It wasn't easy being an MMA fan in New York. For the last two decades or so, if you wanted to see live fights at a high level, you had to leave the state. You had to drive up to Boston or shoot across the river to New Jersey or schlep down the Turnpike to Philadelphia.
Being a full-fledged MMA fan living in New York required a car or a plane ticket and enough money for a hotel room, in some cases. Sure, Prudential Center in Newark is just a few stops away from Manhattan on New Jersey Transit, but you get the picture.
That is the life I led for many years as a Queens, N.Y., native. Before I was an MMA journalist, I was a fan and any time a big MMA show came to the East Coast, I jumped in a car or hopped on a train. I saved money for tickets and sometimes room and board, too.
I watched Nate Diaz beat Jim Miller and Antonio Silva stun Fedor Emeliaenko at the dilapidated IZOD Center in the shadows of the old Giants Stadium. I witnessed Frankie Edgar beat B.J. Penn (for the second time) and Randy Couture use that old low single versus James Toney at TD Garden in Boston. I saw Anderson Silva make Forrest Griffin look silly at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, grabbing a couple of cheesesteaks along the way. I also saw a few fights in Las Vegas as fan, but you know the saying: What happens in Vegas, you're not likely -- or willing -- to remember it.
For the last 20 years, if you were a New Yorker and wanted to go see a UFC event, you better be prepared for a road trip or more.
As a sports journalist at the New York Post and other outlets, I covered the New York Knicks, St. John's Red Storm, NCAA tournament and countless other college and high-school basketball games at Madison Square Garden. I covered boxing and hockey.
Never MMA, though. But that is likely to change this year. After some consternation, the New York State Assembly finally voted on and passed the bill to legalize mixed martial arts last week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo still has to sign it, but that is likely. Once he does, the New York State Athletic Commission has 120 days to set up rules and hire officials. The UFC is targeting its first event in New York for November or December. The promotion's first big pay-per-view in the state will definitely be at MSG.
This is obviously a personal story and people who live elsewhere might not care, but there are thousands like it in New York. Those fans were validated last week.
The UFC is promising a "massive" event at Madison Square Garden in the fourth quarter of 2016. Here's a look at the best fights they should target, either as a headliner, co-headliner or main card bout:
Miesha Tate vs. Ronda Rousey 3 for UFC women's bantamweight title
The UFC is planning on November for its big MSG show. Rousey's return estimate? Also, in November. Coincidence? I think not. Putting the biggest mainstream media star in the history of the sport in the media capital of the world is a no-brainer. Add that it would be two women headlining The World's Most Famous Arena; Rousey's return from getting knocked out by Holly Holm; and the culmination of the blood feud between Rousey and Tate, the new UFC women's bantamweight champion, and it almost makes too much sense. Records would be set, especially the amount of media that would cover the spectacle.
Conor McGregor vs. Frankie Edgar for the UFC featherweight title
No matter what happens between McGregor and Nate Diaz at UFC 200 in July, McGregor will be the featherweight champion. Four months in between fights has not been too much to ask of him in the past and Edgar has more than earned this title shot. New York, especially Queens, has a huge Irish American population and Boston and Philadelphia, both a car ride away, have the largest percentages of Irish Americans in the United States. McGregor would be massive at MSG. Edgar, an Italian American from nearby Toms River, N.J., would certainly have a segment of the crowd as well. The Irish and Italians have a long history -- good and bad -- in New York City. It's also a much shorter flight for McGregor's Irish fans than Las Vegas.
Jon Jones vs. Anthony Johnson for the UFC light heavyweight title
The above two fights are guaranteed massive sellers. But let's not forget Jones, arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter who has ever lived, hails from New York. He's not a guy from the boroughs or Long Island, but grew up a few hours upstate. Even so, having the best fighter in the world headline or co-headline at Madison Square Garden is a can't-miss proposition. If Jones beats Daniel Cormier to earn back his UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 197 next month, Johnson would be the next man up. "Rumble" is the kind of dangerous, knockout artist that is an easy sell as a challenger to Jones.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva
New York is a literal second home for St-Pierre. For much of his fighting career, he spent around one week per month during training camps in Manhattan, training at Renzo Gracie's Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy and The Wat with Muay Thai master Phil Nurse. GSP even rented an apartment in the city at one point and it's possible he still has it. St-Pierre vs. Silva is a fight that has been talked about for years. The two men are among the best and most popular the sport has ever seen. If it won't happen at UFC 200 in July, Madison Square Garden certainly wouldn't be a bad place for the superfight.
Chris Weidman vs. Michael Bisping for the UFC middleweight title
No other fighter has lobbied harder in New York than Weidman, a native of Long Island. He wants badly to be on the first Madison Square Garden and the UFC is likely to grant his wish. If he beats Luke Rockhold to regain the UFC middleweight title at UFC 199 in June, Weidman should absolutely fight top contender Michael Bisping at MSG. The All American against a fiery Brit in the Big Apple would bring fans. If Weidman falls to Rockhold, he should still be on this card, just not as a headliner. A rematch between Weidman and Queens native Uriah Hall would be very interesting as well.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Rose Namajunas for the UFC women's strawweight title
This could be a great headliner for a UFC Fight Night event in upstate New York, which is also being planned for the end of the year. Or, the UFC could put it on the huge MSG card. Though Chicago has the largest percentage, New York has the highest population of Poland natives or Polish Americans in the country. Jedrzejczyk, whose sister lives in Brooklyn, would be a fan favorite there. Namajunas is a bright young star, who would also benefit from the spotlight of NYC.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Jimmie Rivera
Two of the top young bantamweights in the world both hail from New York. Sterling lives on Long Island, while Rivera, originally from New Jersey, is a Brooklyn resident with a gym in Manhattan. This could potentially be a title eliminator.
Al Iaquinta vs. Bobby Green
The two men were supposed to fight last year before both suffered injuries. They'll both return in the spring or summer and, win or lose, seem to be on a collision course. Long Island's Iaquinta and Green have gone back and forth on social media and have the kind of East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry that would bolster a Madison Square Garden card.