A History Lesson (or History’s Lesson) on Mixed Martial Arts in New York
November 17, 2010
“We ban cockfighting and dog fighting. Should we allow humans to enter a cage to knee, kick and punch each other?” New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly to Tourism, Arts and Sports Development Committee Members on June 11, 2008.
It is an animalistic piece of subhuman behavior more akin to cockfighting than a human sport. New York state Senator Roy Goodman, December 1995. See Andrea Stone, “Bare Knuckle Debate: Fans See Fun In Brawls Where Anything Goes,” USA Today, December 18, 1995.
Over the weekend, the 2010 World MMA Expo took place at the Jacob Javits Center here in New York City—a city, sadly in a state that, unlike 44 states where MMA is now sanctioned, MMA is still banned.
The Expo started on Friday, November 12, 2010, which was also the date: (1) 17 years ago that the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event was held in Denver, Colorado and (2) this year that Assemblyman Bob Reilly, the de facto voice of the opposition to the legalization of MMA here in New York, was officially named the winner of a very close election with challenger Jennifer Whalen.
On this same date, I was a participant on a panel along with Eddie Goldman, MMA Reporter, NHB News, Edward Anthony, President & CEO, New York Jiu Jitsu, and Dorian Price, professional MMA fighter, contestant on the Ultimate Fighter 6, and instructor at New York Jiu Jitsu. The Panel, “Past, Present and Future of Mixed Martial Arts,” fittingly focused on New York’s place in the battle to legitimize (and legalize) MMA starting after that first event 17 years earlier in Colorado. The audio from the panel is available here.
Eddie Goldman started the session going over the history of MMA as we now know it-in particular, the series of events that ultimately lead to the adoption of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Eddie credits the origin of the Unified Rules to Mike Thomas and the Mohawks of Kahnawake in Quebec where the Kahnawake held the IFC’s first event in 1996 – an event in which people were charged with staging an illegal prize fight.
Eddie Goldman also discussed some interesting little known facts about MMA in New York, including that there was a time that the sport was actually legal prior to the implementation of the ban in 1997. The remainder of the panel focused on the current state of MMA in New York and suggestions about what can (and needs to) be done to bring the sport back to New York.
After the panel and largely in response to my conversation with Eddie Goldman concerning a litany of inaccuracies and misinformation concerning MMA’s past in New York, I decided to look back to the early years, i.e. 1995-1997, to see what was happening in the state leading up to the ban in late-February 1997.
As outlined below, the story is full of twists and turns and a lot of confusion and flip-flopping—especially among the politicians in New York. As I started pulling together the research I couldn’t help but note the parallels and similarities between the struggle in the 1990s and the struggle taking place now. Of course, the sport is vastly different now (for the better), which is a truth that is lost on the opposition.
With that introduction, let’s take a look back in time.
The First MMA Event Held In Buffalo New York
On September 8, 1995 in Buffalo, NY, “Ultimate Fighting Championship VII” took place and drew in a crowd of approximately 10,000 and was also aired on pay-per-view television. See Staff, “Bare Knuckles,” Washington Times, October 5, 1995 and Jim Sleeper, “Gov. Keno Bets on Immorality,” New York Daily News, October 19, 1995.
The fight card took place despite an August letter protesting the event from Arizona Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Governor Pataki in which McCain “described watching a videotape of one match ‘in which a contestant was pummeled and finally knocked unconscious by repeated elbows to the temple while he was immobilized on the canvas. Another bout,’ he wrote, ‘featured full-force kicks to the face of a bleeding and dazed contestant who was crawling on the mat after being kneed in the face.’”
According to then Governor Pataki, the event was allowed to take place because he “lacked ‘clear authority’ to intervene.” See Gov. Keno Bets on Immorality, supra. In response to the event, Senator McCain wrote to “Gov. [Pataki] protesting New York’s first allowance of ‘this appalling event.’” See id. (note, it is unclear from the articles at the time whether there were two letters or just the one in August, so it is possible that the “appalling” letter is the same as the August letter).
Senator Roy Goodman Effectively Blocks The First MMA Event From Happening in New York City
McCain was not alone in his calls for a ban on the sport. Then New York State Senator Roy Goodman made it his personal mission to ban “ultimate fighting.”
