NEW YORK – One week after celebrating its 20th anniversary with an improbable tale of how far things have come, the UFC was back in New York on Thursday, at the newly renovated Madison Square Garden, to deal with the last state in which the sport of MMA is still banned.
UFC chairman/CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, along with three UFC champions, one interim champ, one challenger, and a pack of politicians, spoke on behalf of the financial impact the UFC would bring to New York, if and when the sport is regulated in the state. The last time UFC officials appeared in Manhattan to discuss the financial benefits of holding events in New York was in 2011, before the epic seven-year deal with FOX was signed.
That year -- as with every year the UFC has attempted to gain regulation in New York -- efforts came up short. Though it passed through the Senate, the last time by a wide margin, the bill to legalize MMA never reached the floor to be voted on.
It might be optimism -- or simple "persistence," as Fertitta calls it -- but this time the hope is that the congregation wasn’t just spinning their wheels. The "updated" study that HR&A Advisors put together showed a significantly different impact projection than in early 2011. The study showed a series of charts and graphics to highlight a projected $135 million in annual economic activity should the sport be sanctioned. Unlike in 2011, when the UFC promised four shows in New York, this time the promise was five shows, with two in the city and three held upstate in cities such as Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo.
After Springer showed the "conservative projection," Fertitta introduced the UFC’s middleweight champion, Chris Weidman, a native of Long Island, who’s long been advocating MMA in New York. Weidman, who defeated Anderson Silva to take the title, trains with Ray Longo and Matt Serra. It’s not lost on him that he now has a day named after him for fighting in Long Island, yet he can’t fight anywhere in the state. He said that it’s not only his "personal dream" to fight at Madison Square Garden, but it’s also a dream to the people of New York, the media and the UFC.
"[Winning the belt] feels really good, but there’s something really missing that kind of takes away from this belt -- and that’s not being able to participate in my sport, something I’m so passionate about and worked my whole life for, in my home state of New York. It’s tough. We have 49 other states in America where it’s legal.
"So there’s one state in all of America that it’s not allowed, and that’s New York, and that’s where I’m from. And that’s where another champion’s from -- Jon Jones. There’s two champions from this area."
Also on hand for the gathering were bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, interim champion Renan Barao, as well as featherweight champion Jose Aldo and the man who’ll be challenging him on Feb. 2 just across the river in Newark at UFC 169, Ricardo Lamas.
The same notes where hit on as in the past about the archaic notions New York has about the UFC and MMA.
Taken piecemeal, all elements of MMA -- from boxing and wrestling to judo and jiu-jitsu -- are permissible in the state. Put together -- even with the UFC’s clean track record with no serious injuries unlike in boxing, which is sanctioned -- the sport remains illegal. At least at the professional level. Amateur MMA is legal, even if UFC COO Lawrence Epstein -- who was also among the assembled -- said he finds the distinction hard to fathom.
One of the reasons, and the thing that was spelled out perhaps contrarily on Thursday by Assemblyman Andy Hevesi (D), is that MMA’s detractors have outdated misconceptions.
"We have a rule in our conference, which is if you don’t have 76 votes which is what you need to pass the bill, we don’t bring it up," Hevesi said. "I support that rule. We’re just a couple of votes shy."
There are 150 members in the assembly.
"But here’s my problem with some of my colleagues, and I respect all of them, I know what it’s like to be a legislator, it’s not an easy job, but here’s the rational disconnect: Our conference has historically been the conference that fights for any anti-discrimination measure you can think of. If it’s marriage equality, we’re first. If it’s fighting for woman’s right to choose, we’re there first. So that makes us by definition a conference that is always fighting against discrimination and stereotypes. However, in this one case a handful of my colleagues are using discrimination and stereotypes and unfair stigma to block a sport from coming to New York."
This is where the haziness of the democratic process comes into play as well as the politics behind the politics. Though Hevesi refuted the claim, anybody who’s been following the ongoing saga of the UFC’s struggle with getting into New York knows the name Sheldon Silver, who is the assembly speaker. Silver’s vendetta against the Fertitta brothers -- owners of the Station Casinos in Las Vegas -- is roundly believed to be the true hold-up in getting the sport regulated in New York.
With him holding the power in the process, there will always be doubt as to whether MMA will ever make it to the floor for voting.
"We know that there are other issues relative to this," Fertitta said. "Certainly stereotypes is one of them, and it’s fairly widely known now, because the Culinary Union Local 226 has come out on the record sending letters, lobbying members of the assembly to vote against our bill, and that emanates from the fact that me and my brother [Frank Fertitta] own a casino company in Las Vegas -- that happens to be the only non-Union company in Las Vegas. Not by our choice, but by choice of our team members."
Silver is linked to the Las Vegas Culinary Union, and is thought to be largely influenced by its opposition to the Fertittas.
"Culinary Local 226 has not been successful organizing our team members, therefore they take other tactics and follow us around in, not just New York, but other states where we do business," Fertitta said. "They try to harass us essentially. And that’s not something I’m making up. They’ve sent letters on their letterhead; they’ve talked to their legislators. They’re the ones putting out these stereotypes, putting out this misinformation about the sport, the participants of the sport, and the fans of this sport. We think it’s absolutely unfair, and think it isn’t right that a Las Vegas union should interjecting as far as what happens in New York."
What does it all mean? Will the UFC appear at the recently $1 billion updated Madison Square Garden, which going back to its roots was built to house boxing events?
Just like we said in 2011 and for the last six years, it’s wait and see (but don’t hold your breath).