The First Ban: A Step Backward
On March 22, 2016, New York lawmakers put the final stamp of approval on legislation that allowed promoters to hold MMA fights in the Big Apple. New York was the only state that still hadn’t regulated the sport of MMA and the one place in the entire continent of North America where being a professional MMA fighter was still illegal.
The assembly meeting where the bill was legalized extended for long hours as MMA detractors tried to delay the inevitable with desperate last minute rants against the sport. But just like MMA’s legality in New York, the attempts to delay the bill dragged on for far too long and ultimately ended unsuccessfully.
This legislation finally allowed MMA organizations, including the UFC and Bellator, to organize events in Madison Square Garden and the state’s other important venues. Professional MMA events had been banned in New York since 1997, before the sport agreed on its unified rules and back when it still hadn’t been regulated by any state athletic commissions.
The original ban came about due to a furious campaign by celebrated Republican senator John McCain in the 1990s. In its early days, MMA branded itself as a sport with no rules and no holds barred. This gave it a violent, anarchic image that most of the country was unprepared to accept. Senator McCain’s campaign resulted in 36 states passing legislation to make MMA fights illegal within their borders.
This public outcry and ensuing prohibition temporarily forced the UFC and other MMA promoters underground. They began organizing fights in states that didn’t have athletic commissions. They also started a campaign of their own to try to clean up MMA’s public image and soothe the fears of crusading lawmakers.
Legitimizing the Sport: Unified Rules and State Athletic Commissions
In the face of massive public opposition, the UFC and other MMA promoters went through a slow redesign that eventually turned into a full reboot. They realized that in order to seek regulation from official state athletic commissions, they would need to change a few rules and eliminate some of MMA’s more barbaric practices.
They started with a ban on fish-hooking. Fish-hooking was a self-defense technique that involved hooking your fingers into the mouth or nose of your opponent and pulling. It often resulted in permanent damage to fighters’ faces. It was the first thing to go.
Next, MMA promoters agreed on weight classes to help protect lighter athletes from heavier ones. After that, they mandated the use of weighted gloves by all fighters to try to reduce permanent facial damage and scarring.
The public responded well to rules reducing the possibility of permanent damage to athletes, so the UFC and other MMA organizers went all out. They banned kicking the head of your opponent if they were already on the ground. They cut out hair pulling, head butting, groin strikes and attacking small joints like fingers and toes.
They next addressed worries that striking the back of your opponent’s head and neck could easily result in life-threatening damage to the spine and brain. All strikes to the head and neck behind the ears were quickly banned.
Finally, UFC promoters agreed on limiting each fight to a set number of rounds no longer than five minutes each. In only three years, MMA fighting had begun to look a lot more like a sport than a savage spectacle.
In April 2000, California became the first US state to agree to codify MMA’s new unified rules. Shortly after, New Jersey became the second.
In September 2000, another MMA organization, the IFC, beat the UFC to holding the USA’s first officially sanctioned MMA event. The UFC hosted its first officially sanctioned fights two months later in New Jersey.
In 2001, a new ownership group bought the UFC brand and pushed to certify it officially in Nevada, the company’s home state. Their push was successful, and Frank Fertitta and Dana White became the new owners of an officially certified UFC.
Over the next decade, more and more state athletic commissions began to adopt MMA’s new unified rules. Other major markets that had banned MMA fights rescinded their opposition. Big corporations began to sponsor huge fights, which were featured on the top cable pay-per-view channels, and the sport skyrocketed to mainstream popularity.
This was also back by new medical research from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, that backed that MMA was no more dangerous than other combat sports like boxing.
In 2013, Canada’s final province lifted its MMA ban, and Connecticut became the second last state in the USA to make MMA fights legal. That left just one final holdout that refused to change its outdated opinion on this new sport: New York.
UFC Goes To Court: The Battle for New York
The UFC wasn’t happy with being legitimized in all but one state. They wanted the full house. They decided to redouble their efforts in New York.
In 2011, the UFC filed a lawsuit against New York’s 1997 MMA ban. They alleged the law was unconstitutional and an infringement on their First Amendment rights. The suit was ultimately unsuccessful.
To try to allay the remaining fears of political organizations that still opposed MMA, in 2013, the UFC released a code of conduct to which they would now hold their fighters. The document instructed fighters to stick to common standards of decency and morals both in and out of the cage.
Later that same year, the UFC financed a study to investigate the potential economic impact should MMA fights be legalized in New York. The study found that the high-profile events alone would generate as much as $68 million in revenue within the state of New York. Together with the foreseen expansion of UFC gyms, that revenue could climb as high as $135 million.
The UFC filed another lawsuit in September 2015. It was accompanied by a petition asking for a preliminary injunction to temporarily nullify the ban and let them hold a 2016 event in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The lawsuit was quashed, and the injunction was denied, but it was as close as the UFC had come to legalizing the sport. They were clearly making progress.
Legalization Whack-A-Mole: MMA Learns Patience
For six straight years, MMA promoters tried to get the sport legalized in New York. Each time they came tantalizingly close but were thwarted at the last minute.
In June 2010, the regulation bill passed the New York State Senate by six votes but stalled in the State Assembly. In May 2011, the bill again passed the State Senate as well as the Tourism and Codes committees, but once again the annual State Assembly closed without voting on the bill.
In April 2012, the bill was passed by the State Senate for the third year in a row, but this time, the reason for its repeated failure in the State Assembly became obvious. The Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, was vehemently opposed to the sport and insisted that he would not allow the bill to be voted on.
Sheldon Silver successfully obstructed the bill in New York’s State Assembly for three more consecutive years. Each time, the legislation passed by a large majority in the State Senate but was mysteriously unable to reach the State Assembly floor for a vote.
In January 2015, Sheldon Silver abruptly resigned and was arrested on charges of corruption. The winds had changed.
The new Assembly Speaker was Joseph Morelle, an open supporter of MMA. In 2016, with Morelle’s support, a bill to legalize MMA in New York was successfully passed in the State Senate, all necessary committees and, finally, the State Assembly.
The bill was debated for three hours on the Assembly floor. It ended up passing by an overwhelming majority of 113 to 25.
The Future of MMA in NY
In November 2016, New York finally held its first officially sanctioned professional MMA event. It was a blockbuster fight between UFC Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and an up and coming Irishman who liked to run his mouth named Conor McGregor.
McGregor had already beaten Jose Aldo the year before to become the UFC Featherweight champion. New York’s first MMA event became doubly historic when it saw McGregor down Alvarez in the second round to become the UFC’s first champion in two weight classes.
Following that first record-breaking appearance, New York has continued to hold groundbreaking and highly entertaining MMA events on a regular basis. Its next major fight was in February 2017 between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie. This was the first MMA event to be held in Brooklyn and also acted as a coming out party for current UFC Lightweight champion Dustin Poirier, who won the “Fight of the Night” bonus.
New York has since seen fights by New York locals like Chris Weidman and Gregor Gillespie as well as icons like Daniel Cormier and Georges St-Pierre. Undefeated retiree Khabib Nurmagomedov saw the first fight where he was unable to finish his opponent in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center against New York’s own Al Iaquinta.
Former US President Donald Trump attended a UFC fight in Madison Square Garden between brawlers Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz in November 2019. Trump called the match a “great fight.”