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Lifting The UFC Ban: The History Of New York's Mixed Martial Arts Law

The history of New York state's ban on "ultimate fighting" and mixed martial arts as background to today's suit by the UFC against the law.

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Photo by Esther Lin for<a href="" target="new"> MMA Fighting</a>.
Photo by Esther Lin for MMA Fighting.

Mixed martial arts fans in New York flocked to Madison Square Garden to see UFC stars in action. More than 500 fans paid as much as $30 to hear from UFC star Matt Serra and watch Matt Hughes fight Georges St. Pierre. Interest in America's cultural capitol was at an all time high - but there was a catch. The actual event was broadcast from Las Vegas. In 2007, as it is today, live mixed martial arts was illegal in the state of New York. Worse still? The event organizers and anyone writing about it may have themselves been breaking the law.

How did the sport get here? How can it be that people promoting an MMA Expo or even broadcasting the event on television may be violating the letter of the law? The story begins with the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the early and mid-1990s. Victims of their own public relations campaign, the UFC had convinced legislators throughout the country that their events were unfit for civilized society. Tag lines like "Two men enter, one man leaves" did much to fan the flames of controversy. For a time, that controversy equated to ticket and pay per view sales. The early UFC was a spectacular success - its fall from grace was equally as exciting.

"We didn't have an advertising budget," former UFC pitchman Campbell McClaren said in Total MMA. "We had a publicity budget. And by going out and talking about how wild it was, the press loved that story and the press became our advertiser. In retrospect was it the wrong decision? No, because if we hadn't done it there would be no Ultimate Fight. It's one thing to look back and say 'That success was built on scandal or that success was built on outrageousness.' Yeah. But if you don't get to the point where it's a success there's nothing else to talk about. We were doing the line 'Banned in 49 States' after we had done it in seven states."

The sport found itself banned around the country, a prohibition mostly enforced by state athletic commissions. New York was different. In a race against the UFC and promoters from Extreme Fighting, New York legislators took the unusual step of putting their ban of the sport into law.

''I think extreme fighting is disgusting, it's horrible," New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said at the time. "I happen to be a boxing fan, have been all my life. And I know there are issues regarding boxing, and they are serious ones. But this is way beyond boxing. This is people brutalizing each other.''

Giuliani carried weight in New York. What had been a battle with the Athletic Commission over how the sport should be regulated, soon turned into a discussion about whether it should be allowed at all. New York reversed course. A year after the legislature agreed to allow mixed martial arts in the state, opponents won an important victory.

"The Governor got called and Giuliani made his own press announcement where he said 'Not in my town, no way.'   And we were like 'Oh sh*t.  Now we're not even going to get our trash picked up in the city.  This is bad.'   We felt like observers at our own funeral at that point," McClaren said. " ...Everyone really jumped on the bandwagon and they quickly passed legislation banning us.  We later found out...that it was done in a very illegal and bogus manner...we were still f*cked.   It didn't matter."

Section 8905(2) of the NYS Unconsolidated Laws was the result of New Yorker's fear and ignorance. It reads, in part:

No combative sport shall be conducted, held or given within the state of New York, and no licenses may be approved by the commission for such matches or exhibitions.

For fourteen years, the law has prevented professional mixed martial arts in New York. The UFC's parent company Zuffa, has spent two years battling tooth and nail to pass a new law, legalizing MMA and allowing the company to bring the UFC to Madison Square Garden. It hasn't happened. That's not to say they don't have the votes; the law has never been up for a vote in the New York Assembly, despite breezing through the Senate.

The company believes the legislative process has reached a stand still. Today, they took another course, filing suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., seeking to have New York's MMA ban ruled in violation of the First Amendment.