A few weeks ago, Marc Ratner was in town checking on a house he owns in Niagara Falls when he spotted a pattern. Ratner, a top executive with Ultimate Fighting Championships, noticed numerous karate and jujitsu schools across the region that also offered mixed martial arts.
It seemed peculiar that parents were willing to pay for their children to learn more about MMA when it was banned at the highest level in New York. Forty-nine other states, Canada, Mexico and beyond have legalized professional mixed martial arts while the sport remains stuck in New York’s political machine.
“You see signs in storefronts for MMA all over the place within a 5-mile radius of downtown Buffalo,” Ratner said. “But to find a boxing gym is really tough unless you know exactly where it is. There’s a lot of interest. A lot of young kids are into it. It would be great there, as well as Rochester and Syracuse. People are begging for it.”
Don Lilly has operated Western New York MMA & Fitness for years, growing the business enough to move from one Buffalo facility to a larger one downtown. He spent 11 years in the Navy, wrestled during his time in the military and now teaches at Sweet Home Middle School.
Lilly has been working with MMA fighters for years, is licensed in 13 states and has been a consultant for professional events elsewhere. He manages 10 fighters, trains 30 and stages periodic amateur events in New York. It’s perfectly legal so long as fighters aren’t paid, which has led to amateur events sprouting across the state.
The state doesn’t regulate amateur events. Lilly and other promoters have taken it upon themselves to implement rules borrowed from other states to make sure fighters are safe even though they’re not required by the state. Basically, the state allows private citizens to oversee MMA safety.
“The floodgates have opened,” Lilly said. “The Wild West is basically in New York State right now. Nothing is stopping you from running a show in your backyard, charging for admission and tickets and not doing anything illegal. Anybody can do it. I’m trying to do it safely.”
Chris Weidman was the undefeated UFC middleweight champion going into his fight Saturday in Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Long Island and was a two-time All-America wrestler at Hofstra. He trains in New York and spends his money in New York, but he can’t make a penny in New York as a fighter.
He drove to New Jersey for his first four professional fights and has since won eight more times in larger venues. He’s an emerging UFC superstar, someone who would help fill arenas from First Niagara Center to Madison Square Garden while pumping money into state and local economies.
But that’s not allowed in New York – and only New York. “It’s very frustrating,” Weidman said by telephone last week from Las Vegas. “I can’t wait to come home. It’s a dream of mine to fight in New York. For that not to happen is just ridiculous. You can fight anywhere in America and pretty much anywhere in the world, but you can’t fight in New York City or anywhere else in New York.”
And to think we rely on our state leaders to make intelligent decisions. All it takes is a shred of common sense and a calculator to see that too many politicians are interested more in serving their personal agendas and preserving their power than representing the people who voted for them.
MMA is Exhibit A for what’s wrong with state politics.
Albany’s power brokers, namely Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, viewed mixed martial arts as an archaic blood sport. He had the power to keep the sport away from a full vote, and thus away from New York, before he resigned as speaker amid federal corruption charges.
All along, an underlying message from Silver and his minions suggested we should cover our eyes and hide women and children from MMA despite its strict safety rules, pre-fight screening and drug testing. Infinitely more archaic than mixed martial arts was the thinking in Albany. Our legislative leaders need to get with the times.
If they only knew the name and face of the sport belongs to a woman, Ronda Rousey, a part-time model who is tougher than quantum physics. She’s among the best pound-for-pound fighters on any list of men and women. She’s also an Olympic bronze medal-winner who wrote a book, stood up for women’s rights and the fight against bulimia and became a voice of reason.
“We’re professional athletes,” Weidman said. “The majority of us are college graduates. We’re doing this for a living. We entertain the rest of the world – but not New York. It’s ludicrous.”
Professional mixed martial arts, such as UFC, have been shut out despite support within state government. For years, it was kicked to the side because too few people held too much power in Albany and refused to remove the ban. For five straight years, it passed the Senate and stalled in the Assembly.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, who represent parts of Western New York, voiced their support for a bill that would legalize the sport at the professional level. It could reach a vote before government breaks for the summer. Many believe it would pass, but it can’t pass without a vote.
What’s the danger in voting?
“It’s an absolute no-brainer,” said Kennedy, who co-sponsored the bill. “It’s ludicrous that the state is so far behind. The only ones that we’re hurting, really, are ourselves and our economy.
“These athletes are going to other states. Folks in New York are watching pay-per-view. It’s absolutely time that we do this.”
For starters, it would allow the state to oversee safety measures that largely have been in place for years. But there also would be a financial boost that has gone to every state but this one. Kennedy and Kearns estimated some $70 million could be generated across the state in the first year alone, some $35 million for upstate. Imagine how many people would come from Canada, where MMA is very popular, for an event in Buffalo. Downtown is making a comeback. The waterfront is evolving before our eyes. If they can draw fans here during the summer, word would quickly spread about a region on the rise.
“Buffalo is growing,” Kearns said. “People aren’t going to come for Fight Night. They’re going to come a day before and stay a day after. They’ll go to our waterfront, our museums, stay at a hotel. They do something and tell a friend. People are going to come here for a weekend. It’s going to benefit the state.”
Ratner, the vice president for regulatory affairs for UFC, isn’t trying to push the sport into New York for the sole purpose of making a buck. He was executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and was against ultimate fighting until the sport was cleaned up in the late 1990s. Now, he’s among its biggest advocates.
He also knows Buffalo. His wife is the former JoAnn Alvarez, who grew up in Amherst and graduated from Sweet Home High. He estimated that the economic impact from one show in Buffalo would be between $7 million and $10 million.
When all the fighters, the people in their camps, UFC support staff and television production people are added up, he figured it would amount to 600-plus nights in local hotels over five days. Add more money from out-of-town guests who would spend the weekend while attending the event.
“It’s a pretty good convention,” Ratner said. “There’s an economic impact just from us, and that’s without selling a drink to a tourist or buying a meal or renting a car. To me, it’s nonsensical in New York that it hasn’t passed. All it can do is help, especially in Western New York. In downtown Buffalo, there’s vibrancy now.”
Just so we’re straight, the state has banned professional mixed martial arts even though its combatants wear padded gloves. They use several disciplines and grapple more than they punch. That’s not OK in New York, but it’s perfectly fine for two hockey players to bloody one another in a bare-knuckles brawl on skates.
It makes no sense. For what it’s worth, I’m not some rabid UFC fan. My experience extends to writing one column eight years ago about Niagara Falls native Rashad Evans and his success in UFC. I can’t name five UFC fighters, but I’m familiar with Rousey and her meteoric rise on sports’ national landscape.
Rousey was on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week. She recently was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumbel. She’s has a guest appearance in the movie “Entourage” that will be released next month. Rousey recently traveled to Albany in an attempt to talk sense into government leaders.
There appears to be plenty of support in the State Senate and Assembly if the bill ever reached a vote. That’s how the democratic process works in other states. In fact, that’s what happened in 49 other states and around the world. New York’s leaders apparently believe they’re right and every other government is wrong.
Meanwhile, fans continue traveling from New York to the other states to watch MMA. They’re buying tickets, staying in hotels, eating out and enjoying the nightlife. New York, supposedly a progressive state, continues to lag behind with its backward thinking and politics.
That’s the real kick in the stomach.
“People choose to do dangerous things,” Kearns said. “Firefighters and police officers have dangerous jobs, and they protect us. Other people choose this career. One way or another, they’re going to make a living. It’s a multiplier economically. By not taking advantage of that, we’re making a huge mistake.”