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New York MMA: Think Locally, Not Globally

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This is a guest editorial by Stephen Koepfer, founder of the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York, and gym owner of New York Combat Sambo. Koepfer and the coalition has been instrumental in the grass roots effort for MMA legalization in New York over the last few years, and yet to this point the coalition has been ignored by Zuffa instead of collaborated with as an ally. The coalition mostly consists of New Yorkers, who live in New York state 24/7 and are the ones most closely effected by the current ban. The opinion in this editorial is that of Koepfer's, and does not necessarily reflect the stance of SBNation - KJ

On June 28, 2002 Lou Neglia promoted Vengeance at the Vanderbilt 14 in Plainview, New York. That show featured the likes of future UFC veteran Pete "Drago" Sell and other fighters who later moved on to fight in the IFC, AFC, MFC, Bodog Fights, and M-1 Global. Neglia's show had the dubious distinction of having been the last sanctioned amateur MMA event held in the state of New York. Since that time New York native Neglia has moved his operation to Atlantic City, New Jersey where he promotes one of the top regional professional MMA shows, Ring of Combat.

In response to an escalating national movement against MMA, New York became the first state to ban professional MMA on January 28, 1997, only months after legalizing it on October 10, 1996. The legislation that banned the sport was sloppily rushed together, and to date is the only time the New York legislature has used an emergency provision to overturn a prior law in less than the required 30 day waiting period. As we all know, state after state followed New York's lead and banned the sport. Since that time in tandem with the sport's maturation, a virtual rewind has occurred as state after state has unbanned and regulated the sport. New York and Connecticut remain the last hold outs among states that have athletic commissions.

If MMA was banned in New York in 1997, how was Neglia able to host Vengeance at the Vanderbilt 14 in 2002? He was able to do it because the hastily crafted law banned professional MMA (and Muay Thai for that matter) but, if overseen by a sanctioning body, allowed for amateur martial arts competition under which amateur MMA falls. However, in 2002 the New York legislature realized its miscalculation; allowing for less regulated amateur MMA to take place while banning the more regulated professional version of the sport. How could they stamp out this horrid atrocity now?! The old dogs in Albany did it by using any means possible to shut down the amateur shows; usually using liquor laws, occupancy laws, or any other means they could muster. Guess what? They succeeded; and in the process set the stage for the meteoric rise of underground & unsanctioned MMA*. There has not been a sanctioned MMA event in New York since Neglia's 2002 show - until May 19, 2012 that is.

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Before we look at what happened on May 19 in the small Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, let's rewind two weeks to May 7. On that day, the Democratic (majority party) leadership of New York's Assembly held a closed door conference to determine the future of a bill that, if passed, would allow for the lifting of the ban and regulation of professional MMA in New York. The legislation had been blocked by the Assembly's Democratic leadership for the past two years in spite of clear majority support in their own house, as well as passage of the legislation in the Senate. While longtime vocal opponents of MMA such as outgoing Assemblyman Bob Reilly, Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari and Assemblyman Herman D Farrell Jr. have been steadfast in their opposition over the past several years, blame for the bill's consistent failure can be laid squarely at the feet of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver has vast influence over Assembly membership and agenda as well as total control over which bills make it the floor for a final vote. As in 2010 and 2011, on May 7 Silver disingenuously squashed any hopes for professional New York MMA in 2012; despite reported majority support in the closed door meeting.

Why are Sheldon Silver and others motivated to subvert the democratic process in order to keep professional MMA banned? Reasons for this have fluctuated during the past 15 years. But, during the past 2 years or so, New York has become a proxy battlefield in an unrelated public war that is sacrificing the whole of the New York MMA community for a few selfish parties. I will revisit that complicated question later.

Continue reading after the jump ...

In order to understand why May 19, 2012 will be remembered as a critical date in New York MMA history, let's rewind a bit further to November 15, 2011. On that day attorneys representing Zuffa, LLC and numerous other plaintiffs made a bold and important move by filing a lawsuit in U.S. district court against Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The plaintiffs sought, among other things, a declaration that New York's ban on live professional MMA violates the Constitution on several counts. In the months that have passed since, the media, blogosphere and MMA community have been pontificating about what this means for us here in New York. At present the suit still sits in limbo as predictably, New York has moved to dismiss. Both parties, having made their case, await a decision from the court as to the future of the suit.

