SB Nation

Jim Genia | January 27, 2015

Constitutional Cagefight

How the UFC is Fighting New York's MMA Ban in Court

A look at the law suit the UFC's parent company filed against the law banning MMA in New York state.

Twenty-two men and their entourages — coaches, training partners, hangers-on — assemble in the dimly-lit upstairs lounge of the Amazura Concert Hall. Though some gaze out through the indoor windows to stare at the cage erected on the dance floor below, most are held in rapt attention at the bald former kickboxing champion going over the rules. The event is called the New York Fight Exchange (NYFE), and the 22 men are amateur MMA fighters. Among them are Rich the Bible-thumper, Mike from Long Island, and Vinh the law student. Tonight, in a nightclub in Jamaica, Queens, between fake palm trees and cheap plaster statues of lions, one and all will stride purposefully into battle and taste either victory or defeat.

You could use the same sort of hackneyed tropes to describe their reasons for being here — a love of violence, the quest for fleeting moments of glory, or the ephemeral desire to elevate oneself through combat. But ultimately, their raison d'etre for donning shorts, hand wraps and four-ounce gloves on a Saturday night in autumn can best be summed up in one word: "lawsuit."

Three years ago, Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, got sick of shoveling money into the open furnace that is Albany. Lobbying to change the New York State law banning mixed martial arts competitions — enacted in 1997, it's the only statutory ban on the sport in the entire country — had become an exercise in futility, achieving nothing other than putting cash in the hands of politicians who either couldn't or wouldn't do anything. So Zuffa engaged the services of a high-powered firm in midtown Manhattan, and filed a federal lawsuit against the State Attorney General over the law. If lobbying wasn't helping, the reasoning went, maybe the courts would.

If lobbying wasn't helping, maybe a lawsuit would

There were some creative claims in the initial salvo — concepts like New York's combative sports law violating the UFC's First Amendment right to express itself and the prohibition on cagefights impinging on due process. The ensuing back-and-forth flurry of paperwork didn't resolve much. It did, however, force the state to examine the statute and, for the first time in 15 years, take a firm stance on what was legal and what was not.

It was then, in 2012, that New York's attorney general declared that amateur MMA competitions weren't banned by the law at all, despite the New York State Athletic Commission having outright forbidden them for 10 years.

Thus, the floodgates were opened.

The upstairs lounge is a den of nervous energy and unchecked anxiety, with sections of real estate staked out by the various fighters and their teams. Some are sprawled like travelers making camp at an airport between connecting flights. Others, like Rich, remain in motion. His bout is third on the card, so his trip into the cage will be sooner rather than later. He must stay ready.

Rich wasn't fighting back in 2001, when a gaudy Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach called Oceana was hosting tournaments, and fighters had to warm up at a waiters' station before climbing into the ring set up in the center of the dining room. He was just 10 years old then, and 11 when there were fights held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Times Square and at the Vanderbilt nightclub on Long Island in 2002. Rich was old enough to be a fan, but not old enough to have gotten a fight or two in before the athletic commission reversed policy and started shutting down every event later that year. To him, the sport has almost always been banned in New York, with aspiring fighters forced to compete in underground shows or cross the Hudson River and fight in New Jersey, where MMA has been legal and sanctioned for almost a decade and a half.

The UFC's lawsuit changed everything. In 2010, there were a total of three MMA events held in New York State, each one completely under the radar and more Fight Club than fight show. There were seven in 2011. After the attorney general's admission that amateur MMA was legal in 2012, the number jumped to 24, the vast majority of the shows grand affairs staged in high school gymnasiums, rec centers, and nightclubs. By the end of 2013, 47 above-the-board amateur MMA shows had gone down statewide. That number was surpassed mid-way through 2014..

Rich's bout is over in eight seconds

Nowadays, for the New Yorker interested in stepping into the cage and throwing leather as an amateur, the competition options are seemingly limitless — and no one personifies that abundance of opportunity more than Rich, who fights every month or two. But tonight it's all about the NYFE, and in this moment it's about Rich walking to the cage, getting checked out by an inspector, and striding over to his corner to kneel and pray.

Then it's on, and when Rich throws a kick, he fails to bring his hand back quick enough to cover his chin. His opponent feeds him a right that puts him down and puts him out. The bout is over in eight seconds.

There are no eight-second battles in court. Instead, there's something much slower, something plodding and methodical as each argument is fine-tuned and challenged.

