Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on the fight to get mixed martial arts sanctioned in the state of New York.
It was back in February when Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Jon Jones appealed to a politician as part of an ongoing campaign toward the goal of legalizing mixed martial arts in the state of New York.
“I was born in Rochester, raised in Endicott, where my parents still live, and currently live in Ithaca,” Jones said, in part, to Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes on Feb. 13. “My brothers -- both exceptional NFL players -- and I were raised in a very strict household where strong values and respect for all people were instilled in us. It’s ironic that my parents can watch my brothers, who represent cities outside of New York, do their job in New York when they visit your hometown team, the Buffalo Bills, but they can’t watch me do my job in my home state.”
Although MMA has its teeth embedded in 49 states nationwide, as well in areas all over the world, nearly seven months later, the sport still has not been able to take a bite out of The Big Apple.
“Not every state has an athletic commission, but everywhere in North America MMA is legal, so it’s in 49 states and all of the provinces in Canada,” said Marc Ratner, the UFC’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “I have a big map where everything is in green except for the big red spot in New York.”
For some seven years and through many legislative sessions, the latter of which annually happen from January through June, Ratner, UFC officials such as Chief Operating Officer Ike Lawrence Epstein and the fighters themselves have lobbied, unsuccessfully, to bring MMA to New York. However, their collective efforts, according to Ratner and Epstein, have been held in submission by one man: Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, of Manhattan.
“We’ve had numerous opportunities to speak with speaker Silver over the years,” Epstein said. “We haven’t had much of an opportunity over the last couple of years, and at least according to a couple of our representatives, he’s no longer interested in talking to us about the issue; but I’ve personally been in his presence, either in his office or at fundraisers that he’s held, on five or six occasions, and other than, you know, ‘Hey, you’ll get it done next year,’ or whatever it is ... He said that to me, I think, six years ago, but that’s obviously not come to true.
“He said something like, just that, ‘It’s not going to happen this year, but maybe next year. Keep working hard.’ Stuff like that, fairly cryptic sort of comments, nothing specific at all,” he added. “But there has never been any sort of clear pronouncement as to what lies in the future for MMA regulation in New York.”
Sherdog.com made four attempts to interview Silver through his press officer, Brian Franke.
“Right now, the speaker is not available, so he is not able to accommodate your request,” Franke said. “But should that change, we’ll be sure to let you know. We do appreciate your interest.”
Sherdog.com also reached out to David Berlin, the newly elected executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission, who responded through spokesperson Laz Benitez.
“Thanks for your interest. Unfortunately, at this time, we will have to take a pass on this. In the future, if there is any change in the law to allow professional MMA in New York, we will work to implement and regulate it properly and be available to speak to it,” read the statement. “At this point, anything we can add would be strictly speculative, and we don’t want to speculate … especially on something we don’t have jurisdiction over and is not legal in the State of New York. Thanks for understanding.”
In the past, Epstein said, Silver has prevented MMA from coming to a vote on the assembly floor. He did so yet again at the end of the most recent session in June.
“There are a lot of different ways that you can get legislation done through New York,” Epstein said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to go through the Senate, but it’s just gone through that for us the last five years in a row because we have bipartisan support there and we’ve got a great sponsor who has really championed this issue for us. So it’s proceeded through various committees, typically through the Tourism Committee, potentially a Rules Committee vote and then of course the Senate floor, where it’s passed for five years in a row by a three- and almost four-to-one margin.
“In the Assembly, over the years, it’s passed out of the Tourism Committee and other committees like Codes and always gotten stuck in Ways and Means,” he added. “But now, they won’t even put us on the agenda for the Tourism Committee anymore because they know that we’re going to win and it looks bad when all of these bills on MMA pass out of all of their committees that are doing substantive work on all of these issues of legislation and, of course, they never get the chance to vote on the Assembly floor.”
