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Court says UFC lawsuit against New York state can proceed

A small defeat by way of the dismissal of their claim that New York's ban on MMA violate's the UFC's first amendment rights was followed by a victory as the court ruled that the case can proceed given the state's changing positions on the sport.

Michael Nagle

The UFC suffered a defeat in their case against the state of New York's ban on mixed martial arts when their claim that the ban violated their first amendment rights was dismissed. However, they also scored a victory as a judge found that the case can go forward on the strength of their "as-applied vagueness" challenge.

Newsday with some of the details:

Judge Kimba M. Wood agreed with the UFC's claim that the state's interpretation of the 1997 statue has changed enough over the years to accept the "as-applied vagueness" challenge.

"In light of Defendants' varying interpretations of the statutory language," Wood wrote, "the Court finds that Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the statute is unconstitutionally vague with respect to professional MMA sanctioned by exempt organizations."

The six other claims were dismissed by the Southern District Court in Manhattan, including a First Amendment claim that a live MMA fight was "expressive conduct" and thus protected by free speech.

Barry Friedman, an NYU law professor representing plaintiffs with Morrison & Foerster as co-counsel, said Wednesday he was disappointed about the First Amendment claim but not at all surprised with the outcome.

"The vagueness issue was the one we focused on since the beginning," Friedman told Newsday. "It's the cleanest, easiest way to resolve this lawsuit. It doesn't say to the legislature you have to do 'X' and 'Y' on MMA. It just says the law you wrote is no good."

Here's the press release as issued by the UFC after the ruling:

Las Vegas, Nev. – The Ultimate Fighting Championship® (UFC®), and plaintiffs in the Jones v. Schneiderman case, are pleased to announce that yesterday the Federal District Court found that their challenge to the constitutionality of New York’s ban on mixed martial arts (MMA) can go forward. The court recognized that the State Athletic Commission and the Attorney General have repeatedly changed position on whether amateur and professional MMA can occur lawfully in the state of New York, which plaintiffs argue renders the ban unconstitutionally vague. While other claims in the lawsuit were dismissed, the UFC and plaintiffs are prepared to win their case and defeat the ban with the court's green light on the vagueness challenge.

"We are extremely pleased with the judge's decision and looking forward to moving to a prompt and successful conclusion," said Barry Friedman, who is representing the plaintiffs with Morrison & Foerster as co-counsel.

Zuffa LLC, which owns the UFC, filed a federal lawsuit in New York challenging the state’s ban on professional MMA in 2011. Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, New York is the only state that has a ban on the sport. New York passed a law prohibiting MMA events in 1997 identifying it as a "combative sport" unlike boxing, wrestling or karate which are legal. The UFC produces over 30 live events a year, broadcast in 882 million homes in more than 145 countries, with an adopted set of rules and regulations to ensure the safety of the sport.

"We are pleased with the outcome of this crucial ruling. The inconsistency has cost the UFC considerable time and expense, but more important it has deprived MMA’s countless New York fans of the opportunity to attend and enjoy live professional and amateur MMA events in New York," said Ike Lawrence Epstein, UFC’s COO. "It is time for New York to have a new law on MMA, one that legalizes the sport and regulates it in a safe way, as all other states have done. New York’s law is outdated, written at a time when MMA was a very different sport."

Several fighters are plaintiffs in the case challenging the constitutionality of the ban including UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, as well as UFC superstars Frankie Edgar, Matt Hamill, and Brian Stann.

Should the case not be resolved at the District Court level, plaintiffs intend to appeal the First Amendment ruling.