The UFC's lawsuit against New York State's ban on mixed martial arts can move forward, according to a U.S. District Court ruling released Tuesday.
Judge Kimba M. Wood agreed with the UFC's claim that the state's interpretation of the 1997 statue has changed enough over the years to accept the "as-applied vagueness" challenge.
"In light of Defendants' varying interpretations of the statutory language," Wood wrote, "the Court finds that Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the statute is unconstitutionally vague with respect to professional MMA sanctioned by exempt organizations."
The six other claims were dismissed by the Southern District Court in Manhattan, including a First Amendment claim that a live MMA fight was "expressive conduct" and thus protected by free speech.
Barry Friedman, an NYU law professor representing plaintiffs with Morrison & Foerster as co-counsel, said Wednesday he was disappointed about the First Amendment claim but not at all surprised with the outcome.
"The vagueness issue was the one we focused on since the beginning," Friedman told Newsday. "It's the cleanest, easiest way to resolve this lawsuit. It doesn't say to the legislature you have to do 'X' and 'Y' on MMA. It just says the law you wrote is no good."
Friedman said the next step in the case is to begin to prove the statements put forth in the motion.
"I don't think it's going to be difficult," he said. "The nice thing about her order is it cleans up everything and leaves us with a very strong claim."
The suit, filed in November 2001 by UFC parent company Zuffa LLC, named state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. as defendants.
Should the UFC win its case on the vagueness issue, that would essentially strike down the law on the books and make professional MMA legal. It would avoid having to go the legislative route again.
The bill to legalize MMA in New York passed through the State Senate last March for a fourth consecutive year, but stalled in the Assembly and never reached the floor for a full vote.
Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, New York remains the only one with a ban on professional MMA bouts. Amateur MMA fights, whether they are sanctioned by a regulatory body or not, are legal. A handful of sanctioned amateur MMA events have occurred in Manhattan over the past several months. MMA Platinum Gloves, an amateur tournament on Long Island sanctioned by UMMAF, is scheduled to begin later this month.
Last February, the state attorney general's office, represented by John M. Schwartz, made clear its position by affirming the words written into law in 1997 that allows a third-party sanctioning body to oversee pro bouts across the state.
"A plain reading of this provision suggests that Plaintiffs would be allowed to promote a professional MMA event in New York if the event were sanctioned by one of the exempt organizations," Wood wrote. "Although Defendants initially agreed with this interpretation, they have now reversed course."
In a supplemental briefing to the court several weeks later, the state changed its position, saying the ban would "not permit a professional MMA event in New York even if sanctioned by an exempt organization." That briefing relied on the ban's legislative history rather than the actual language written into the statute. The state wrote that such history "clearly shows that a total ban of professional Ultimate Fighting/MMA was the primary purpose of the law."
The last UFC event that took place in New York was UFC 7 in Buffalo on Sept. 5, 1998, with Ken Shamrock and Oleg Taktarov lasting 33 minutes before the bout was ruled a draw. Since those days, MMA has evolved from a spectacle with limited rules to a regulated sport with clearly defined rules. The next numbered UFC event -- UFC 166 -- will be in Houston on Oct. 21.
"It is time for New York to have a new law on MMA, one that legalizes the sport and regulates it in a safe way, as all other states have done," UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein said in a statement released Wednesday. "New York's law is outdated, written at a time when MMA was a very different sport."
UFC fighters who attached their name to the 2011 lawsuit include light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who went to Union-Endicott High School upstate and still resides in Ithaca, Frankie Edgar, Matt Hamill and the recently retired Brian Stann, an ex-Marine and Silver Star recipient before he became a fighter.