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A look back at the 1990s hysteria which got MMA banned in New York

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After lengthy deliberations, the Governor of New York signed into law a bill that put the Ultimate Fighting Championship events under the auspices of the New York State Athletic Commission, and ended any questions about the legality of the company's events.

The law will go into effect in 120 days, and the UFC has planned two events for the state over the next several months.

That's the lead for a story I could write in a few days, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the bill that made New York the final state in the nation to legalize and regulate MMA, after a nearly-decade long fight.

But few realize that I already wrote almost those exact words in a Wrestling Observer Newsletter article on Oct. 10, 1996, the day then-Gov. George Pataki signed the legislation to legalize the UFC in the Empire State. The bill breezed through both the New York State Senate and the Assembly, making New York the first state to, by law, legalize and sanction UFC events. 

The story of what happened nearly 20 years ago in New York, particularly after the sadly comedic hearing prior to the passage of the 2016 legalization bill in the Assembly, is a reminder of how much things have changed in two decades. It's also a reminder of just how much they haven’t.

New York State Sen. Roy Goodman, who had spearheaded the effort to get an earlier attempt by Donald Zuckerman's Extreme Fighting Championship -- UFC’s rival promotion at the time -- from running in Brooklyn, had sponsored legislation that passed both houses with little opposition.

"We heard from public officials and medical professionals, as well as from the fighters themselves, and were able to pinpoint the problems with the sport," Goodman said after taking his victory lap the day after Pataki signed the bill. "My legislation addresses those problems, protecting both the participants and the public.

"This legislation will put an end to unbridled human cockfighting which can seriously injure contestants and which was a terrible example to our youth."

The UFC quickly announced a show on Feb. 7, 1997, for Niagara Falls, featuring a heavyweight championship fight between defending champion Dan "The Beast" Severn, one of the country’s best collegiate and international wrestlers of the 1980s, and Mark "The Hammer" Coleman, an undefeated and dominant newcomer who had been an NCAA champion and wrestled on the 1992 Olympic team.

The promotion had already secured a provisional date for May 30, 1997, at the Nassau Coliseum, contingent only on the New York Islanders not having a home playoff game to conflict. The plan was, after proving they could hold two more successful shows in the state, the UFC would run the biggest show in company history at Madison Square Garden later in the year.

But none of those cards ever happened, and more than decade after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and more than six-and-a-half years after UFC 100 became one of the best selling events in pay-per-view history, the UFC still hasn't run a single event in the state.

That show -- UFC 7, the "Brawl in Buffalo" -- took place on September 8, 1995, at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, which was also the first UFC event ever to draw more than 10,000 fans through the gate.

David Isaacs was involved in running the UFC for Semaphore Entertainment Group, who sold the company to Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in 2001. He has vivid memories of being the point man in this long since forgotten part of history. The no-named sport -- called by its fan base "NHB," for "No Holds Barred" -- was still a few years away from being known as "mixed martial arts."

"Back then it was one of those moments when we were on the precipice of really taking this thing over the top, even with the limited sources we had and the challenges we faced," said Isaacs. "We already had a hold on the Nassau Coliseum when the original legislation was passed. We had already booked the event in Niagara Falls. We were then going to the Garden."

SEG had a deal in place with New York politicians at the time. Niagara Falls had been facing major economic problems, so the deal was to run a show there first, and help the city’s economy out. Once they'd proven they could run two successful events in the state -- particularly after the Buffalo show had drawn so well -- the UFC would run in Uniondale, not too far from New York City, before finally coming to Manhattan later in the year.

The idea was to build up a track record before coming to the big city, because everyone knew that once the Octagon made it to Madison Square Garden, media scrutiny would intensify and come out full force against them.

"We’d been lobbying and working at it," said Isaacs. "There’s a story that we ran from regulation. That’s not true. We were working hard to get this regulated. I went to Albany and helped write the law and it got passed. We worked with a consultant, Jim Featherstone, a well-known lobbyist. It was actually kind of smooth sailing. We were working with the athletic commission at the time. But once the law was passed, Extreme Fighting announced they were doing a  show from an undisclosed location in Manhattan. Then everything went south."

The UFC made a deal to stay out of the city and slowly prove themselves, in exchange for the law being passed. But the law couldn’t just specify legalizing the UFC. So any competitor could theoretically run anywhere in the state, and those competitors had made no such promises to stay out of the city.

