Clean-cut Chris Weidman doesn’t much look like an outlaw. But that’s how his home state treats competitors in the undefeated UFC middleweight champion’s profession. New York, once a mecca for fight fans, now shoos those fans away in its ban–the last of its kind in the U.S.–on mixed martial arts.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought twice in Madison Square Garden. So did Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. But neither Weidman nor Jon Jones nor any other New Yorker competing in the UFC has brought excitement, and dollars, to the historic hall.
“It would be an absolute dream come true,” the heavy-handed wrestler tells Breitbart Sports about fighting in Madison Square Garden. “I’m working really hard fighting all around the world. [Mixed-martial arts] is legal pretty much everywhere else in the world. That it’s not in my home state is disheartening. Fighting in Madison Square Garden, or in the Nassau Coliseum, would definitely be a dream come true.”
Weidman appears closer to realizing this ambition with state assemblymen and senators considering legislation “to allow professional mixed martial arts to be permitted in this State and set forth the jurisdiction of the commission in regulating professional mixed martial arts promotion, participants, bouts and exhibitions.”
But fight fans have witnessed many such attempts in the past, and no matter how much support the bills receive in the press, among the public, or from the politicians, they never seems to go to a full vote–let alone to the governor’s desk.
The UFC believes they know why the Empire State has strangely singled out cage fighting, as opposed to, say kick boxing or muay thai, for a formal prohibition. “Station Casinos is one of the largest nonunion casino operators in Las Vegas,” UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein points out of the gaming entities controlled by UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. “The union here in Las Vegas has been trying to organize in Station for twenty years. They have been unsuccessful. Workers at Station Casinos don’t want the unions representing them. [The unions] are trying to harass Frank and Lorenzo in anything they do in hopes that they’ll give up and let them unionize.”
But the office of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom Epstein labels as “very, very much aligned with organized labor,” disputes the notion that a union three time-zones away has influence on the Empire State’s decision to keep out MMA. The powerful speaker has consistently kept similar bills from receiving a vote in the past. “The union issue is fiction,” Michael Whyland, press secretary for Speaker Silver, bluntly tells Breitbart Sports.
“The local union here in Las Vegas has hired a lobbyist in New York,” Epstein notes. “His name is Neal Kwatra. They’re paying him tens of thousands of dollars to lobby on mixed-martial arts in New York. Why would a Las Vegas union be meddling in the internal politics in New York?”
Bans came about in large part because of cage fighting’s reputation as a no-holds-barred tough-man competition featuring many barroom brawlers and few rules. The introduction of rounds, weight classes, and referee stoppages after the initial Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 all civilized a brutal sport into the mainstream. Weidman exemplifies the trend toward putting the “art” in mixed-martial arts. A collegiate wrestler at Hofstra, he has added to his offensive arsenal through knockout-power punching and Brazilian-jujitsu submissions. The sport has come a long way from when a tough guy lacking athleticism and training in various fighting disciplines could succeed. It’s still involves a few combatants losing consciousness on a normal night opponents note.
“The [New York] ban on MMA took place in 1997, about three-plus years before our group bought the company,” Epstein tells Breitbart Sports. “The sport that was banned in 1997 is not the sport that exists today.”
And that sport that exists today isn’t confined to near-empty Alabama arenas as it once was. Epstein says that the UFC’s global business is “truly exploding.” One can’t say the same for New York. The state lost more people in the twenty-first century’s opening decade–more than three million left for a net decline of 1.3 million–than any other in the union. Weidman, rooted on Long Island despite Hurricane Sandy’s attempt to uproot him, can nevertheless empathize. Those making their escape from New York do so mostly because of employment opportunities in other parts of the country that don’t exist in the Empire State.
“It’s definitely hurting both of us,” Epstein divulges. “There’s no doubt that our business is hurt by this. There’s no doubt that New York is suffering more than we are. We recently commissioned a study that found that New York is missing out on $135 million of economic impact each year because of the MMA ban.”
The promotion can attract New York fans at their cards in Toronto or Atlantic City. New York can’t attract the dollars of those fans by keeping the prohibition in place. Speaker Silver’s office refuses to say whether he will finally allow for a vote on lifting the costly ban. “We will discuss the bill in conference,” Whyland explains. That’s no consolation to Weidman, as “conference” has been where the bill has gone to die without a vote from the elected assembly.
So for now, the UFC’s middleweight champion will have to again travel from Long Island to Las Vegas to fight. On July 5, on the UFC’s annual summer megacard, Weidman takes on Lyoto Machida in the main event at the MGM Grand Arena, the venue where he knocked out MMA legend Anderson Silva last summer and six months later broke his leg. And the fact that UFC 175 happens in Vegas means that the dollars will stay in Vegas.
“It’s sad,” Weidman plaintively confesses. “I have a lot of pride being from New York, born and raised there–still train there. It’s where I raise my kids. For me not being able to compete and give my fans the show they want to see is heartbreaking. I want it to get it legalized as fast as possible.”