According to Goodman:
‘These fights are no different from street brawls, moved into arenas and organized by promoters for profit,’ Mr. Goodman said. ‘Cockfighting and dog fighting are illegal, but because of an ambiguity in the law, it is unclear whether unregulated ultimate-fighting contests are illegal.’ See “Bare Knuckles,” supra. ‘It is an animalistic piece of subhuman behavior more akin to cockfighting than a human sport.’ says New York state Sen. Roy Goodman, who helped oust a match from Manhattan on grounds that it was tantamount to criminal assault. See Andrea Stone, “Bare Knuckle Debate: Fans See Fun In Brawls Where Anything Goes,” USA Today, December 18, 1995.
While occurring later in time, in February 1996, when former Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson began his term as Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, he promised to support bills aimed at banning MMA and had this to say about the safety of MMA compared with boxing:
‘Think about it,’ Patterson said. ‘Every time you get hit, your brain slaps up against your skull. But a boxing glove doesn’t do as much damage as a bare fist hitting someone directly on the chin. You’re always going to break bones. Imagine if you hit him directly in the head. That can kill him.’ See John Kekis, Former Heavyweight Champ Floyd Patterson Vows to Fight for Old Boxers, AP, February 7, 1996.
Aside from the obvious proponents of MMA, namely, the promoters, there were others who could already, even in 1995, see through some of the transparent arguments of those in the opposition. For example, on November 14, 1995, Ira Berkow, in an article (that is admittedly not flattering to the sport overall) in the New York Times, Sports of The Times; Better Than a Stick In the Eye,” addressed this political opposition to so-called “extreme fighting.”
In particular, he addressed then New York State Senator Roy Goodman’s calls for a total ban on what he calls ‘this type of organized street brawl in New York State’ and plans to introduce legislation outlawing it.”
Specifically, Berkow stated in relevant part as follows:
And it is not like, say, cock-fighting, which is legitimately outlawed, because the cocks are never asked whether they want to fight. For all we know, some cocks might be conscientious objectors. . . . For an extreme fighter, it could be finis of life, too, but it’s all his decision. Another virtue of ‘Extreme Fighting’ is that innocent bystanders aren’t at risk, unlike a drive-by shooting or cross-fire between gangs or someone getting slashed by a boxcutter in a case of mistaken identity.
And you don’t have to attend the event, or pay for it on television. If you would rather see something that seems more uplifting, tune in or attend a football game in which people routinely jump on each other for pleasure, or hockey, in which the referees stand around and watch with rapture as two players beat each other up, or, well, boxing, which sometimes concludes with fighters maimed for life, or killed.. . . Sorry, Senator [Goodman], but I side with the Extreme forces. Civilized society has higher priorities: bad schools, dangerous streets and parks, indecent health care, miserable housing and corrupt police departments, to name just a few.
The effort to wipe out ‘Extreme Fighting’ — or at least try to convince its enthusiastic belligerents that an activity like, oh, hitting their heads against a wall might be better for their health — is noble on its face, but it pales in the broader scheme of things. If two guys find enchantment in choking each other, we should find it in the goodness of our hearts to let them.
In addition, UFC medical adviser, Richard Istrico, a New York State Athletic Commission ringside doctor for 18 years, stated then that “[p]oliticians who condemn the fights are ‘totally misinformed. They obviously didn’t watch it,’” noting that he had “seen no ‘acute head injuries’ in the four matches he monitored. ‘Football is much more violent.’” See “Bare Knuckle Debate,” supra.
Roy Goodman, however, was successful in his efforts.
Specifically, Battlecade Inc. had planned to stage its first event, Extreme Fighting: Whatever It Takes to Win, on Saturday, November 18, 1995 in the Brooklyn Armory and those plans were derailed:
Among the few rules governing ‘extreme fighting,’ there is one that allows a losing fighter to signal surrender by tapping his hand three times on the bloody mat. Yesterday, in the arena of New York City, promoters of the fledgling sport tapped out. See Dan Barry, Promoters of ‘Extreme Fighting’ Cry Uncle, New York Times, November 18, 1995.
According to the New York Times, “[t]he promoters had a lease for the armory and a written understanding with the State Athletic Commission, in which the agency acknowledged that it had no jurisdiction over the hybrid sport, which combines the techniques of boxing, martial arts and street brawling. The smallest details had been attended to, from the selection of ‘ring card girls’ to the hiring of the actor Mr. T as ‘celebrity reporter.’“ See Dan Barry, “Brooklyn Armory Officials Want to Bar ‘Extreme Fighting’ Event,” New York Times, November 15, 1995 and Dan Barry, Promoters of ‘Extreme Fighting’ Cry Uncle, New York Times, November 18, 1995.
However, in response to Senator Goodman’s efforts, who “assailed extreme fighting as ‘human cockfighting,’” the “Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which oversees state armories, revoked the lease because, it said  having such fights in a state facility would not be in New York’s best interest.” See Promoters of ‘Extreme Fighting’ Cry Uncle, supra.
