep perspective as he continued to educate state politicians on how MMA evolved over the years. Finally, on March 22, 2016, the bill to legalize mixed martial arts in New York reached the floor of the State Assembly. After several hours of spirited debate — where opposing politicians went public with their objections (many unfounded and outlandish) that once only Ratner, then-UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta and several others were privy to — the vote passed by a margin of 114-26. Only 76 yes votes were needed to pass.
“The journey, this eight-year pregnancy as I like to call it, with all the aggravation, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Ratner said. “Here we are. It’s the biggest fight we’ve ever had. It’s the biggest gate we’ve ever had. It’s very exciting. It’s very fulfilling to me personally.”
Such fulfillment oozed from Ratner’s face Friday as he walked the floor of Madison Square Garden amid 15,000 fans at the ceremonial weigh-ins. His smile started on 31st Street and ended on 33rd Street. And this was 24 hours before fight night when 20,427 fans showed up as well as a live gate of $17.7 million, which would shatter the Garden’s previous record for a sporting event. The Holyfield-Lewis fight in 1999, which Ratner attended, brought in $13.5 million.
“It’s more personal to me than probably everybody else,” Ratner said. “The only time I got emotional was after the vote when I was there. I had a couple tears there that day, saying wow, we finally got it.”
Part of Ratner and Fertitta’s pitch involved the economic impact MMA events could have in New York. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made his first public comments about MMA in March of 2013, he touted the potential revenue as “something we’re very interested in.”
From ticket sales to the hotel and travel revenue of those coming into cities for the event, some studies indicated an economic activity of nine digits — to the left of any decimal points. But those are hard to quantify directly.
Approximately 70 percent of ticket sales were from people in New York State, according to a UFC official.
These numbers are not: With the announced gate of $17.7 million for UFC 205, New York State collects around $1.5 million in sales tax on ticket sales on the primary market. The State also collects 8.5 percent sales tax on tickets resold on the secondary market, which is not part of the accounted-for gate by the UFC. With the average asking price for UFC 205 tickets topping $2,000 earlier this week, it would appear to be a fairly sizable additional source of revenue for the state.
The UFC also pays three percent of broadcasting rights fee to the state, with the maximum amount capped at $50,000.
The UFC will return to New York on Dec. 9 with a show in Albany, followed by a pay-per-view event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Feb. 11. Buffalo remains a viable option for later in 2017, as does the renovated Nassau Coliseum after its scheduled opening in April.
“It’s going to be real fun for me to look at the crowd, see the enthusiasm, see the energy, see the smiles,” Ratner said. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”