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UFC sues to end state's ban on pro mixed martial arts competitions

Lorenzo Fertitta, UFC chairman and CEO, speaks during

Lorenzo Fertitta, UFC chairman and CEO, speaks during a press conference to announce their commitment to bring UFC to Madison Square Garden and New York State once MMA is legalized, Jan. 13, 2011. Credit: Getty

Ultimate Fighting Championship on Monday launched a new bid to legalize professional mixed martial arts competitions in New York, filing suit in federal court in Manhattan to try to have the state's ban declared unconstitutional.

UFC, which features stars such as Ronda Rousey and is allowed in the other 49 states, said the New York law banning its fights "is so badly written that neither ordinary persons nor state officials are able to say with any certainty what it permits and what it prohibits."

The group said its televised events reach a half-billion homes worldwide, is featured in major films and has mainstream sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch, and that it will lose millions in revenue if a scheduled April 23 event in Madison Square Garden has to be canceled.

Rousey and other mixed martial arts supporters lobbied legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany this spring to pass legislation permitting the sport in New York. A bill passed the Senate, but stalled in the Assembly.

A lawyer for UFC, owned by Zuffa LLC, said the lawsuit was an alternative approach. "We have a constitutional case and a legislative case," said Barry Friedman, who teaches constitutional law at NYU Law School. "Either one can get the UFC to its ultimate goal."

The office of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, named as a defendant, declined to comment, and the state's liquor authority, which was named because it enforces the ban in venues with liquor licenses, did not return a call for comment.

The suit said New York's ban on mixed martial arts was first adopted in 1996, when the sport was being promoted as no-holds-barred, bloody, anything-goes cage matches, while exemptions in the Combative Sports Law were made for boxing and traditional martial arts contests sanctioned by established world and national organizations.

Since then, the suit said, the sport has become far more regulated, with weight classes, trained referees and bans on dangerous moves such as head-butts.

But despite sanctioning by a group New York authorizes to sanction other martial arts sports -- the World Kickboxing Association -- Schneiderman and other officials still refuse to permit UFC's mixed martial arts matches, the suit said.

One view, Friedman said, is that state officials are still caught in a "time warp" and hesitate to approve mixed martial arts fights because of their former image, while approving other martial arts competitions that aren't very different.

The UFC sued previously, in 2011, to try to invalidate the New York ban.

U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan threw out that case on technical grounds, the suit said, but during the litigation she conceded that mixed martial arts "has changed considerably" since the ban was first enacted. That case is on appeal.

State officials, the UFC said, have simply refused to recognize the changes and have no coherent explanation for why they exempt some martial arts contests but not others. "The Combative Sports Law," the new suit complains, "has proven to be putty in the hands of state officials."

New York Sports