The UFC's First Amendment claim centered around the notion that all the fanfare and storyline surrounding a UFC fight is a form of protected speech. Other claims were that the combative sports law was overbroad; that it violated the plaintiff's rights to equal protection of the laws; and that it mucked with interstate commerce. But tucked away under all of this was an argument that the law was unconstitutionally vague, and when the parties gathered in court in 2013 to deal with pending motions to dismiss, the attorney representing the state admonished the plaintiffs for not using a third-party sanctioning organization to hold shows like the law allowed. He then flip-flopped on that idea. Judge Kimba Wood of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York had heard enough.

The claims that Zuffa's free speech and due process rights had been trampled on were stricken from the suit, but New York, it turned out, was being much too vague in how it interpreted and applied the law. Never mind that there was historical evidence that the athletic commission had been allowing MMA bouts to go on before it reversed position and shut everything down — in Judge Woods's courtroom, before her very eyes, the state couldn't even maintain a coherent position on what the law said. Under those conditions, how could the plaintiffs, the public, or anyone with a passing interest in staging, taking part in, or just seeing an MMA bout know what was legal and what was not?

The fight was on, and the rules of the cage were narrowed down to the phrase "vague as applied." A win was now either the law being struck down, or New York being forced to concede that one of third-party sanctioning organizations listed in the statute could sanction a pro MMA event where the athletic commission could not. After all, why change a law when it very clearly created a loophole that would work for the UFC just as well?

As one of the only surviving entities listed in the original combative sports law as being exempt from the ban and allowed to sanction "martial arts" events, the Virginia-based World Kickboxing Association (WKA) has been overseeing kickboxing shows in New York for years. So of course when the attorney general declared amateur MMA to be just fine, they saddled up to that as well. Theirs is a robust operation, and when it came to the idea of third-party sanctioning as being a way around the professional MMA ban, the UFC approached them and signed a preliminary promotional agreement. But what may or may not happen in the future is irrelevant, as tonight the WKA is in charge of making sure the NYFE is run smoothly and safely.

Before his championship bout, Mike is in the audience, greeting the family and friends who've come in from Long Island to cheer him on. Meanwhile, the WKA judges are in their seats around the cage, and inspectors-clad in black shirts emblazoned with the WKA insignia-man their posts near the cage doors, the lounge/locker room, and all points in between.  Mike is soon sequestered upstairs with the rest of the fighters, warming up as the bouts play out.

Three rounds in, Mike has lost via decision

After Rich's crushing knockout there's another, as well as a quartet of technical knockouts brought about by the referee deeming four fighters too screwed to continue. There's a tap out from an arm-twisting submission. A bout is stopped by one of the doctors after it's determined that the bloody cut above a fighter's eye is too gnarly and in a dangerous spot. There's a split decision rendered after three rounds. Elsewhere in the state, promotions are holding shows with no doctors present, no blood screening of the competitors, and no one even remotely qualified acting as referee, but not at the NYFE in Queens. When Mike makes his way to the cage, cutting through the cheers and anticipation with the focus of a man about to scrap as if his life depended on it, he could just as easily be stepping into the cage at an MMA show in New Jersey or Nevada or Pennsylvania. The sanctioning illusion is that convincing.

Three rounds of hard back-and-forth action later, Mike has lost via decision.

Much of 2014 was spent in the throes of discovery, the stage of a lawsuit where witnesses are deposed and evidence supporting all arguments and counterarguments is gathered. The UFC's legal team took statements under oath from promoters who've dealt with the athletic commission over the years, as well as the president of the WKA and a director of sports events for Madison Square Garden. Attorneys representing New York gathered testimony from a number of past and present state officials. Internal memos and emails were dug up and printed out, and passed around like love letters from ex-girlfriends in bitter divorce proceedings.

Judge Wood imposed a deadline, so through the end of August to early September, both sides had to put the finishing touches on their cases. The motions of summary judgment they'd each filed meant that no trial was necessary — they believed there was enough evidence compiled for Judge Wood to make a decision.

First and foremost in New York's argument was the idea that the plaintiffs lacked standing, meaning that the UFC hadn't truly been harmed by the law and could not therefore legally sue the state. Had the UFC ever had a show shut down? No — they'd never even tried to run an MMA event here. Never mind that it would've been stung to death by a swarm of cease and desist letters and arrest warrants; to the state, no attempt at doing a show meant no standing.

To contest the claim that the law had been applied in a confusing manner, the state argued that it had not, that it had been unwavering and clear as crystal in its interpretation of the statute. So what if the kibosh had been put on some amateur MMA shows over the years? Hugo Spindola, former general counsel for the athletic commission, didn't think anyone in their right mind would want to fight for free, and so there was no way those events could have truly been amateur. Anyway, what did it matter with amateur events everywhere now?