Goodman was not alone in his efforts in New York:
Other city and state officials joined the chorus of critics, including District Attorney Charles J. Hynes of Brooklyn. Mr. Hynes vowed that if the event took place in his county, he would arrest the fighters on charges of assault. Battlecade, which is owned in part by Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, fought back, first in Brooklyn Supreme Court and then in the Appellate Division. It argued that the state could not break the lease for the armory at such a late date, and that the company stood to lose millions of dollars. But Battlecade could not obtain the expeditious court relief that it needed to stage the event in Brooklyn. In addition, Mr. Zuckerman said, critical statements made by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others made it clear that the opposition was statewide. See “Promoters of ‘Extreme Fighting’ Cry Uncle,” supra:
Events Throughout The State Thwarted
New York City was not alone. Despite the claimed “loophole” preventing the state (and/or the New York State Athletic Commission) from keeping MMA out of the New York, scheduling of MMA events continued in the state only to be thwarted at the local level.
Semaphore Entertainment Group had an Ultimate Fighting Championship event scheduled for September 20, 1996 at the Onondaga County War Memorial, but then Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi prevented the event from happening, stating that “police have denied a permit to the event’s promoters, and admitted that he lobbied authorities to reject the application.” See “Syracuse Mayor Gets His Way, Keeps Out Ultimate Fighters,” AP, July 4, 1996.
MMA Legalized In New York In October 1996
Ultimately, and circling back to what Eddie Goldman said on Friday, in October 1996, Governor Pataki signed into law a bill that legalized Mixed Martial Arts. According to the New York Times, “[t]hough Mr. Pataki had originally called for prohibiting the sport last year, he agreed to sign legislation in October legalizing and regulating it because Mr. Bruno [the state Senate Majority Leader] had refused to allow the Senate to approve a ban. See James Dao, “Senate Chief in Albany, Reversing Himself, Says He Backs a Ban on Ultimate Fighting”, New York Times, February 11, 1997.
Specifically, Governor Pataki signed into law a bill “to amend chapter 912 of the laws of 1920, relating to allowing and regulating boxing, sparring and wrestling matches, and the tax law, in relation to establishing protocols for combative sports.” The bill provided in relevant part as follows:
Chapter 912 of the laws of 1920, relating to allowing and regulating boxing, sparring and wrestling matches, is amended by adding a new section 5–a to read as follows:
2. Combative sports events authorized. No combative sports bouts or events shall be conducted, held or given within the state except in accordance with the provisions of this section. The commission shall direct a deputy to be present at each place where combative sports are to be held pursuant to the provisions of this section. Such deputy shall ascertain the exact conditions surrounding such bout or event and make a written report of the same in the manner and form prescribed by the commission. Such combative sports bouts or events may be held in any building for which the commission in its discretion may issue a license. Where such bout or event is authorized to be held in a state or city owned armory, the provision of the military law in respect thereto must be complied with, but no such bout or event shall be held in a building wholly used for religious services.
3. Jurisdiction of commission. The commission shall have and hereby is vested with the sole direction, management, control and jurisdiction over all such combative sports bouts or events to be conducted, held or given within the state of New York and over all licenses to any and all persons who participate in such combative sports bouts or events except as otherwise provided in this act.
In the bill, “Combative Sports” was defined to mean “any professional mixed martial arts bout or event wherein the participants deliver, or are not forbidden by the applicable rules thereof from delivering kicks, punches or blows, other than eye gouging, biting, throat strikes and kicks if hard sole shoes are worn, to any part of the body of an opponent.”
Notably, the effective date of the new bill was February 7, 1997 and, after the bill legalizing MMA was signed into law, SEG had already planned two UFC events for 1997, including one on the effective date of the bill:
New York State’s athletic commission sanctioned the regulatory control of combat sports in Oct 1996. As a result, SEG Sports will stage its first Ultimate Fighting Championship event on Feb 7, 1997, at New York’s Niagara Falls Civic Center. This title unification event may be followed by another match at New York’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in May 1997. See SEG Sports gets OK for UFC events in N.Y., Amusement Business, December 30, 1996.
The Law Legalizing MMA Is Repealed And A Bill Is Signed Into Law Banning The Sport
Dave Meltzer over at YAHOO! describes what happened next in the weeks leading up to the February 7, 1997 event:
But the real story took place in the days leading to the show. The New York Times ran several days’ worth of stories that turned the political tide against the event, decrying the sport, then known as no holds barred (the term mixed martial arts, created in Japan by pro wrestling promoters was not yet being used) [note, mixed martial arts was actually a defined term in the October amendment legalizing combative sports], or NHB for short. . . . Since it was still legal that week, a few days before the event, the New York State Athletic Commission hastily created a 114-page rule book, completely changing the event.