However, New York made critical error in its attempt to defend the live professional MMA ban. Like a recurring headache for the folks up in Albany, the poor craftsmanship of the 1997 law has reared its head once again. In his attempt to defend the antiquated law, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman offered up the following important nugget (bold added for emphasis):

"Plaintiffs also object to NY Unconsol. Law Sec. 8905-a, because, while it prohibits ‘live professional MMA,' it is silent as to amateur MMA contests, which ‘undoubtedly occur every day'. They further claim the statue is ‘vague' as it is unclear whether the ban applies to amateur MMA exhibitions. To the extent that it does not ban amateur MMA exhibitions, Plaintiffs assert that the disparate treatment of professional and amateur MMA activities violates the equal protection clause. This claim, too, is meritless. The statute's provision on its face explicitly speaks to ‘professional' combative sports and does not address amateur sports. Moreover, while the legislature, in another statute, regulates amateur boxing and wrestling, the legislature has not enacted a provision expressly addressing any amateur martial arts activity. Accordingly, the statute does not treat amateur MMA bouts any differently from amateur bouts involving traditional martial arts. And, to the extent that the legislature, with regard to traditional and mixed martial arts, has drawn a distinction between amateur and professional bouts, it hardly needs saying that a rational basis exists for such a distinction. Moreover, Plaintiffs, themselves, aver in the Complaint that it was not until the statute was enacted that amateur MMA contests began to proliferate. Plainly, the legislature had a rational basis for explicitly banning professional MMA bouts, but not to address amateur contests."

So, on January 27, 2012, New York State admitted what those who have paid attention have known all along: That amateur MMA is legal and the draconian measures the state used between 2002 and 2012 to suppress it were unwarranted. Largely overlooked by the mainstream MMA media, this admission was huge news to us in the New York MMA community. I pondered in a January 30 editorial about who might be the first to take New York at its word and host a sanctioned amateur MMA show as the current law permits. The answer came when Don Lilly, professional fighter Erik Herbert (of The Score Fighting Series), and Tommy Neff announced that the TNT Fight series would hold its inaugural event on May 19 in Tonawanda, New York; sanctioned by the United States Muay Thai Association (USMTA).

This was not the moment we had been waiting for, but it was a critical moment for us in New York. Someone was going to host a sanctioned MMA event on our home turf. I had to be a part of it and Lilly kindly obliged by putting two of my fighters on the card. Soon after the announcement, worry began to set in: Would the state allow this? Would they shut it down? What excuse would they come up with this time to prevent the show? Well, I wanted to be there either way.

According to Lilly, in addition to the USMTA, the event was working in cooperation with the New York State Athletic Commission and all would be above board. Leading up to the event I found Lilly and the crew at TNT Fights to be completely professional. Match-making was fair, oversight was on point, and like the state of New Jersey (the amateur MMA model it seems they were emulating), all the fighters had to have pre-fight physicals (within 30 days of the event), HIV and Hepatitis B & C screenings. This was far beyond what most states require with regard to amateur MMA.

The event itself ran without a hitch. Aside from some growing pains expected from a new promotion, the event ran very smoothly. Like any well run event, everything seemed to be in order: the fighters weighed in and had their pre-fight medical checks with the doctor; an EMT was on hand; the rules meeting was clear and professional; all the fighters received new and standardized equipment in the warm up areas; all taping of hands, etc, were directly observed and approved by USMTA inspectors.

Once the event began, all 10 fights ran without injury. Every fighter had a post fight check with the doctor and no bout began until the doctor was seated cageside. There was certainly some room for improvement, as expected with any inaugural event. Peter Lampasona of points out some important lessons learned from the event. But overall, the event went off great. Even better was the feeling of excitement in the venue, among the teams, staff, media, and 800+ spectators. Everyone knew this was going to be a historic night. When all was said and done, the sky had not fallen and hell had not frozen over. New York had a sanctioned, legal & safe amateur MMA event and we all lived to tell the tale.

So, again, why are Sheldon Silver and others in Albany motivated to subvert the democratic process in order to keep professional MMA banned? It seems especially odd considering that amateur MMA, which is less regulated than pro, is completely legal.

In a recent editorial by Kid Nate of Bloody Elbow, "Culinary Union Attacks On UFC Causing Promotion Real Headaches," it is rightly pointed out that much of the negative press surrounding the UFC as of late has been spearheaded by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226. For those not in the know, the union has been engaged in a decades long war with UFC majority owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who also own the Las Vagas based non-union Station Casio chain.

New York, being one of the last two states that has yet to regulate professional MMA, has become a battleground for the Culinary Union and the Fertittas to engage in a proxy war which is leaving the New York MMA grass-roots community forgotten and disenfranchised. Make no mistake, this is a two way street. It takes two to fight a public battle like this. And unlike the sport we would like to see regulated, the Fertitta / union battle has no referee to make sure parties fight fairly.

The UFC, with its large pulpit and pocketbook, uses New York MMA as a platform to launch attacks at the union on behalf of the Fertitta hotels. Likewise, the union and their supporters see preventing professional MMA regulation as a means to take a shot at Station Casinos, via the UFC. These attacks have come in the form of disingenuous opposition from the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, opposition to professional MMA regulation by union friendly legislators in Albany, FTC investigations of the UFC, and most recently UFC Sponsor Anheuser-Busch's warning to the UFC to curb the behavior of their athletes.

