By Jon Lane
On April 27, 2013, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will invade Newark, N.J., on a Saturday night, for the 159th installment of mixed martial arts’ elite knuckling-up and scoring takedowns.
A loaded show airing on pay-per-view, ripe with local talent, championship contenders and headlined by UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones defending his title against top challenger Chael Sonnen, will commence at Prudential Center, eight miles from New York City.
The proximity from Newark to New York is tantalizingly close, so close that the mere thought of live MMA events in America’s largest city is more mouthwatering than a NYC slice of pizza. The Garden State is as close to the Big Apple as the UFC can get. Between the Rock, East Rutherford’s Izod Center and Atlantic City, N.J. has hosted 12 UFC events since 1993, the latest last May that aired over the FOX networks as part of the UFC’s presence on network television.
Go ahead, New York, get excited about UFC 159. Revel in the series of events – the UFC will take over Herald Square in Midtown on Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., complete with fan Q&As, autograph sessions and photo opportunities with talent. It’ll create a party atmosphere leading up to Friday’s open weigh-ins at the Rock and Saturday’s opening horn.
But don’t get your hopes up. Thanks to a small collection of idiots in the New York State Assembly, the media capital of the world has annually been shut out of MMA fun, despite the fact that it would pump millions of dollars in the state economy. This year in particular may turn out to be a punch in the gut. Less than two weeks ago confidence was high that New York would be the 49th state to legalize MMA.
The good news: the New York Senate passed MMA bill S.2755 by a vote of 47-15. The bad news: we’ve been on this roller coaster before — four years and counting. Once the Assembly introduces its own version of the bill, history has proven it won’t go any further due to the buzzkill efforts of crusty Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the influential opposition. More than previous years, the UFC had serious momentum in 2013. UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey was part of a contingent of fighters lobbying Albany to wake up and smell the success of the UFC and MMA. More than 60 co-sponsors also signed on to the bill sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.
Alas, UFC president Dana White told reporters last week he’s not optimistic that MMA in New York will be signed into law. At one point, White was so confident that he booked Madison Square Garden for UFC’s 20th anniversary event in November with visions of Jones fighting UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, considered by many the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
“Yeah, (but) we didn’t get into New York,” White said. “I’d pretty much call it done, yeah. They didn’t even put it in the budget. Anything can happen, (but) I’m not as optimistic as I was a few weeks ago.”
According to White, there are more people to blame than just the lawmakers in Albany. Some still hold the ancient belief that MMA is human cockfighting and too violent for a society that embraces sports like football, boxing and rugby, in addition to sports entertainment. The Las Vegas-based Culinary Union has long been a thorn in White’s side due to animosity between the union and UFC co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. The brothers operate Station Casinos in Nevada and the Culinary Union’s near-60,000 members is pressuring Station to unionize.
“The (New York Athletic) commission is 100 percent behind it. Everybody wants it there except the Culinary Union,” White said. “Every time we try to move forward and progress in New York, the Las Vegas Culinary Union starts hammering everybody with letters, and they’re working the politicians and everything else.
“They’re from Las Vegas. And if the UFC is this horrible thing that they write about, why aren’t they sending letters to the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, the Nevada State Athletic Commission? Why are they only writing letters to New York? Does that make any sense?”
It makes no sense. As a matter of fact, if something is too logical and makes too much sense, it won’t done. Whatever political clout the Culinary Union may have with Albany, it leaves the state of New York – desperate for an infusion of funds – and its combat sports fans losers in the end. Even Silver has given in, going on record as saying MMA in New York was “inevitable,” and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated he’d sign a legalization bill.
In this never-ending fight, “inevitable” feels like forever, even though a 2008 study cited by Sen. Joseph Griffo indicated that a UFC event in New York “would generate $11.5 million in new net economic activity: $5.3 million in direct event spending, $1.4 million in non-lodging visitor spending, and $4.9 million in indirect/induced benefits.”
“I continue to see growth in support for the bill,” Morelle, D-Irondequoit, the bill’s main sponsor, told The Saratogian. “We’re not going to stop basketball from being played in New York. If you find it repulsive or you don’t like that kind of thing, don’t go. It’s not mandatory attendance at MMA events.”
Last May’s UFC on FOX 3 — at the Izod Center — drew at least 40 percent of its ticket sales from New York, according to a statement from Lorenzo Fertitta. The Prudential Center is expected to be sold out, packed with fans curious to see if Jones, a UFC champion so dominant at age 25 he’s in the best-pound-for-pound conversation with Silva and welterweight king Georges St. Pierre, can silence Sonnen, an infamous trash talker who angled his way into a title shot despite coming off a second-round knockout loss to Silva last July.
Sonnen has blasted Jones for his 2012 DWI incident and for turning down an original fight on short notice last September. Jones in turn has accused Sonnen of using steroids, and when the two fighters stood near one another in a televised interview during The Ultimate Finale a week ago, Jones refused to look into Sonnen’s face or acknowledge his presence.
Old-school vendettas are fresh, thanks to the UFC and MMA. It’s a shame a small segment of decision-makers and political puppet-masters can’t recognize a gold mine right under their noses. Through Saturday night, New York and New Jersey will host a party — UFC style.
It’s too bad that an epic event at the Garden is so close.
So close it hurts.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC
MMA fans, let’s hear you in the comments!