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Top MMA storylines of 2016: 4. MMA legalized in New York

MSG
Madison Square Garden played host to the first-ever UFC event in New York City in November.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The sport of MMA has grown considerably over the years.

The UFC has hosted major shows in stadiums in places like Australia and Sweden. Fox is the UFC’s broadcast partner and 30-plus events per year are on Fox channels. Viacom owns Bellator MMA. ONE Championship has reach to more than 1 billion people in Asia. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor are two of the most famous athletes in the world.

The whole fastest-growing-sport-in-the-world thing is a little played out. But yeah, MMA has come a long way since it was banned from pay-per-view in the ’90s.

There was just one thing missing coming into 2016: the sport being legalized in New York.

UFC 205 Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The state was the lone holdover, a conspicuous dark spot in a map of the United States that has lit up steadily since the Unified Rules of MMA were written in 2001.

That all changed this year. In March, the New York State Assembly approved a bill to legalize and regulate MMA in the Empire State. An embarrassing Assembly meeting (where MMA was compared to gay porn and slavery) notwithstanding, this was a big deal. Soon after, the UFC announced its first-ever card in New York City: Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill in April, flanked by the likes of UFC stars like Rousey and Chris Weidman, to make things official. The New York State Athletic Commission had a few months to write up rules and regulations and hire officials and — boom — there would be legal professional mixed martial arts in New York State.

Dana White
Holding a card in New York has long been a goal for UFC president Dana White.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There would be pratfalls before the UFC took its big show to MSG and then Albany in early December. The bill to legalize MMA (and further regulate boxing) had a poison pill: promoters must acquire a $1 million-per-fighter insurance policy. That figured to up the amount of money it cost to run shows in New York, thereby increasing the barrier for entry for both boxing and MMA.

Most boxing shows in New York scheduled for after Sept. 1 were cancelled. An insurance company only began selling such a broad, expensive policy for MMA in October. All told, the UFC has to spend about $50,000 in insurance pay per New York card. In other commissions, that insurance number is closer to $4,000, though it varies state by state.

No matter for the fans, though. Fast forward to November and the UFC’s pageantry came to the Garden. Conor McGregor got the UFC 205 week started by working out on the Knicks basketball floor — and knocking in a jump shot from the top of the key. The brash Irishman, in front of a sell-out crowd that set the gate mark for the building ($17.7 million), finished the week with an emphatic, second-round TKO of Eddie Alvarez.

It was a legacy moment for McGregor. Not only did he become the first UFC fighter to ever hold two belts (lightweight and featherweight) at the same time, he did it in New York, at Madison Square Garden. It was the first UFC event in New York City and it was a monumental occasion for all those reasons.

The insulting and silly Assembly meeting seems far in the rear-view mirror now. The UFC held another show in Albany on Dec. 9. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn is booked for UFC 208 on Feb. 11. World Series of Fighting is finishing off its year Dec. 31 at the MSG Theater with a four-title megacard. There’s even talk of the UFC going to Buffalo for a big show in the first half of 2017.

MMA had been banned in New York since 1997. It took seven years for the bill to be in the state legislature for a vote to even come up in the Assembly due to what UFC president Dana White has described as corruption. The bill had passed through the Senate multiple times and it took Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver to be convicted on federal fraud charges for MMA to finally go in front of his Assembly people.

Being in New York, the world’s biggest media market, had long been a goal for White and his former partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Through the years, the UFC spent millions in lobbying.

A night like UFC 205 alone made it all worth it. And there seem to be more like it on the horizon.