BUFFALO, NY - The head of Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) - the world's premier mixed-martial arts promotion -was in Buffalo on Wednesday, one day after the organization filed a lawsuit against New York over its long time ban on staging bouts in the state.
Mixed martial arts, commonly called called ultimate fighting, has become main stream, with a network television contract and billions in revenue.
"We are now looked at as one of the major sports in the sports landscape here in the United States," said UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.
Yet New York is the only state which bans such competition, under a law signed by Governor George Pataki in 1997.
"That sport should have been banned," Fertitta told WGRZ-TV. "But what was banned at the time is totally different from what the sport has become."
Fertitta insists the competition is far safer for combatants and more stringent in its rules and regulations than the days before he and his brother purchased the UFC a decade ago.
"There were no time limits, there were no weight classes...there were certain strikes that were allowed that are no longer allowed now," Fertitta told 2 on Your Side, while he was in Buffalo to lobby state lawmakers to lift New York's ban on staging mixed martial arts events.
He's found an ally in Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti of Buffalo.
"The various forms (of combat) that are utilized in these competitions, like boxing, kick boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu and greco- roman wrestling are already legal," said Grisanti.
Fertitta also noted that most of those sports are also Olympic sports, and pointed out that it's legal to stage competitions involving any one of them, even if they involve children, in New York State.
NYS Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak (D-Cheektowaga) is also supportive of lifting the ban.
"When this issue first came up in the state legislature a few years ago I was a little skeptical like a lot of other people, but in the intervening years I have had the opportunity to look closely at mixed martial arts, and I support it," Gabryszak said.
The two lawmakers say they are swayed as well, by the potential economic benefit from ultimate fighting.
UFC claims it paid Ontario's government $8 million in taxes for a recent pay per view bout that attracted 55,000 fans to the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Gabryszak says that should be pretty tempting for a cash strapped state like New York.
"The governor's just pointed out that the deficit has grown an additional $350 million... he's looking for ways to bring additional revenue into the state... this wouldn't fill the entire gap but it would add to the revenue without taxing people," Gabryszak said.
Governor Cuomo's press office did not return a phone call from 2 On Your Side seeking to clarify the Governors stance on the state's current ban on mixed martial arts events.
UFC officials have unsuccessfully lobbied for at least four years to get the state legislature to lift the ban, but a bill to do so has consistently bogged down in the State Assembly.
And while Fertitta still holds out hope that the change can be effected legislatively, the UFC has now turned to the arena of the courts.
Their lawsuit, filed in U.S District Court, claims the first amendment rights of their fighters to perform are being violated ...on the same constitutional grounds which protect other forms of entertainment, such as topless dancing, as a performance art.
"The First Amendment protects what's called expressive conduct, which is doing physical things that express ideas, with anything from a parade to a dance being protected," said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor who is representing Zuffa -UFC's parent corporation-in the suit. "So the claim is that fighting, mixed-martial arts in front of an audience, is expressive in just the same way and protected in just the same way."
"This is an area that needs to come to New York State," said Sen Grisanti, who is also an attorney. "And I could quite frankly say, for those who think it's barbaric or have a problem with it, then don't buy a ticket and don't watch it on TV. It's as simple as that."
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