The mixed martial arts (MMA) fight that’s attracting the most attention from business interests and diehard fans right now isn’t happening in an octagonal cage. It’s taking place in the halls of New York’s capitol in Albany.
In each of the past five years, bills to permit professional MMA fights have passed the New York State Senate only to stall in the General Assembly because of opposition from the powerful Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver.
MMA fans, though, have reason to feel optimistic this year as lawmakers take up the cause yet again. For one thing, Silver was forced to resign after he was charged with corruption. His successor, Carl Heastie, supports MMA and has sponsored legislation in the past to allow it in the Empire State, the only state in the country where professional bouts are not permitted. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk but we are closer than we ever have been,” says Stephen Koepfer, founder of the Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York.
To help push the effort, Ronda Rousey, the UFC’s 28-year-old women’s bantamweight champion and a rising celebrity, will be heading to Albany this week, and will reportedly meet with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as well as Assembly members, according to the New York Daily News.
An MMA legalization bill was introduced Jan. 30 in the New York State Assembly. It cleared the Assembly’s Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee on March 3 by a vote of 9 to 3 with 1 abstention. With Silver out of the picture, the bill had a much “fairer” chance of passing the Assembly, according to Senator John DiFrancisco. The bill also passed through the state Senate’s finance committee this week and could go to the Senate floor next week, where it’s expected to pass.
A victory for MMA in New York could have significant implications for both the sport and the state, according to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the sport’s largest promoter. UFC estimates that expansion of the existing MMA training centers will generate about $67 million in economic activity and would generate $5.8 million in economic benefit to the state. These figures don’t include merchandise sales and enrollments in MMA training classes.
Though the UFC is interested in staging fights in New York, which is the nation’s largest media market, it also wants to stage events in Western New York because of its large fan base in Canada, according to Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of the UFC.
“New York is the only place on the planet earth where these events aren’t taking place,” Epstein said in an interview. “We haven’t ever been afforded the opportunity to get a vote on the floor of the Assembly. … Mr. Silver controlled the agenda.”
Silver’s opposition was fueled by labor groups who were looking to unionize casinos owned by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also own UFC, but New York had outlawed MMA in 1997 because the state’s governor at the time, George Pataki, considered the sport to be “barbaric.” Pataki has since changed his tune since the sport has become safer, according to various media reports. Critics of MMA, though, are making similar arguments today.
A group calling itself Go Away MMA is pressing its case in ads being shown on cable networks in Albany and New York City, according to the Daily News. “You gotta hand it to the cage-fighting lobbyists, it’s an amazingly brazen bit of political jujitsu they are trying to pull off,” a source close to the campaign told the paper. The campaign didn’t respond to a message left for it on social media for this story.
Even without being legal in New York, the UFC has shown it still packs some financial punch. Pay-per-view sales in 2015 have already topped last year’s, according to Epstein, thanks to such high-profile bouts as light heavyweight Jon Jones’s unanimous decision over Daniel Cormier and Ronda Rousey’s 14-second victory over Cat Zingo. According to MMAPayout.com, UFC has averaged 684,000 pay-per-view buys, far above the 256,000 it averaged in 2014 and the 468,000 it averaged in 2013.
This represents a reversal of fortune for Las Vegas-based UFC, which saw its credit rating downgraded last year in part because of the poor performance of its pay-per-view business, which the company says suffered because of injuries to star fighters. Other popular fighters, including Anderson Silva, have gotten in hot water for failing drug tests. Still others have been dogged by domestic violence allegations. Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver allegedly beat his girlfriend Christy Mack so badly that he broke 18 bones in her body.
“There is a decline in popularity in some ways from 2010 just because there are so many shows,” writes Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “But when they have a big fight, it still does very well. It's the nature of all sports now in that TV wants as much live product.”
As UFC looks to continue its recent rebound and to keep building excitement around its regular pay-per-view events, legalization in New York would only help. Winning a fight in the New York State Legislature may not be as physically grueling as an MMA match, but it’s pretty tough nonetheless.
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