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UFC commits to New York and MSG event

UFC president Dana White. (Dec. 9, 2010)

UFC president Dana White. (Dec. 9, 2010) Credit: AP

Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier organization for mixed martial arts, announced Thursday its formal intent to bring two events annually to New York State, once the sport is legalized here.

Madison Square Garden would host one event, which would bring in an estimated $11.3 million in revenue to the area, based on a new, independent economic study by HR&A. Buffalo is the other city mentioned in the report, and would account for $5.3 million in revenue to the area. Albany, Syracuse and Rochester are among the other cities targeted to host fights, with similar financial effect.

“Our job over the last 10 years has been to crush those misconceptions and educate people as to what this sport is all about," UFC president Dana White said. "There's absolutely no reason it shouldn’t be in the state of New York. People who are opposed to it need to do their homework."

Opposition to MMA stems from its violent nature and bloody imagery. Punching and kicking will create cuts, and blood will flow from those cuts. Same as boxing, hockey, football and any other contact sport. In the 20 years that UFC has been in existence, and in the past 10 years since Zuffa purchased the company, there has never been a death or serious injury in the sport. Both White and Fertitta are quick to point that out multiple times.

"What is the state government protecting its people from?" said UFC chairman and chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta. "They can watch it on TV for free on Spike TV. Or, you can opt in to order on pay-per-view and watch it on TV. So, what's the difference if they're allowed to opt in and buy a ticket to watch it live?"

Madison Square Garden has long been the target home for a UFC event. So much so that  the first installment of the popular "UFC Undisputed" video game series released in 2009 included MSG as a venue. Yes, gamers could pit their favorite fighters inside the octagon inside the Garden even though that still remains illegal in real life.

But state legislators have been far less excited about the prospects of legalizing MMA in New York. After years of lobbying and politicking, the bill passed through the Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee in 2009 but failed to make it out of the State Senate. Last June, the State Senate passed the bill by a vote of 32-26. The bill then stalled in the State Assembly, where Bob Reilly (D-Latham) resides. He's been the most vocal antagonist to the MMA movement in New York and has enough politicians on his side.

"This is another example of New York being a 'Nanny' state," said Assemb. Dean Murray (R, C-East Patchogue).

Murray said the state needs to create new revenue streams rather than just playing with the tax codes. He added that we wrote a letter to new Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asking that he put the legalization of mixed martial arts into his governor's budget proposal. Former Gov. David A. Paterson had done the same last year but to no avail.

"We want to be regulated," UFC chairman and chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta said. "That’s what we're asking for in New York. We want the athletic commission to be in control of all the fighters."

Mixed martial arts is legal in 44 of the 48 states with athletic commissions. Of those, only New York, Connecticut, Vermont and West Virginia ban the sport.

The economic study released Thursday breaks down the financial activity as follows:

$5.3 million in direct event spending
$1.4 million in visitor spending
$4.6 million in spinoff activitiy

Last March in New Jersey, just a few miles across the river from Manhattan, more than 17,000 people packed The Prudential Center in Newark for UFC 111. Approximately 30 percent of the fans in attendance were from New York, White said.

UFC returns to Newark on March 19 with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua defending his light heavyweight title against Rashad Evans. On Feb. 12 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., Strikeforce begins its heavyweight tournament Grand Prix with its biggest star, Fedor Emelianenko, as the headliner.

The legalization of MMA in New York does not center solely around Madison Square Garden and the UFC. But as the premier promotion, UFC is the most vocal and visible. Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany are also possible destinations for smaller cards. It's conceivable that Nassau Coliseum could host an event, too.

"This is a highly regulated event that doesn't allow a fighter to use any martial art that's not already legal in the state of New York," Fertitta said. "All of the things that a mixed martial artist can do, they can do in kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, judo. Olympic judo has submissions. New York City was one of the cities vying for the Olympics. They certainly were going to allow judo in the Olympics."

HR&A released an economic study in 2007 that showed similar numbers for a single event in New York. The main difference in Thursday's study is that it incorporates a larger scale.

"It's understanding that MMA is bigger than UFC, and we were more confident that those events would take place across the state," said HR&A analyst Jamie Springer.

The HR&A study estimates that the legalization of MMA could bring as many as 70 events to the state of New York each year, with an average of 1,597 fans attending each. By comparison, California hosted 66 events last year. Nevada had 45, New Jersey: 69 and Pennsylvania: 22.

Radio City Music Hall, another Madison Square Garden property, has hosted two UFC viewing parties since July 2009. Each drew more than 2,000 fans to participate in a live Q&A with fighters and watch the pay-per-view broadcast on a 70-foot HD screen. MSG also had a co-promotional deal with Bellator Fighting Championships, to host fight cards at a Garden-owned theater in Chicago.

New York has produced two UFC champions -- East Meadow's Matt Serra and Niagara Falls' Rashad Evans. Other prominent mixed martial artists for the state include UFC's Jon "Bones" Jones, Bellator's Jay Hieron and rising stars from Long Island such as Chris Weidman, Gian Villante and Ryan LaFlare.

Watch the playback of the UFC press conference at MSG.

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