One person who disagrees with the legalization of MMA in New York is Thomas Hauser, a boxing historian and longtime state resident.
“There are two key issues surrounding MMA in New York,” Hauser wrote in an email to Sherdog.com. “The first is whether MMA should be legalized, and the second is whether MMA will be legalized. Looking at the second of those issues, I have to think that, for the time being, MMA will not be legalized. Obviously, in this instance, MMA means UFC, since UFC would be the primary beneficiary of this legislation.
“Sheldon Silver is the most powerful person in the New York State legislature,” he added. “He has longstanding ties to organized labor, and there are labor unions with a national footprint, most notably, the culinary workers’ union, that have grievances against the Fertitta brothers because of their opposition to unionizing workers in their casinos. It’s my understanding that, because of this, the unions have encouraged Silver to oppose legalizing MMA in New York, and Silver has done their bidding.”
Epstein acknowledged the issue with Las Vegas Culinary Union local 226, which is involved in an ongoing battle with UFC co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also own the non-unionized Stations Casinos.
“Stations Casinos is a company that is majority Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, as is Zuffa LLC, which is the company that owns UFC,” he said. “That being said, they are two, separate and distinct companies. The UFC is not anti-organized labor in any way, shape or fashion. In addition, every single arena that we do business with in the United States and many around the world are stocked full of trade workers, stage hands, lighting guys, and many times, culinary workers of this exact union that is fighting us staff the concession stands. Teamsters and all sorts of trades are involved at these facilities.”
According to Ratner, UFC 172 -- which was headlined by Jones’ victory over Glover Teixeira in April -- “sold over 12,000 tickets for a gate of over $2 million” at the Baltimore Arena in Baltimore. Maryland legalized MMA in 2009.
“Jones-Teixeira ranked as the second-highest grossing event as far as live gate that the arena has ever had behind the Rolling Stones,” said John Rallo, a Baltimore-based promoter who spearheaded the legalization of MMA in that state. “Now, that’s a building that has had Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce there. That number -- over a $2 million [gate] for the door ... that was the single-highest sporting event that they’ve had at the arena.”
Epstein believes the UFC’s potential economic impact in New York, if, say, Jones were to compete there, should trump the continuing fight against MMA legalization in the state.
“We’ve actually put together with a company called HR&A an economic impact study that details sort of what the legalization of MMA means to New York on an annual basis,” he said. “When you combine our events and the events of other promoters and the accelerated growth of our UFC gym business in New York, you’re talking about $135 million a year in economic impact. It’s not just the ticket sales that you focus on here. It’s all of the fans that come in, not only from all over the country but from all over the world that come to these events. They stay at the hotels, they eat at the restaurants, they buy a lot of food at the restaurants and at the venue itself and they create the equivalent of dozens and dozens and dozens of full-time employee positions as a results of these events.
“We also pay taxes on tickets that are sold there, taxes on the live broadcasts on television, so there is a significant economic impact every time one of these events takes place,” he added. “Another thing to remember is that we’re not the only promoter. We’re certainly the biggest and most well-known, but there are promoters like Bellator that is owned by Viacom, and there’s World Series of Fighting and a whole bunch of these promoters that are out there that will do events and create an economic impact from those events. So our own team, in and of itself, when we roll in with our production people and all of that stuff, we’re talking about six or seven hundred room nights just from our team, and that’s the people who have to put on the event. That’s nothing to do with all of the fans that come in from around the world.”
Epstein said Silver has access to the economic impact study, which can be found here.
“We brought it to his office many, many times, just as we’ve provided that to every single member of the assembly, both the proponents of our MMA legislation and our opponents,” he said. “Everybody’s got them. Nobody’s provided anything to rebut it in any way, shape or form.”
What would Epstein tell Silver if he could gain another face-to-face meeting?
“It would be real simple: Please allow the Democratic process to take its course,” he said. “Give us a vote on the Assembly floor and let the chips fall where they may.”