With their attempts to go through the legislative process to legalize mixed martial arts in New York stalled in governmental muck year after year, the UFC on Tuesday announced that they are taking their fight to the courts.
The UFC and a group of plaintiffs that includes fighters, fans, trainers, and others involved in MMA (the plaintiffs), have filed a lawsuit against New York State officials challenging the constitutionality of the state law banning live professional MMA events and associated activities.
Professional mixed martial arts events have been banned in New York since 1997. The ban was enacted at a time when mixed martial arts was more commonly known as no holds barred with few rules and little to no regulation. It has since morphed into a full-fledged sport, allowed across the United States and the world, minus New York of course.
The lawsuit alleges the ban on MMA is unconstitutional, violating numerous provisions in the United States Constitution, including the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, and the Due Process Clause. The lawsuit alleges that the ban on MMA infringes on the rights of fighters who want to display their skills, the rights of fans who would like to experience live MMA events, and the rights of those who train, publicize or otherwise advance MMA in New York.
The plaintiffs point to the following in support of the lawsuit:
• The Ban was originally imposed in 1997, at a time when MMA was unregulated and prohibited in many other states. Today, MMA is a highly-regulated, broadly popular sport, which experts and supporting safety data verify is as safe as or safer than many sports and activities that are legal in New York, including boxing, football and rodeo.
• MMA is widely available on television in New York, and many New Yorkers lawfully train and spar in MMA.
• Live professional MMA can take place in virtually every state except New York.
• The individual martial arts that comprise MMA, including kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, judo, boxing and wrestling, are legal and performed live regularly in New York – it is only their combination, performed live by professionals, that is banned in New York.
“MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. and one of the most popular in the world,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, Chairman and CEO of Zuffa LLC, owner of the UFC. “When we acquired the UFC, we went to great lengths to invite regulation and adopt substantial safety measures. MMA is now as safe as or even safer than many other sports and activities sanctioned in New York like boxing, for example, because it allows fighters to honorably tap out and involves far fewer hits. All the disciplines that go into mixed martial arts are performed live in New York; it is only their combination that is illegal. Denying fighters the chance to exhibit their training and skills before a live audience and denying thousands of New Yorkers the ability to watch their favorite fighters perform live is not only an injustice to them, but to the local markets that would reap tremendous economic benefits from hosting competitions. We believe the ban should be eliminated, and look forward to fighting live in New York.”
The UFC has tried for years to legalize MMA in New York via the political process. Despite support from numerous legislators in the state, time and time again, legislation has stalled somewhere along the line.
The problem, according to UFC president Dana White, isn’t so much that individual legislators don’t want mixed martial arts, a sport that is also a proven economic stimulator, in their state, but a union that has a beef with the principals of the UFC.
“It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts, of all things; it’s the Culinary Union that’s keeping us out of New York,” White told radio hosts Boomer and Craig on WFAN over the summer. “They’re powerful guys.”
Why would the Culinary Union have anything to do with trying to slow or block the legalization of MMA in New York?
White believes it is because his partners at Zuffa (the company that owns the UFC), Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, are also involved in the casino business. Their company, Station Casinos, is one of the largest non-union casino companies in the United States.
This is where the rubber meets the road. The Culinary Union has been trying for years to unionize Station Casinos, but thus far, has been thwarted. This is why White believes they are using their vast resources – the Culinary Union boasts approximately 60,000 members – to stop the Fertittas from bringing their mixed martial arts business to New York.
He believes the Culinary Union is using its influence among New York politicians, pressuring them not to pass legislation to approve sanctioning of MMA.
That’s likely the impetus behind why the UFC has decided to go the legal route in New York, pointing to not only the company’s rights, but specifically to the rights of individuals involved in and drawn to the sport.
“Performing MMA live in front of a crowd is an unrivaled experience and allows me to speak to my fans,” said Plaintiff and UFC competitor Brian Stann. “I was attracted to MMA during my time in the Marine Corps, after I returned from my first deployment to Iraq in 2005 and was looking for a path that allowed me to stay motivated, and inspire others, particularly fellow veterans. MMA is a brotherhood that demands respect for your fellow fighters and rewards mental discipline and skill. It has given countless veterans a way to rehabilitate and connect with other military veterans and I am grateful every day for the ability to compete and inspire my fans.”