The biggest fight for the mixed martial arts industry may not take place in any arena this year.
Instead, it will be in Albany, N.Y., as lobbyists and industry executives try to persuade the state legislature to legalize the popular sport in the Empire State.
Victory for the UFC, the sport’s biggest name, means staging a lucrative fight in Madison Square Garden, one of the most important venues in the country in a key market.
“Let me say how important New York is to our company,” said Lawrence Epstein, UFC’s general counsel. “New York is the world media centre. When you do events in New York you get more attention.”
Mixed martial arts is currently banned in New York. UFC failed to get it overturned last year. Similar debates have been playing out around the U.S., as the sport has surged in popularity: UFC officials also are making a push to allow MMA in Wisconsin, South Carolina and Massachusetts.
UFC president Dana White has said getting the sport sanctioned in New York and Massachusetts is his immediate priority, with Ontario next.
MMA cards are held regularly in the likes of Alberta and Quebec but not in Ontario.
In New York, the Las Vegas-based UFC finds itself locked in a cage match with a feisty and highly regarded New York assemblyman who has called the sport “barbaric.”
“What the people from Ultimate Fighting will tell you is that ‘We’ve changed the rules and it’s no longer this brutal, no-holds-barred sport that it was in the past,’” state assemblyman Bob Reilly said.
“That’s far from the whole story. What they don’t tell you is what is allowed. Kicking to the head. Kneeing them. Sitting on top of them and repeatedly punching them in the head and face. They don’t tell you those things.”
This year, UFC has regrouped, rolling out a pricey study that says hosting fights in Buffalo or Manhattan would produce millions of dollars for the cities at a time when the state’s economy is staggering under the weight of recession. The fast-growing UFC has retained an influential lobbying firm and deployed top executives to explain the sport to legislators.
UFC officials even cite a medical study that says MMA is safer than boxing.
“The sport has clearly evolved over the years,” said Marc Ratner, UFC’s vice-president of regulatory and governmental affairs, who will be making a trip to Albany again this year.
“It’s all about education,” Ratner added. “There are some legislators who still believe it’s 1995.”
UFC president Dana White told Metro’s John Chick in August that legalizing professional MMA in Ontario remains the circuit’s third priority after New York and Massachusetts.
– Metro News Services