With the passing of legislation on Wednesday, what has been a 12-year fight by Zuffa regarding legalization of mixed martial arts throughout the U.S. and Canada is a historical chapter that is very close to completion.
"Today is a real big day for the sport," said UFC's Director of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, after legislation passed the state Senate by a 26-9 vote in Connecticut. "I want people to understand there are 47 states that have athletic commissions that have approved the sport, and two states without commissions that allow the sport."
The same bill had passed in the state Assembly by a 117-26 margin on May 7. It still has to be signed into law by Governor Dannel Malloy.
"We feel very confident it will be with the overwhelming support," said Ratner.
The only places in the United States where MMA is not regulated by an athletic commission are in Montana and Alaska, which have no commissions, nor any laws against such events, and New York, where the sport remains illegal based on 1997 legislation, and becomes the only domino yet to fall.
Time is running out in New York for this year. Legislation has passed in the state Senate the past two years. Last year, it stalled in the Assembly, not even making it to the floor for a vote,. The same looks to be happening this year, with the session ending on June 20..
"It was supposed to be heard yesterday in conference by the Democrats in the Assembly, but it wasn't," said Ratner.
"Next week, it'll be heard. All we want is a vote. If we get out of the conference and have a vote, we'll win. It would be very sad if it gets stuck in committee."
Ratner said the company was not interested in running in the two states that have no athletic commissions.
"We want commissions and we advocate that very much," said Ratner, the former Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who runs the regulatory process for UFC events that are held in overseas markets that don't have commissions.
A number of MMA events, including UFC events, had been held in Connecticut on Native American land, most notably at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. But this would open up for UFC or other promotions to run in the arenas in cities like Hartford and Bridgeport.
A bill that formally changed the criminal code in Canada to remove the grey area regarding whether mixed martial arts is legal passed 267-9 in Canada's House of Commons. The bill amends an 1880's law that stated that prize fighting was illegal in Canada. That law was amended in 1934 to legalize boxing. The law had been interpreted in various ways throughout the country. Many provinces that had allowed MMA events, interpreted it by saying that in 1934, there was no such thing as MMA, that they could interpret the amendment of allowing fighting within the realm of a professionally regulated sport, to cover it. But in other provinces, most notably Saskatchewan and British Columbia, there was more uncertainty about what was and wasn't legal.
UFC began running in Montreal in 2008, and has since expanded into most major cities.
From the start, the company had a goal of going through the national government to get the old law amended to remove the ambiguity.
"It took us four years," said Ratner. "They added the words 'and MMA' to boxing."
"The work that we've done in Ottawa has been for the sport of MMA, not just UFC" said Tom Wright, the UFC's Director of Operations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. "People say it's self-serving. Sure it is. But when we got the changes in Ontario, the first year, we held two events and I think there were 20 other events across the province that wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the work for that sport that we championed."
There had been problems, most notably in British Columbia. UFC has run twice in Vancouver, but the city government, afraid of a lawsuit in case something bad happened, where an argument could be made that the city allowed an illegal activity in, caused them to demand a level of insurance that was almost cost prohibitive. In the past two years, only the UFC has been able to afford to run an MMA show in the province, even though the sport has strong popularity throughout the province and UFC's two events were both financially successful, with the first doing a $4 million live gate.
There is still an issue with Saskatchewan. The hope is the law, which passed in the Canadian Senate on June 22, 2012, and should officially go into effect within the next few days, will be the game changer.
"The only province moving cautiously is Saskatchewan," said Wright, who noted that the province had been waiting for the law to pass to follow up.
British Columbia had already appointed a provincial athletic commission and head commissioner, based on the fact they saw this law passing as inevitable. Saskatchewan is still trying to decide whether to regulate it by municipality, as is done in Alberta, or provincially, as is done in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and throughout most of Canada.