The "Brawl in Buffalo" wasn’t a complete success. A number of the Buffalo Bills were at the show, the ring leader being future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, who was loudly heckling the fighters and laughing about the less-than-technical punching skills on display. At one point, a generator blew and the power went out during the event.

The show was delayed until it was fixed, and it went over the three-hour allotted time slot. Most fans watching on PPV didn’t get to see the end of the tournament final between Marco Ruas, one of the top fighters in Brazil during the violent Luta Livre vs. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wars of the '80s, and the 6-foot-8, 330-pound "Polar Bear," Paul Varelans, a former San Jose State football player who grew up in Alaska. That meant SEG had to refund a great deal of the PPV revenue.

The irony of the story is that Goodman introduced two bills within one day of each other. The first would be to establish a state law banning these types of events. The second would be a state law legalizing the events, but taxing the events and putting it under the auspices of the commission. It was the latter bill that gained quick traction and passed with almost no opposition.

The bill specified that promoters would have to go through the same licensing provisions as boxing and pro wrestling promoters in the state, and that nobody under the age of 18 would be allowed to compete. Specific to NHB was that no children under the age of 18 would be allowed to attend the events, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Matches were not allowed to last more than 20 minutes, which represented a slight change. The UFC’s tournament finals back then had time limits ranging from 24-33 minutes, and in those days bouts were fought without rounds. Since it was the tournament era, fighters were not allowed to compete for more than 60 minutes during any 72-hour period, or in more than three fights in one night.

But it all started unraveling just over three months later, weeks before the Niagara Falls date. The New York Times, which wielded incredible local power -- and most notably, columnist Richard Sandomir -- started writing stories almost daily critical of the state legislature for passing the law.

Other media followed suit, as did New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was more concerned about the Extreme card coming to Manhattan and that the new law in place would give them every right to run. With the political winds blowing in the opposite direction, both Pataki, who had signed the original bill, and Goodman, who had sponsored it, did an about-face.

"It was Giuliani, who went to Pataki, and that was it," said Isaacs. "It wasn’t all that controversial to get the legislation passed to legalize it. We scheduled an event in Niagara Falls, which was an economically challenged area and they were excited to get the event."

Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno and assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, who played a key role in blocking the second attempt to get MMA into the state, then said the new law would be put under serious reconsideration.

When the media pressure started heating up, Bruno was one of a few politicians who defended the passed legislation at first. He argued the statistics on injuries simply didn’t justify banning the events. He specifically brought up that pro boxing had a higher injury rate and nobody was talking about banning it. But Bruno then said he favored allowing localities the power to make their own decisions on the sport.

"Everybody thinks, it seems, it ought to be banned," he said during the media onslaught.

Goodman then claimed that he was standing up to lobbying jiu-jitsu experts and wanted to outlaw "human cockfighting."

"These fights are no different than street brawls," Goodman wrote in a press release, attempting to overturn his own bill that he had heavily taken credit for three months earlier. "Contestants use brutal techniques, including kicking, chopping (yes, the days of the fear of the deadly karate and `judo chops’ from pro wrestling and martial arts movies), head-butts (which ended up being banned by UFC a few months later), and choke holds."

He said that the recently passed legislation, never admitting he was the one who wrote it in the first place, "doesn’t change its fundamental nature of turn a bloody public spectacle into legitimate sport," which echoed almost word-for-word what the Times wrote 11 days earlier in an editorial to kick off the hysteria.

"My reaction was confusion," said Bob Meyrowitz, the president of SEG. "It seemed to me that New York state had taken a very intelligent step. Now, with absolutely no facts, people are pushing the New York state legislature to make a change in what seemed like a good law, an intelligent law."

Bruno then said that Giuiliani, New York City Council speaker Peter Vallone and Goodman persuaded him to restudy the matter. Bruno told the New York Times that he talked to Pataki, who said he would sign an ordinance giving the local politicians the power to ban the events, but then told the legislature he would rather they enacted a bill to ban no holds barred fighting throughout the state.

Pat Lynch, a spokesperson for Silver, said that he was looking at nothing short of an outright ban.

"He believes that it is a barbaric exercise that can permanently maim individuals who participate, and as such, should not be a sporting event in the state."

Still, with the law in place, there seemed to be no way it could be passed and enacted in time to stop the UFC show in Niagara Falls.

But there was one curve ball left to be thrown. The New York State Athletic Commission, just days before the show, enacted new rules for the sport. Among the new banned techniques were any kind of choke holds, any kicks above the shoulders or below the knee, head-butting, any strikes to the throat (which at the time were already banned under UFC’s rules), striking a downed opponent, usage of knees or elbows, strikes to the neck or spine or attacking the groin (which was also already banned).