A little over 2 years ago unions were barely mentioned by anyone as a significant concern in New York. In fact, Assembly Chairman of Labor Keith L. T. Wright was (and still is) fully on board for regulating MMA. If you were to ask anyone in Albany about the union issue, they would have said it was a non-issue. Those same people in Albany are now quietly saying it is a problem with a few powerful members of the Assembly leadership, though not the majority. Furthermore, other unions who are in favor of MMA regulation in New York have kept their views off the record out of respect for the Culinary Union. And, according to the most recent Siena poll, 35% of union households supported MMA legalization in New York in contrast to 27% opposed.

Sadly, Zuffa (originally spearheaded by their former PR group, Global Strategy Group) decided to push the Fertitta / union war as an issue in the fight for New York MMA, though it obviously has nothing to do with MMA. Zuffa built it up as the issue, creating a self fulfilling prophesy of sorts. Journalist Peter Lampasona wrote an open letter to Dana White last year addressing this faulty and dangerous strategy. Eventually, as we have seen, the union did get more public and vicious in their attacks on the Fertittas via New York MMA and fired back hard. This is not to say that unions have always been the significant problem (their resistance was at one time token). However, they have become a problem for us now.

Ask any non-fan, casual fan, or new fan on the streets of New York what MMA is and they invariably think the UFC is MMA; if they even know what MMA is to begin with. The latest Siena poll suggests that the 52% of New Yorkers don't know what MMA is. I doubt the average response would be much different from a New York legislator. This is by design and Zuffa has brilliantly marketed the UFC into this position of being ubiquitously equated with the sport of MMA. This is where the problem lies and why the Fertitta / union war has truly hurt us in New York.

Furthermore, a lot of people are making a lot of money because professional MMA is banned. The unions and the UFC have presumably been contributing to the campaigns of their supporters for years. Both sides are employing lobbyists, PR firms, etc; all to address the "problem" of New York MMA regulation. Yet the "problem" is never solved.

In reality, contrary to what the average voter or legislator thinks, as large and as powerful as the UFC is, it is still only a small fraction of the MMA community in New York or what the community would evolve into were the state to regulate the sport. Last week's TNT Fights event in Tonawanda is a clear example of this. Let's look at our closest neighbor, New Jersey. The New Jersey Athletic Control Board sanctioned 39 MMA shows in 2010 and 34 in 2011. That's a grand total of 73 shows, of which only 2 were a UFC (Strikeforce was not yet purchased by Zuffa when they held their first 2011 grand prix event in New Jersey).

Yes, only 2 out of 73 shows were a UFC. Does anyone think New York would be any different? Yet, the average legislator and voter would most likely believe something quite the opposite. With most mainstream media (and MMA media for that matter) discussion regarding MMA regulation in New York centers on bringing the UFC into our state, or keeping them out. Discussion rarely centers on bringing Strikeforce, M1-Global, Bellator, the CFFC, Ring of Combat, Reality Fighting, Evolution, or New Breed Fighters to New York.

Assuming that the UFC is MMA is an inaccurate line of thinking in the least and a harmful one at worst. Particularly when we consider the negative press the Fertitta/union war brings to the table in Albany. To only consider the UFC when one considers the problem of MMA regulation in New York is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Unfortunately, that is a baby Zuffa has been willing to sacrifice. The UFC has not only encouraged this line of thinking in both their PR and lobby efforts in New York, but Zuffa has been resistant to work hand in hand with the grass-roots community. Zack Arnold of Fight Opinion notes in his recent commentary:

There is time for UFC to alter its political strategy and start making some grassroots in-roads that can match their traditional lobbying efforts. The question is not whether they have the resources to pull it off but rather if they have the will & desire to do so. Right now, Sheldon Silver has the will & desire to keep MMA legislation from passing in New York because his constituents don't have the will nor the desire to see such legislation get implemented in the first place.

Don't put the cart before the horse.

When one considers the financial gains and employment opportunities New York could gather from regulation of professional MMA, discussion generally centers on what 1 or 2 UFC events a year could contribute to our state. However, it is my opinion that no study has seriously looked at the potential impact of the other 71 MMA events that could take place. Events in struggling small towns and cities where the UFC would never consider setting up shop; towns like Tonawanda where 800+ spectators showed up and paid between $25-50 per ticket.

The bottom line is this: New York MMA is much larger than the UFC and it is our responsibility as coaches, gym owners, business owners, fighters, sanctioning bodies, journalists, and fans to keep educating our legislators. We must impress upon our legislators that we would love to have a UFC at Madison Square Garden. But, we would also like a Ring of Combat in Plainview, or other smaller shows in Ithica, Syracuse, Rochester, Plattsburgh, Utica, or any number of smaller venues that could support local events.

When considering the issue of New York MMA, we have to think locally, not globally. The needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few.

-----Stephen Koepfer

Founder, Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York

*To learn more about how unregulated fighting prospered as a result of New York's MMA ban, read Jim Genia's Raw Combat: The Underground world of Mixed Martial Arts.