New York appears close to legalizing pro MMA, but UFC isn't celebrating yet

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Fans stand outside am entrance to Madison Square Garden as they were turned away because the game between the New York Knicks and the Orlando Magic was postponed, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in New York. The game was postponed because of safety concerns after debris fell into the arena during overnight cleaning of asbestos-related materials. A spokesman for New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, Farrell Sklerov, said the agency's inspectors were on the scene and had determined that no asbestos had been released. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

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Fans stand outside am entrance to Madison Square Garden as they were turned away because the game between the New York Knicks and the Orlando Magic was postponed, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in New York. The game was postponed because of safety concerns after debris fell into the arena during overnight cleaning of asbestos-related materials. A spokesman for New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, Farrell Sklerov, said the agency's inspectors were on the scene and had determined that no asbestos had been released. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

For years, anyone with an ounce of common sense saw New York's ban on professional mixed martial arts for what it was: A con job, with the vote (or non-vote, whichever the case might be) going to the highest bidder.

The image of the once-powerful Sheldon Silver, the long-time speaker of the New York state assembly, in the back of a police car in February being hauled to jail by federal agents on corruption charges, led many to believe that MMA's legalization was soon at hand.

It was Silver who repeatedly blocked a vote on the bill in the assembly after it had passed the state senate. UFC's ownership believes it was at the behest of Las Vegas Culinary Union 226, which has been in a protracted feud with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta over the failure to unionize Station Casinos.

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Silver's departure and the ascension of Carl Heastie into the speaker's chair has led to optimism that the bill will finally become law this year.

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, whose company has poured tens of millions of dollars into an effort to convince New York to legalize the sport, isn't celebrating just yet, even if it looks like there could be a UFC card at Madison Square Garden later this year.

There was never a reason for the ban on professional MMA in the first place, and yet it was made law. And for at least the last five years, the votes have been there in the assembly to overturn the ban and make pro MMA legal in New York, but Silver repeatedly prevented the vote.

Ronda Rousey last week met with several New York politicians on MMA legalization in the state. (USAT)
Ronda Rousey last week met with several New York politicians on MMA legalization in the state. (USAT)

As a result, even though everything looks positive for MMA supporters in New York, Fertitta isn't getting cocky.

He knows the political realities and after years of nonsense, he has come to expect the unexpected.

"Trying to get through the whole political process has been frustrating," Fertitta told Yahoo Sports. "We do feel better than we have in the past, but this is far from a done deal. Far from it. We still have a long way to go."

Ronda Rousey, the UFC's biggest name and brightest star, met with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week and appeared all over television lobbying for the bill's passage.

She appeared on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, The View and a whole slew of shows at ESPN, in addition to speaking to countless reporters from newspapers and web sites, about the bill.

She made numerous great points. There is plenty of MMA in New York, but it's dangerous because it's unregulated amateur or, worse, underground pro MMA. That means there are no pre- or post-fight medical exams, no pregnancy testing for female fighters, no drug screens and no qualified referees.

She rebutted the ludicrous arguments that were made by MMA's opponents, such as that it is anti-women or anti-gay.

She was brilliant making the case for MMA's legalization in the state in her own inimitable style, but all she did was re-state the obvious.

It's clearly not about safety, because boxing is legal in New York and there have been more fighter deaths in New York alone since 1993, when UFC came into existence, than there has been in all of MMA in that span. Yet, boxing is legal and regulated and MMA is not.

So Fertitta prefers to remain cautious because of his experience, even though he chuckles every time he sees a commercial by the state touting its pro-business climate.

"All of us are very confident that we can have a strong economic impact in the state, not just in New York City, but upstate as well," Fertitta said. "Now, the irony of the whole thing is, I picked up Barron's over the weekend and I saw an ad and when I watch CNBC in the mornings, they have these 30-second ads running where all it is, is that New York is a great place to do business.

"They're saying they want to create tax havens and want you to move your business to New York so you can save on your taxes. That's so ironic because we're saying, 'Hey, we're happy to come to New York to create economic activity and we don't need any tax breaks. We'll happily pay the taxes. We just want the opportunity to do business in New York.' But the reality of what has happened to us is completely the opposite of what they're spending tens of millions of dollars advertising."

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta is optimistic about New York legalizing MMA. (Getty)
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta is optimistic about New York legalizing MMA. (Getty)

Hopefully, Heastie can shepherd the bill through the assembly and send it to Cuomo for his signature to make it law. Heastie's office failed to respond to multiple interview requests from Yahoo Sports, but Fertitta praised him as an MMA fan and supporter of the bill.

So, the UFC finds itself in much the same position the Seattle Seahawks found themselves in during Super Bowl XLIX in February: They're on the goal line in the final minutes of the game and seemingly about to win.

It seemed a sure thing, until it wasn't and the Patriots won the game.

So now matter how good it may look now, and it looks plenty good that there could be a UFC show in Madison Square Garden by the end of the year, Fertitta is going to keep pushing.

The last thing he wants is to be like Pete Carroll spending months answering questions about what went wrong.

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