The Fight for Mixed Martial Arts in New York

by Jillian Kay Melchior
A Nevada union’s proxy war with the UFC keeps the sport illegal in New York.

Las Vegas — Georges St-Pierre, the longest-reigning Ultimate Fighting Champion in the 20-year history of the sport, looked whupped after five rounds of pummeling — bloodied and slow-moving, with his face lacerated and one eye swollen shut. His opponent, Johny Hendricks, pumped his fist, grinned, and waited for the judges to anoint him. For Hendricks and thousands of the spectators packed into the arena at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it seemed an obvious victory. But the judges gave an unexpected ruling, handing St-Pierre the win, and St-Pierre surprised the fans, too, muttering vaguely that he needed to “hang up his gloves” and “go away for a little bit.” The crowd went even wilder, booing and cheering and rattling in their seats in an uneasy catharsis.

It was a crazy, thrilling fight night, and it should have taken place 2,500 miles away in New York City.

The UFC had originally planned to hold its 20th-anniversary event at Madison Square Garden, possibly headlining with New York native Jon Jones versus Anderson Silva. But because of a Las Vegas union’s proxy war with two UFC owners, New York is now the only state in the nation where professional mixed martial arts (MMA) has not been legalized. For the Empire State’s fighting fans and economy alike, that’s a huge loss.

The CEO of UFC, Lorenzo Fertitta, and his brother Frank own the international fighting empire. They also own Station Casinos, which caters to Nevada’s local gamblers. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas has long hoped to usher Station Casinos’ employees into its ranks, but it almost certainly lacks the support to win a normal, secret-ballot vote to organize. So instead, the Culinary Union has sought a card-check vote, in which each worker’s yay or nay would be public — leaving those who oppose unionization vulnerable to harassment and intimidation.

The Fertittas consequently oppose card check, and because the Culinary Union can’t win at Station Casinos, it has instead spent its members’ dues to retaliate against the UFC, the Fertittas’ other business endeavor.

New York is the arena. Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly since 1994, is a union-allied Democrat, and he makes sure that any bill to legalize professional MMA will never make it to the floor for a vote, regardless of strong bipartisan support. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page reported in April, the UFC “has more or less been told the price of getting into New York is to bow to the culinary union” in Nevada.

“You’ve heard the slogan what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — well, that’s very true except when it comes to the union and the UFC,” says Marc Ratner, the UFC’s senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs. “Somehow it manifests itself in the New York political world.”

Silver has not responded to National Review Online’s request for an interview. A spokesman from the Culinary Union also declined to give NRO any comments.

Allowing the UFC to come to New York would bring huge economic benefits. The state already has a large fan base; the UFC has estimated that 700,000 residents in the Big Apple alone tune in to fights on pay-per-view, and when UFC holds an event across the Hudson in Newark, more than half the attendees are New Yorkers. Without legalization, other states get the cash. Nearly 15,000 fans flocked to the MGM Grand this weekend, spending $5.4 million on tickets and much more on hotel rooms, flights, food, drinks, slot machines, and souvenirs.

Each fight in Madison Square Garden would generate up to $16 million in economic activity, according to the UFC’s estimates. The UFC would also hold fights in western and upstate New York. Pair that with promotions, gyms, and live events, and the statewide economic plus for New York could easily exceed $40 million a year, Lawrence Epstein, the executive vice president of the UFC, tells NRO.

For the UFC’s fighters who were born and raised in New York, the Culinary Union’s proxy war is especially bitter. Chris Weidman, the middleweight champion, was born in Baldwin, N.Y., and his coaching team is entirely based in New York. A devout Christian and New Yorker to the core, he used his strong social-media following to mobilize a food-and-clothing drive at his home church after Hurricane Sandy.

“I have a lot of pride that I’m from New York, and it’s really frustrating that because of some dirty politics, [MMA] is not allowed here,” Weidman told me in September, appearing at a promotional event in the Financial District. “It’s criminal. They’re holding me back from providing for my family in my home state. They’re holding a lot of people back from a lot of different jobs in New York.”

UFC is the fastest-growing sport in the world, perhaps in some measure because the UFC is famous for being good to its fans, interacting with them on social media and offering freebies and meet-and-greets with fighters. I’ve seen that firsthand. When my teenage brother, an MMA fanatic, was in a serious car accident a year and a half ago, he shattered his legs, and for a time it wasn’t clear whether he would ever walk again, much less fight. The UFC arranged for one of his favorite fighters, Wanderlei Silva, to phone his hospital room and encourage him. (Full disclosure, but my interest in both the sport and union abuses pre-dates that act of kindness.)