Among the rules put in place were no submissions or ground work, and fighters would have to wear amateur boxing headgear. Worse, to make sure no such event took place that week even under those rules, they mandated that the octagon cage would have to be 40 feet in diameter. Since the promotion learned about this three days before the show, it would have been impossible to construct a cage to be built in time for the show.
Even state Senate Majority Leader Bruno reversed course:
Just months after he pushed for legislation that made New York the first state to sanction the bruising competition known as ultimate fighting, the State Senate majority leader reversed himself today and said he would ask the Senate to pass a bill banning the sport throughout the state. . . . Echoing the arguments of the sport’s promoters, Mr. Bruno has said he considers ultimate fighting to be less violent than boxing. But Mr. Bruno’s position came under attack by a broad, bipartisan array of critics, including Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who vowed to block any attempts to hold bouts in the city. See “Senate Chief in Albany, Reversing Himself, Says He Backs a Ban on Ultimate Fighting,” supra.
The delay imposed by the new regulations gave Governor Pataki the necessary time to sign into law the ban on MMA in New York that is still in place today. Specifically, on February 25, 1997, Governor Pataki signed the ban on combative sports into law closing what the New York Times described as “an odd chapter in Albany politics that began almost a year ago when Mr. Pataki first proposed banning the sport.”
In his Executive Memorandum on February 25, 1997, Governor Pataki had this to say about the law banning the sport:
The bill, which I originally submitted as a Governor’s Program Bill last year, will effectively prevent “Combative Sports” or “Ultimate Fighting” events from being conducted within the State of New York.
Over the past two years, I have been outspoken against this barbaric activity in which contestants are permitted to fight each other in a savage manner. The bill insures that these brutal “entertainment” events cannot occur in our State by barring them and by imposing strict civil and criminal penalties on any person who advances or profits from a combative sport activity conducted within the State.
Recently, concerns have been raised that the bill purports to prevent persons in New York from advancing or promoting a combative sport event lawfully held in another jurisdiction, and thus that the bill is unconstitutional. The bill, however, is not intended to apply to persons promoting in New York a combative sport event lawfully occurring outside the State. Moreover, these concerns are groundless for another reason: provisions of our Criminal Procedure Law clearly prevent the criminal prohibitions of the bill from being applied to a person promoting in New York a combative sport event lawfully held elsewhere.
I am hopeful that other States across the country will follow the lead of New York and the handful of other States that have banned this senseless and degrading activity in their jurisdictions.
The bill is approved.
If you have made it through this article (and I hope you have), you are probably thinking a few things: (1) the arguments in favor of legalizing MMA are not dissimilar to the arguments articulated above, but have been refined significantly largely with the introduction of the Unified Rules; (2) the arguments against MMA have really not changed much, as people like Bob Reilly (who bears significant similarity to then Senator Goodman), continue to compare MMA to human cock-fighting and dog fighting; (3) the New York political process is troubling and inconsistent (note the similarity between the discussion above about Senator Bruno’s influence over Pataki and current discussions about Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s influence in the Assembly); and (4) the media (and public opinion) can have a significant effect on the legislative process in this state (e.g., the New York Times coverage against MMA and its effect as described in Dave Meltzer’s article).
It is history lesson number 4 that I think can give us some hope in efforts to legalize the sport here in New York. Indeed, if, through events like the MMA World Expo and other grassroots movements, we can convince the media that the sport is not what it once was, we may be able to move the legislature towards legalization.
Remember, when the ban was implemented, the sport did not have the rules and structure that it has now. Nor was there a MMA business presence here in New York like that displayed at the Expo.
So, in theory at least, the fight to re-legalize should be a bit easier.
Justin Klein is an attorney at Satterlee Stephens Burke & Burke LLP in New York City where he concentrates his practice in commercial litigation and represents clients in the fight industry. He regularly addresses current legal issues that pertain to combat sports, including efforts to legalize MMA in New York, at his Fight Lawyer website. He is a licensed boxing manager with the New York State Athletic Commission as well as the founder and Chairman of the Board of the New York Mixed Martial Arts Initiative, a non-profit organization that gives inner city youth the opportunity to experience the emotional and physical benefits of martial arts training. Justin lives in New York City where he trains in jiu jitsu and boxing.
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