New York argued that UFC hadn't truly been harmed by the law

As for the idea that the law permits professional MMA bouts if they're overseen by a third-party sanctioning organization like the WKA, the state argued that, regardless of what the actual text said,it was intended to keep pro MMA out. And besides, as per the statute, a martial arts competition requires foot protection and the UFC doesn't allow shoes, so how could it be considered under that exemption?

The UFC fired back. In regards to the standing issue, Dylan Wanagiel of Madison Square Garden testified that MSG has been saving dates for the UFC to hold shows there regularly since 2009, with March 21, 2015 the next slot reserved for a possible UFC event. "Furthermore," said Wanagiel in his deposition, "should professional MMA be permitted in New York at any time prior to the 2015 date that's on hold, MSG would expeditiously schedule an event at Madison Square Garden."

"The WKA does not have a written contract or firm dates set with the UFC for an event because we did not want to be deemed to have run afoul of the criminal statute," said WKA honcho Brian Crenshaw in his deposition. "But we have an understanding with the UFC that if MMA is permitted in New York, the WKA would sanction a UFC event."

In furtherance of the claim that the state had been inconsistent in interpreting and applying the law, Crenshaw said that over the years Spindola and others had expressly told him that both pro and amateur MMA was illegal.

Finally, to support the argument that the law allowed for third-party sanctioning of pro bouts, the UFC pointed out the inconsistencies in the testimony of the State's own witnesses, and how some of them agreed that the statute actually could be read to allow a group like the WKA to circumvent the ban.

Was Wanagiel and Crenshaw's testimony enough to prove that the UFC was a sufficiently injured party to warrant standing? Was the "vagueness as applied" argument effectively made and substantiated with relevant evidence? Would the state have to acquiesce on the third-party sanctioning issue? As of September 2014, the judicial cage door was shut and locked, all the evidence and legal arguments battling it out with Judge Wood scoring the bout and expected to render a decision in the coming months.

As the old adage goes, anything can happen in a fight. But sometimes, the beatings are so one-sided that it's hard to look back and not admit that maybe a certain outcome was inevitable all along.

Vinh rushes into the cage with a kind of withering intensity that suggests that any second he might burst into flame. He coaches at a school in Manhattan called Ronin Athletics, but what defines him more than that is the fact that he's recently been accepted into Fordham Law School — he wanted this fight as a sort of last hurrah before drowning in legal briefs, and openly acknowledges it will be his last one ever. There are no aspirations of becoming a pro fighter there, just the desire to fight, to step into the crucible of combat and be made more badass from it.

And it works. It takes him only a minute and 40 seconds to throw his opponent to the canvas, get on top, and rain down enough fists to force the referee to declare the bout over via TKO. The crowd goes wild, and Vinh, arms raised in victory and his face contorted in a war cry, is infinitely more badass than a few moments before.

Vinh's last fight is a win by TKO

If this is the end of the competitive road for Vinh, then he gets to go out on a win. But if he had lost, so what? It was just an amateur fight. Ultimately, the only things at stake in those kinds of contests are bumps, bruises and pride.

The stakes aren't quite the same for the UFC. If Judge Wood rules in favor of the State, their one big shot at circumnavigating the legislative impasse in Albany is gone, and it's back to the interminable slog of lobbying and press conferences and political brick walls. A ruling that the WKA can sanction pro MMA shows would mean an Octagon set up in the arena at Madison Square Garden and thousands of screaming fans, but the judge shooting that idea down would mean three years worth of legal bills amounted to nothing more than an amateur scene that the UFC can play no part in.

The flipside is what a UFC victory in court will do to the amateur scene. With a court-ordered stipulation from the State Attorney General that third-party sanctioning is a way to skirt the ban, the UFC could do big shows in New York that would be wholly untouched by pay-per-view — and gate taxes — a notion that would likely spurn immediate legislative remedy. And based on nearly every proposed MMA bill that's been introduced in the Senate and Assembly over the years, that loophole that allows amateur fights to go on while the athletic commission is stuck sitting on the sidelines would be sewn up quicker than you could say "eight-second knockout". Maybe the athletic commission would farm out sanctioning to the WKA, but maybe they wouldn't. Either way, if the UFC wins, things would change in ways beyond champs Jon Jones and Chris Weidman getting to fight in their home state.

For Vinh, Mike, Rich, the NYFE, and every other amateur fighter and promotion in New York, the UFC's lawsuit giveth. And depending on the impending decision, it could soon very well taketh away.

Jim Genia has been covering MMA in New York for so long that he was called as a witness in the UFC vs. New York lawsuit. He blogs here and tweets here.

About the Author

NYC-based MMA journalist; all-around nice guy

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