Professional mixed martial arts in New York could soon become reality, but hurdles remain

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

A Wednesday hearing to evaluate the Attorney General of New York's motion to dismiss the lawsuit of a group of plaintiffs led by Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, challenging the law banning professional mixed martial arts ended in a partial victory for the plaintiffs. Fightline was the first to report the news.

United States District Court Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York ordered the plaintiffs and state's Attorney General's office to enter a settlement mediation on the grounds there appeared to be a common view between both parties of the existing laws allowing for legal, professional mixed martial arts to take place in the state. The mediation is currently scheduled for March 8th.

According to the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, Barry Friedman and Jamie Levitt, Wednesday's hearing before the court will put aside the state's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim. Instead, a magistrate judge will hold a settlement mediation between the plaintiffs and the state's Attorney General's office.

Friedman and Levitt point to statements made by John M. Schwartz, the Special Litigation Counsel on behalf of the state's Attorney General, in submitted court documents attempting to have the plaintiffs case dismissed.

In challenging the law's vagueness, the plaintiffs argue it's not possible for those conducting business in the state to know whether they are committing a crime relative to staging combative sport events under the 1997 law banning mixed martial arts. They also attributed that confusion to the state and athletic commission's uneven enforcement of said ban.

However, Levitt and Friedman believe the state has articulated a path for legal, professional MMA by having one of the original enumerated organizations named in the law banning MMA regulate the sport under the safe harbor of 'martial arts'.

"When we started this case, we thought everything was banned," said Friedman. "But the Attorney General quickly took the position that amateur [MMA] was fine and unregulated. Since then there have been a number of large amateur events in the state.

"It came to our attention there was an event at Madison Square Garden, Muay Thai at the Mecca. We asked how that could be the case and the Attorney General volunteered that was the case because if you read the statute, combative sport activities with one of the exempt organizations are fine."

According to the 1997 law, "the Ban does not mention MMA explicitly, but makes illegal the performance of 'combative sport,' defined as any 'professional match or exhibition' in which participants deliver 'kicks, punches, or blows of any kind to the body of an opponent or opponents," the plaintiffs contended in their response to the state's second motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

"The Ban then exempts from the definition of 'combative sport:' 'boxing, sparring, wrestling or martial arts.' The Ban does not define 'martial arts' with reference to any specific activity. Rather, martial arts 'shall include' matches or exhibitions sponsored by one of the listed organizations, such as the World Karate Association ('exempt organizations')."

Friedman and Levitt contend the state hasn't found this to be a loophole, but rather, a plain reading of the law by which the UFC can stage events. While the law likely forbids the New York State Athletic Commission from regulating a UFC event, the door is open for an 'exempt organization' to stage a 'martial arts' event.

The plaintiffs attorneys point to the following statement from the Attorney General's motion to dismiss as evidence.

"The last 'change in the factual landscape' cited by plaintiffs is a new allegation that an event of 'Muay Thai,' which plaintiffs describe as a 'mixed martial art not exempted from the Ban,' has scheduled an event in New York under the auspices of one of the martial arts organizations specifically listed in NY UnconsoI. Laws," writes Schwartz.

"Why plaintiffs believe Muay Thai is 'not exempted from the Ban' is unclear, since exempted 'martial arts' are defined as 'any professional match or exhibition sanctioned by any' of the listed organizations. The proposed Muay Thai event appears to confirm that the 1997 Legislation provides a procedure by which a sport claiming to be a 'martial art' or to have similar characteristics can enter the New York market under the sponsorship of a listed organization. The UFC has apparently decided not to even explore this path, preferring an all-out attack on the statute, but the procedure's availability shows the legislature's reasonable intent in 1997 to allow for future flexibility."

Friedman and Levitt argue the state's Attorney General is making an argument for sanctioning. Based on judge Wood's decision to move the parties into settlement mediation, the court believes there is merit to the plaintiff's claim.

Under the 1997 law, World Kickboxing Association (WKA), Professional Karate Association (PKA), U.S. Judo Association and others will allowed to stage and sanction 'martial arts' events. Of those, the WKA remains the most active and consistent in the state.

Still, while perhaps legal, that pathway raises questions about the effectiveness of the regulation from third-party actors. In a letter written by attorneys for the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Rep. Sheldon Silver and other prominent New York lawmakers, warnings are issued about the poor quality of regulation from non-state actors. "The oversight of these combat sports competitions has been lodged with Various private entities (i.e., exempt "Martial Arts" organizations as defined under the MMA Statute), Who have, in many cases, failed to meet the health and safety standards that the Association believes are necessary."

Friedman suggests, however, Zuffa will still maintain a level of regulatory quality even if they have to proactively go beyond the scope or capability of whichever third party sanctioning body they choose. Zuffa often acts as its own regulator when staging events in international territory.

In any case, the process moves forward. The next step, Levitt says, is to get both parties in the settlement mediation to not only reach a formal agreement about what is legal, but to obtain a court order certifying them.

"What we'd like to do is end up with a stipulation in which the state says exactly what they've said in some of their papers," said Levitt. "Namely, that professional mixed martial arts, sanctioned by one of the exempt organizations, is allowed in New York."

Reaching a settlement on March 8 is by no means a foregone conclusion. The Attorney General is maintaining the path to legal MMA through exempt organizations named in the 1997 ban isn't necessarily a view they espouse, but their attempt to defend the larger statute. Levitt and Friedman caution the Attorney General could back away from the claim, which would force the case back into litigation.

Representatives for Zuffa did not issue comment when contacted at the time of writing. Speaking on behalf of their clients, however, Friedman and Levitt believe a court order making clear the terms of professional legal MMA in settled mediation won't change the UFC's legislative efforts to achieve state sanctioning of MMA.

"[Zuffa] have been perfectly clear from the outset that they would well prefer state sanction," said Friedman. "It's regrettable New York has not been able to get itself into a position of most other states in the union. But [Zuffa] is prepared to go forward with the sanctioning of another organization."

Levitt contends if settled mediation is successful, and events are staged under enumerated third-party sanctioning, that could serve as a helpful basis by which to further lobbying efforts towards achieving state athletic commission oversight.

"[Zuffa is] going to continue to move forward with the legislative effort and I think, in large part, this will hopefully be helpful to the legislative effort just to make clear what is the problem with the legislation that currently exists on the books," she said.

Attempts to achieve legal sanctioning for professional MMA in New York through the legislative process by Zuffa and other parties have proved fruitless since 2008. The original lawsuit by Zuffa and other plaintiffs was filed in November 2011.

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