Time to bring MMA to the Big Apple

Kevin Iole

NEWARK, N.J. — Rashad Evans eked out a split decision over Michael Bisping on Saturday in a taut, gritty battle in the main event of UFC 78 at the Prudential Center in the shadow of New York City.

It drew 14,071 fans, who paid a live gate of $2.1 million, to the new home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils.

The problem was, the card should have been in New York at Madison Square Garden. It deserved to be held on sport's biggest stage.

Mixed martial arts has come far enough that it deserves to be sanctioned in every state and in every country. The problems that plagued the sport in its early days, when there were few rules and no regulation, have largely been corrected.

But MMA is sanctioned in only 31 states and the District of Columbia in this country, which makes it hard for skeptics to take it seriously.

New York and Massachusetts are the two largest states that still haven't sanctioned the sport. The UFC hired Marc Ratner away from the Nevada Athletic Commission in 2006 in order to help get the sport sanctioned more widely.

Ratner has worked wonders in his brief stint in MMA. The governor in Illinois has recently signed a bill legalizing the sport in that state. Michigan's legislature is closing in on a bill to sanction MMA. State sanction is close in Hawaii, too.

But the fact that boxing could hold the Mosley-Cotto fight, one of its biggest events a week ago, in the Garden and MMA could not on Saturday is mind-boggling.

In many respects, it was fortunate that UFC 78 was in New Jersey and not New York. The card, which on paper seemed to be perhaps one of the two or three best of the year going in, was largely lackluster.

The crowd responded with boos in a number of fights and there were more down moments than there normally are in a UFC event.

But anyone who calls MMA barbaric or who believes the fighters are bloodthirsty heathens clearly isn't paying attention. They're legitimate world-class athletes competing in a major sport which deserves to get the stamp of approval anywhere it wants to go.

UFC president Dana White hired Ratner to try to get MMA sanctioned in all states, even though he'll never take the UFC to places like Vermont, New Hampshire or Wyoming.

But there are many promoters of small shows, he pointed out, who stage cards in states around the country, even in places where it isn't state-sanctioned. And he doesn't want to see the sport's perfect track record of no competition-related deaths or serious injuries snapped. That could happen in an unregulated environment, which is why White feels so passionate about guaranteeing all states ultimately regulate it.

"The thing that cracks me up," White said on Saturday during the post-fight news conference, "and that is so ironic about this whole thing is that this was originally pulled off of pay-per-view and off of cable because Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wanted it to be sanctioned and the former owner didn't want it to be sanctioned. … Now, there are other commissions saying they won't sanction it when we're trying to be sanctioned."

White's belief is that if New York finally sanctions it then the other states will fall into line and his dream will be realized.

And then his only concerns will be cards that don't live up to expectations and not where the fights are held.

The Evans-Bisping fight was entertaining and Chris Lytle and Thiago Alves put on an outstanding show in their welterweight bout on the preliminary card.

But Saturday's card lacked the showstopper it seemed on paper it was guaranteed to produce.

Frank Edgar was impressive in dominating Spencer Fisher, but fans didn't get to see any of Fisher's powerful strikes. Edgar repeatedly took Fisher down and the bout was a one-sided beatdown.

Houston Alexander was stopped in the first round of his fight with Thiago Silva, which was a letdown to the crowd that roared its approval when the single father of six entered the cage.

Overall, the card fell several notches below what its expectations were.

"I'm not sure I agree with that," said Matt Serra, the UFC's Long Island, N.Y.-based welterweight champion. "I think there were a lot of good fights. But I'm just a fan of the sport, I guess."

So, too, am I and I think it's time the sport was held on the world's biggest stage. Serra can defend his title in Las Vegas, but he can't do it in New York.

It doesn't make sense. New York officials who looked across the river to see the success in Newark should understand that.

It's time to sanction MMA in New York now.

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