UFC and New York to battle in court

For the past five years, Lorenzo Fertitta, the CEO and Chairman of Zuffa, which is the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has been working on lifting a ban to allow live MMA events in the state of New York.

However, he has continued to hit delays and roadblocks along the way because several politicians deem mixed martial arts too brutal for children and youth.

Let’s fight

The only other option Fertitta felt he had was to sue New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in hopes of overturning the state law banning mixed martial arts.

On Tuesday, November 15, Zuffa and MMA fighters such as Frankie Edgar, Jon Jones, Gina  Carano, Matt Hamill, as well as numerous coaches, trainers and fans joined Zuffa in the lawsuit, which states that by not lifting the ban of mixed martial arts New York is in violation of  the United States Constitution, including the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause.

The suit also claims the lawmakers who won’t lift the ban are the same ones who don’t understand the sport and therefore they dislike MMA and the perceived message it sends.

“Live professional MMA is clearly intended and understood as public entertainment and, as such, is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit states.

Human cockfighting?

Since 1997, MMA has been banned in New York thanks to the efforts of lawmakers such as state assemblyman Stephan Kaufman, who sponsored the Live Professional MMA ban. He was the main person who urged Governor George Pataki to sign the bill banning live MMA events.

“To glorify this type of ‘blood sport’ serves to increase our youth to violence and also desensitizes those same impressionable minds to needless brutality,” Kaufman stated.

The N.Y. Athletic Commission also wanted MMA banned because as they stated: “MMA is a sport that is inherently unsafe. It also sends the wrong message to the youth of this state.”

During this time, U.S. Sen. John McCain added his comments when he said MMA is “human cockfighting.”

Over time other lawmakers and politicians jumped on the bandwagon to support the proposed ban.  In 1997, Pataki signed the Live Professional MMA ban into law.

“To have someone who wins by using choke holds and kicking people while they are down is not someone our children should be looking to emulate,” Pataki stated.

If that was Pataki’s take on MMA, then other competitive sports like football, hockey, boxing and wrestling, should also be banned. In fact, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is one of the most violent sports entertainment events on television.

Now some people, like Pataki, may state that entertainment wrestling isn’t real. Whether it is or not, children watching the WWE believe all the hits, kicks, eye gouges, hair pulling, choke holds, chair smashing, table crashing and blood and broken bones are real.

So what kind of impression will children get from watching WWE superstars like John Cena, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Batista, Rey Mysterio and others?

MMA regulation and State Athletic Commissions

It is understandable that lawmakers feared mixed martial arts back in 1997 when there were no rules, no guidelines and no structure of the sport. However, over the years things have changed considerably and MMA has evolved.

Rules, regulations, safety training, weight class divisions and medical evaluations were instilled, along with omitting certain strikes during a match, such as kicks to the head of a downed opponent and strikes to the back of the head. These changes and improvements made MMA a safer sport.

Due to these changes many states began to lift the ban and allowed live MMA events in their states. In fact, New Jersey was the first state to lift the ban in 2001.

The N.J. State Athletic Control Board instilled the Unified MMA Rules, which all other states used as the standard for athletic commission regulations.

Fertitta noted that New York is the last state holding out on the ban, but he can not understand why. New Yorkers can watch MMA on television, so it does not make much sense that they can not go see live matches.

“The ban on live professional MMA infringes on the rights of countless New Yorkers,” said New York University law professor Barry Friedman, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “Despite sincere legislative efforts, the ban remains in place based on a flawed assessment of the sport’s supposedly ‘violent message.’ ”

In the 105 page lawsuit Zuffa filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York it argues the case against the former N.Y. Governor’s reason for passing the law in 1997, stating that MMA is unsafe and dangerous for kids to watch.

“MMA is now as safe as or even safer than many other sports and activities sanctioned in New York like boxing, for example, because it allows fighters to honorably tap out and involves far fewer hits,” Fertitta said in the lawsuit.

Back in June, the State Senate did pass two bills that would sanction MMA to become legal in New York, but it never reached a vote by the Assembly.

The Union issue

Another reason for the ban not being lifted may have to do with the casinos owned by the Feritta brothers, Station Casinos, not being unionized.

Lorenzo Fertitta feels certain politicians may be holding up the vote in the Assembly to try and force their casinos to become union. However, Fertitta was clear to point out that decision is ultimately up to their employees, and up to now they have opted against it.

He also points out the fact when the UFC holds an event in any major city across the U.S., the arena employees working those events are almost entirely made up of union workers.

Although this problem has been an uphill battle for MMA, the UFC is getting a great deal of support from lawmakers, politicians, actors and entertainers, fans and the current chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, Melvina Latham.

Save New York

On Monday, November 21, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reached out to some 20 business, labor and political leaders to help solve the state’s fiscal problems and make it economically sustainable.

Cuomo noted the deficit for New York will hit $2.4 billion by the end of 2011. New York’s economic woes and Cuomo’s dilemma could possibly be helped a great deal if the MMA ban was lifted.

Fertitta noted that one live UFC event in New York could bring in roughly $9-$10 million for the state. The thousands of people who would travel to the state to see an event, making use of hotels, public transportation, cabs, sightseeing, tourist attractions, restaurants and shops, would all add to New York’s revenue.

Simply put, a UFC event in any city in New York would be outrageously huge. And that is just the UFC alone. Lifting the ban would also allow for other MMA promotions to hold events in the state.

On any given weekend, there would likely be dozen of MMA events taking place all across the state of New York, all helping benefit the state’s struggling economy if the ban is lifted.

MMA becoming mainstream

Back in August, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White made one of the biggest steps to move MMA into the mainstream when they entered a seven-year deal with FOX Broadcasting Co., estimated to be worth $100 million per year.

The new deal includes four live UFC events a year on FOX, and the hit reality series “The Ultimate Fighter” will move from Spike TV to FX in a new live format. There will also be several live UFC Fight Night events per year on FX and other UFC shoulder programming on Fuel TV.

FOX adding MMA to its collection of sports programming means mixed martial arts is now a part of sports culture, right along with the NFL, Major League Baseball and Nascar.

David Hill, chairman of the Fox Sports Media Group, said: “The sport has gone from a niche to an international powerhouse. I’ve never seen anything go from zero to hero in so short a time.”

Another way MMA is becoming mainstream is through major endorsements and sponsorships. Georges St. Pierre is the first MMA fighter to ever snag a major endorsement deal with two major companies – Gatorade and Under Armour.

Zuffa is working toward building a more respectable image with companies in order to gain more respect. Each step Zuffa and the UFC take in the right direction will help MMA become more acceptable by those who hold the power in New York.

Last hurdle

For a sport that is still considered young and evolving MMA has made major strides over the years with the creative minds and business sense of the Fertitta brothers and White, who have worked tirelessly to build an illegal, misunderstood and dying sport into a legitimate, professional and popular sensation that is seen live by millions of people all over America and internationally, with just one exception – New York.

In the past, the UFC has tried to get the ban overturned, but they have met with failure each time. However, now that it looks like MMA is becoming mainstream and more respected as a safe and legitimate sport things could be totally different this time when Zuffa goes to court.

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