The rules also made eight-ounce boxing gloves mandatory for all competitors, banning the fingerless gloves, and essentially making it impossible to effectively grapple. They also mandated that all fighters must wear boxing headgear.

Ironically, other rules the commission demanded that week, are now regular parts of the sport, including implementing five weight classes, banning fights with competitors who were not in the same weight class, instituting five-minute rounds, and implementing boxing judges who would score fights on a ten-point must system. UFC fights had judges already, but they scored it like PRIDE, where the entire fight would be taken into account and the judges would pick a winner.

But the killer, the one to show these laws had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with making sure the event never happened, is that an Octagon would have to be a minimum 40 feet in diameter. The UFC’s Octagon was 32 feet, and it would have been nearly impossible to build a new larger one on such short notice, and a reconfiguration would mess with floor seating after thousands of tickets were already sold.

The irony of mandating boxing gloves and banning chokes, taking the grappling out of the sport, would only make it more dangerous.

"We worked on it with the athletic commission," said Issacs. "It was really carefully done and it’s amazing how quickly it all got undone."

And if you thought the politicians were out to lunch last week, the debates going on back in 1996 in the city councils in New York and Buffalo were by comparison nearly slapstick in nature. They talked about banning the events because of chair shots and putting the participants through tables, not knowing that the Extreme Fighting Championship and UFC were different from the staged Extreme Championship Wrestling, a wild Philadelphia-based wrestling product that had cult appeal at the time.

Two days before the event, SEG filed suit against the commission for attempting to change the rules so close to the date, noting they would be forcing the fighters to compete under rules very different from what they had trained for.

SEG thought there was no way it could lose its case. It filed in Federal Court, claiming Article I of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from passing laws that interfere with existing contracts.

On February 6, 1997, the afternoon prior to the planned Niagara Falls show, U.S. Federal Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cederbaum ruled against SEG’s attempt to get the new rules thrown out. Without a 40-foot Octagon, they couldn’t run a show in the state.

"We couldn’t believe we lost in court," said Issacs. "We were certain we had a great case, and that they couldn’t pass emergency legislation. We mistakenly thought we had crossed all of our t’s and dotted all of our i’s."

The show was moved at the eleventh hour to Dothan, Alabama. SEG chartered a jet from Niagara Falls to Montgomery, filled with 200 fighters, entourages, officials, reporters and some fans. The flight was delayed because of weight issues. Luggage had to be thrown off the plane and left in Niagara Falls. They landed in Alabama at 2 a.m. Several buses were then rented to take the crew to Dothan, where they dropped people off at a number of different hotels. Fighters didn’t get rooms until 5 a.m., and everyone had to check out by noon due to a religious convention coming in, that had booked every hotel in town.

After working around the clock, they were still painting the canvas on the Octagon in front of the fans even after the first match was scheduled to go into the cage, causing the prelims to start 15 minutes late, but they made it on time for the pay-per-view.

Media coverage was huge nationally. The New York Times wrote about how blood was spilled in seven matches, even though there was only blood in three (and in those fights, the blood was minimal). A Newsday column written after the show compared UFC promoter Meyrowitz to Satan, said that the fights had no judges (they did), no weight classes (they did) and that UFC was a bore, and the only thing that saves it "is the blood," which draws "low-watt cretins" to the matches. The column claimed fans were chanting that they wanted blood during the Coleman vs. Severn fight, which Coleman won quickly by submission. That chant never happened, but there was a chant of "New York sucks," which the story chalked up to the IQ citizens from Alabama.

The New York state assembly then passed, by a 134-1 margin, a bill that would ban no holds barred events from the state. A bill proposed in the state senate, which wouldn’t ban the sport, but would give local municipalities the power to ban it in their domains, passed 33-0. But that wasn’t enough, as the state senate quickly passed the bill to ban it and Pataki immediately signed it.

Bruno said it might as well be banned, since the new rulebook the commission implemented had in effect banned it already. But he said that the truth was that the UFC, even at its most maligned, was less violent than boxing.

"We’d have been running large scale events in New York in 1997," said Isaacs. "The year would have been interesting. We had moved much more to a sports direction. We were trying to get people to take it seriously. We knew we had a base of fans already. We needed the PR of sports page coverage and at that time, that could have put us over the top.

"But it didn’t happen."

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