The Ultimate Fighting Championship, which allows foes to punch, kick, wrestle and choke each other, is a billion-dollar global enterprise that cannot do business in America's biggest market. New York state banned the sport of mixed martial arts in 1997 and has been keeping its guard up since.
But the UFC is no 98-pound weakling. Validated by a $700 million Fox TV contract and a $400 million annual take in pay-per-view cable buys, mixed martial arts' largest governing body is mounting its biggest counter attack yet. The UFC is seeking a knockout in federal court. It filed suit in November against the state for squelching fighters' First Amendment freedom of expression. "It's an insane law and hard to read," said attorney and NYU Law Professor Barry Friedman, who filed the suit on behalf of Zuffa, UFC's parent company. "It's a law written in great haste and created under political pressure."
This weekend the UFC is giving New York an elbow-to-the ribs reminder that the sport is up for a long bloody fight. The Mixed Martial Arts World Expo convenes on Saturday for the third time in New York City, one of the very few places where mixed martial arts fights are outlawed. (Forty-five states sanction the sport.) Exhibitions, a book-signing by UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture and a panel on legalizing MMA highlight the two-day gathering. The UFC isn't officially taking part, but Ratner said the UFC appreciates the help.
Legalizing mixed martial arts in New York state could mean untold dollars for the UFC and a giant victory for brand building, followers say. The UFC wants New York City and its famed venue, Madison Square Garden -- described by one UFC official as a fighting "mecca" -- for annual live bouts. The exposure and prestige would expand what is already a a brawling empire viewed in 145 countries.
"It's the cherry on top of the dessert," said Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs.
The New York ban stretches to 1997 when Gov. George Pataki signed it into law. Back then, shoddy regulation and the stigma of John McCain comparing the matches to "human cockfighting" made the choice easier.
New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly (D), long an outspoken opponent, said he wants the MMA rules changed to make it safer, emphasizing artistry over heavy blows. He said he was disgusted by the UFC's "Knockout of the Night" $75,000 cash bonus, claiming that those on the other end of the knockouts will be brain-damaged. He doesn't like professional boxing either, but that's already a legal sport. He called the expo a play to ultimately reap more credibility and cash for mixed martial arts, adding that he isn't throwing in the towel either.
As for the free-expression premise put forth in the UFC lawsuit, Reilly has his own colorful take. "People are going to say we're going to fornicate in the middle of the local park and say that this is their expression," he said. "The argument that this is an art and fighters have a right to express themselves is fairly desperate."
Ratner, however, dismissed Reilly as a figurehead and said the Assembly would move to legalize MMA if a bill ever went to a vote there. But for now, supporters are hoping to overturn the ban in court. "I'm very optimistic," Ratner said. "It's the right thing to do."
The UFC has been careful to lobby with a "what we can do for New York" strategy as opposed to what New York can do for UFC. In a 2008 study, UFC estimated it would generate $16.1 million in new economic activity on a fight weekend, including $1.5 million in direct tax revenues for the state and city. In January, UFC President Dana White said a combination of annual events in New York City and Buffalo would result in a $23 million boost.
New Yorkers make up a "very very big" percentage of UFC's pay-per-view buys and broadcast-TV ratings, Ratner said. If only they could attend a live fight on their own turf.
For now, though, all New York gets is a convention.
Said expo organizer Paul Paone: "I'm filling a void left by New York state law."