MMA takes first tiny steps toward legalization in New York with favorable ruling from federal judge in UFC suit

Kevin Iole

Don't start planning for the trip to Madison Square Garden to see the first live UFC card in New York just yet, but a federal judge supplied a glimmer of hope to fans who are desperate to see the state's 1997 law banning mixed martial arts be lifted.

U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood allowed the UFC's lawsuit against the state of New York to move forward, and rejected the state attorney general's request to dismiss the suit.

Wood rejected claims by the plaintiffs, which include UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, the UFC itself, fans and others, that the state law violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. UFC chief operating officer Ike Lawrence Epstein told Yahoo Sports that the First Amendment claims "was the weakest part of our case."

However, Epstein and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta hailed Wood's ruling that the case can proceed based on their argument that the law is unconstitutionally vague.

"We always felt from the very, very beginning that far and away our best claims and the claims we had the most likelihood of success on were the claims relating to vagueness," Epstein told Yahoo Sports. "We felt it was the best because we had all this evidence that showed that the state, in particular the lawyers for the state, the attorney general, the athletic commission and others, had inconsistently for years interpreted the statute. We obviosly believe that is evidence they don't know what it means.

"If they knew it, they would have consistently enforced it. If you read the ruling, you'll see that the judge sort of takes them to task ... for their flip flops."

The plaintiffs were urging the judge to find the law unconstitutional immediately. She did not do that, but essentially ruled that if they can factually prove it, she would rule in their favor. Epstein said he believes the facts are overwhelmingly in favor of the plaintiffs.

He said the judge's ruling made him optimistic the plaintiffs would prevail.

"If the judge sees a statute that is on its face [unconstitutional] and that she didn't need any evidence and that there is something in the statute that is just incorrect, that there is no additional evidence needed to prove or disprove it, [she would immediately overturn it]," he said. "For example, if someone passed a statute that discriminated against women, or passed a law that discriminated against people's ethnic backgrounds, you don't need any evidence on that one. It's like, 'Done. Case over.'

"In our situation, what I think the judge is saying is, 'Well, I'm not saying that the statute is 100 percent on its face unconstitutional based on language. There is an issue of fact here. If you prove your facts, you're going to win.' We feel very confident we will prove our facts and we will win."

The UFC's best hope is the legislative process, though. Each year for the last several years, the state senate has passed a law that would give the state athletic commission authority to regulate MMA. But it's stalled in the state house each time, as Speaker Sheldon Silver has refused to allow it to come to a vote.

Silver, though, has said that he thinks it will be voted upon, and passed, eventually. The UFC had enough votes in each of the last two legislative sessions to pass it had Silver allowed it to go to a vote.

The New York legislature will be in session next in the first half of next year, and an interesting situation could arise. If the legislature doesn't pass a bill and then after it goes out of session Judge Wood rules in favor of the plaintiffs, essentially MMA would be legal in the state at that point. But with no law passed, the state wouldn't be able to regulate it or collect taxes.

The next session of the legislature will end on June 30, 2014. If it doesn't pass a law by then and Wood's decision is favorable to the plaintiffs and comes July 1, 2014 or later, Fertitta would face a tough choice.

Fertitta's position has been to allow the legislative process to play out, but he said he'd likely agree to put a fight in New York under those circumstances because the situation is different.

"This whole process has been -- what's the right word? -- so unfair, so unfair, knowing that we do have the support in the legislature in both houses and one person has blocked this sport from being properly regulated," Fertitta told Yahoo Sports. "If the courts were to determine that we were free to go ahead and do an event and we felt like we could through a third-party sanctioning body protect the health and safety of the fighters, yeah, we would probably move forward and do it.

"We would prefer not to, but we've been backed into a corner and put into a position where we really would have no choice."

The ruling is good news for those who want to see MMA legalized in New York, but this is a fight that is a far way from being finished.

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