The Battle to Bring Mixed Martial Arts to the Empire State

In the 1990s, celebrated boxing enthusiast Senator John McCain stepped into the ring to do battle against another combat sport. He denounced what was then called extreme fighting as “human cockfighting.” He argued that unlike the sweet science, the nascent sport was barbaric and should be banned outright. At the time, he was perhaps correct.

The earliest event, staged in November of 1993 and aired on pay-per-view, was advertised under the tagline: “There are no rules!” The concept was to hold a tournament which would prove which fighting style was most effective (for example, who would prevail if a boxer fought a karate master). The only way a match could end was by knockout or submission. There were no weight classes, which was underscored by the very first fight of the tournament. The bout pitted a sumo wrestler against a kickboxer, the latter of whom was able to prevail in just a few seconds despite his distinct size disadvantage by kicking his opponent’s teeth out.

This was savage fare, granted. But since those days, “extreme” fighting has evolved into a legitimate sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. The premiere promoter of MMA is an organization called Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The UFC has become a billion-dollar global brand. The UFC has been the focus of two CNBC documentaries and has inspired a book of fine art photography. It does brisk sales in t-shirts and other apparel, and even lends its name to a franchise of gyms.

Much of the credit for this turnaround belongs to Dana White, a brash and tough-talking ex-boxing promoter who is the UFC’s president. White, himself a fan of the UFC, heard that the promotion was for sale back in 2001. He convinced his high school friends the Fertitta brothers -- who just happened to own the Station chain of Las Vegas casinos -- that they should buy the sagging brand. They boosted the public image of the sport by creating a rigorous set of rules with emphasis on competitor safety. They worked with state sanctioning organizations like the Nevada State Athletic Commission to institutionalize these rules.

With this enhanced credibility came new opportunities for expansion. These included a basic cable reality show and sponsorship by mainstream companies like Bud LightBurger King, and Harley Davidson. The brand grew to the point that one of the Fertitta brothers left the casino industry to focus on what had been a side business. And business has been good for all. Rival MMA promoter Strikeforce, for example, televises matches on CBS.

Despite the evolution of MMA into a highly sanctioned sport, it is still illegal in several states. The largest of these holdouts is New York, where MMA has been banned since the bad old days of 1997. Dana White, aided by some of his most notable fighters, has been lobbying the state to legalize MMA for years. Despite coming tantalizingly close, the ban has yet to be lifted. But the numbers are on White’s side. An economic impact study he commissioned shows the tangible benefits New York is missing out on to neighboring states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which do sanction MMA. Premiere sporting venue Madison Square Garden has openly expressed its desire to host the UFC. None of this is lost on embattled Governor David Paterson, who has proposed legalizing MMA as a way to raise revenue for his cash-strapped state.

Standing in Paterson’s way are those such as Assemblyman Bob Reilly, an upstate Democrat who chooses to remain blithely ignorant on the subject of MMA. Reilly sent a letter to the state assembly speaker asking for the removal of MMA legalization from the budget. He opposes the sport ostensibly because legalization would contribute to a culture of violence. He casts himself as a moral crusader, frequently citing examples of violence against gays and women, and stories of schoolyard bullying, though he fails to offer any links to MMA.