As a sport that attracts a passionate following, the UFC, when it delves into politics, might well influence the ideological bent of its fans. In New York, the Culinary Union’s obstruction has stirred up political interest among many UFC fans. As Brandon Vasquez, a 20-year-old Bronx native, waited for his chance to meet Weidman, he explained to me in detail the intricacies of the union battle and its economic impact on the state. And Jason Fattorusso, a fan and a union member himself, offered a nuanced critique: “When a union is holding up jobs for other people, that’s wrong. You’re costing people.” He pointed out that without help from politicians, the union wouldn’t have that sort of power.

Ironically, the UFC isn’t anti-union, though its fans may be moving more and more in this direction.

“Every single arena that we go to in the U.S. and Canada is represented by some trade,” Epstein says. “These arenas are full of union workers that we are providing economic benefit to.” Furthermore, Epstein says, “Station Casinos has been willing — and is willing right now — to have a secret-ballot election, but the union is not interested because they know they can’t win it.”

A card-check vote, given that it opens the door to harassment, would be especially troubling, in light of the Culinary Union’s recent abuse of tourists. Demonstrating outside the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas last month, Culinary Union members were caught on film calling the casino’s patrons “ugly girls,” “deadbeat dads,” and “beached whales,” and yelling at them to “get some exercise.” One man said the union members called his girlfriend, who is dying from cancer, a “bitch.”

That sort of misogynistic, ad hominem harassment is rich, coming from a union that has bludgeoned the UFC over offensive comments some of its fighters have made. When Quentin “Rampage” Jackson posted a YouTube video joking about sexual violence against women, for instance, the Culinary Union jumped all over it. The UFC quickly denounced Jackson’s comments, and the fighter has since signed with its biggest competitor, Bellator. The UFC acknowledges that, with nearly 400 fighters, it can’t control their every statement, but it does have a code of conduct, and those who violate it face fines and lengthy suspensions. (The Culinary Union is silent on the misconduct of athletes outside the UFC.)

Another oft-leveled complaint against the UFC, in addition to the concerns about players’ occasional misconduct, is that it’s too violent. Though there is an obvious risk of concussions in MMA, blows are more evenly spread throughout the body than they are, for example, in boxing, which is already legal in New York. Earlier this month, a grisly ten-round fight at the HBO World Championship Boxing match at Madison Square Garden left Russian heavyweight boxer Magomed Abdusalamov in a life-threatening coma. And just weeks before, a junior featherweight boxer, Frankie Leal, died from a brain injury after a fight in Mexico. In comparison, throughout the UFC’s two decades, the most serious injury on record after more than 2,000 fights is a broken arm.

The UFC’s good safety record is also largely the result of the stringent precautions it takes before, during, and after matches. On fight night, I trailed Dr. Jeff Davidson, the UFC’s independent medical consultant. He explained that the UFC requires all fighters to pass extensive medical screening before they enter the Octagon. They must undergo a comprehensive physical and have blood work, urine tests, MRIs, MMRIs, and toxicology and steroid tests. Fighters can’t compete without verification that they’re in excellent physical condition. Four physicians sit ringside and can end the fight if at any point they’re concerned. Immediately after a match, fighters are whisked backstage for another exam by a doctor. In a black medical tent, I watched Dr. Davidson and another M.D. carefully examine the hands of middleweight Thales Leites and assess the cuts that lightweight Evan Dunham had received on his eyebrows. A plastic surgeon even stands by during fights in case, for example, an elbow-throw yields a nasty wound that might produce a scar.

Amateur fights, allowed in New York, have few such medical precautions. Some don’t even screen fighters for hepatitis or HIV, posing a risk to competitors if someone bleeds on the mat. By legalizing MMA, New York could actually increase safety, both by upping the standards for matches and by providing an alternative to boxing.

But many sports are violent and many athletes have made offensive comments. What matters more is that there’s strong demand for UFC in New York, and it remains unmet because a local Nevada union is circumventing the democratic process to serve its own political ends.

“I don’t understand how New York can allow itself to be manipulated on an issue that has nothing to do with whether MMA should be [allowed in the state],” Epstein says. “This is an abused process. It’s not an honest debate. . . . We deserve a vote, and the fact that we’re not getting a vote says it all.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.