The Fight for Mixed Martial Arts in New York
A Nevada union’s proxy war with the UFC keeps the sport illegal in New York.

Georges St-Pierre (at left) battles Johny Hendricks at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev.


Jillian Kay Melchior

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.