The Leader of the Opposition
Many fighters have an archenemy. Someone he hates more than anyone else. Someone who drives him to push a little bit harder in training and put in a little more time in the gym just so he can be at his very best during the fight. Someone who would put the conventional wisdom about how fighters never want to see their counterparts get hurt to the test. Tito Ortiz makes Chuck Liddell want to commit felonious assault. Mention the name “Ken Shamrock” to Dan Severn and be prepared to hear all kinds of things that you probably can’t print. Nick Diaz and Joe Riggs had such a heated encounter at UFC 57 that they continued their brawl at the hospital.
For Dana White, the UFC, and MMA fans, their biggest archenemy (at least in the state of New York) is a soft-spoken 71-year-old former teacher who coached cross-country at Siena College for 17 years.
Meet Robert P. (“Bob”) Reilly, a Democratic State Assemblyman from Colonie. For almost two years now, Reilly has led the opposition to the UFC’s push to legalize MMA in New York. According to him, it’s not a fight that he wanted. “I never sought this publicity," said Reilly to Albany Times-Union. “I'd rather hear my constituents talking to me about the budget and more important things in our state. I'm more interested in agriculture and cows than I am in ultimate fighting.”
Reilly felt obligated to get involved because he was shocked at how violent the sport was. “Violence is something like pornography. It’s like the Supreme Court says You know it when you see it,” said Reilly referring to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. “And violence begets violence. Especially when you show young children violence and tell them its okay. It’s the wrong message.”
Reilly has been called every conceivable name by MMA fans. MMAFrenzy.com called him an “idiot.” Cage Potato described him as “uncommonly stupid.” One blogger called him arrogant, ignorant, and even compared him to Rush Limbaugh. Marc Ratner, UFC vice-president of regulatory affairs, professes to respect Reilly, but believes Reilly is uneducated about the sport and is holding the people of his state hostage to his own views. “You don’t have to watch it, Bob,” Ratner said.
Reilly, however, likes to compare himself to David going against the Goliath known as the Mixed Martial Arts lobby. The UFC has spent millions to get the ban lifted in New York and were confident of success in 2009 before a leadership crisis shut down the state legislature. Reilly believes that the UFC engineered the removal of New York state athletic commissioner Ron Scott Stevens, who was an opponent of MMA, opening the door to current commissioner Melvina Lathan, an outspoken MMA supporter.
Reilly was also upset that the governor included legalizing MMA in his budget proposal, depriving the assembly of the opportunity to vote on it individually. “I find it offensive that the governor is trying to put MMA and other things like the soda tax and selling wine in grocery stores into a much larger bill,” said Reilly to me in February. “He’s trying to bypass the legislature. In past years, all three things have been either been rejected or not acted on. I don’t recall anything put in by previous governors that were rejected or not acted on.”
Despite the UFC’s momentum, Reilly has never doubted his cause. Indeed, when I spoke to him in December, he told me about his admittedly non-scientific poll that showed that approximately 66% of his constituents were against legalizing MMA in New York. Two months later, a Marist poll seemed to confirm those findings, as 68% of registered voters in NY opposed legalization.
“Public opinion is on my side,” said Reilly in December. “The public is against it and the people for it make up a small minority, albeit a very vocal and passionate one. I am fighting for the silent majority.”
Reilly, however, seems ready to concede defeat. He recently announced that he would “probably” vote for the budget because MMA was such a small part of it. Regardless of how you feel about MMA, Reilly should be commended for not putting his personal crusade above the needs of his constituents. There are more important things in the budget that will help address the state’s economic woes and Reilly, even though he still disagrees MMA will bring in anything close to what they’re promising, isn’t going to hold things up.
I like Bob Reilly. I don’t necessarily agree with his views, but I respect them. It’s unfortunate that so many MMA fans don’t feel the same way. Maybe in this increasingly toxic political climate, it’s expected that one side will try and demonize the other.
It’s too bad because Bob Reilly is a class act. That word gets tossed around a lot and is often misused (UFC commentator Joe Rogan once called B.J. Penn a class act when he hugged hated rival Jens Pulver, conveniently forgetting about an earlier incident where Penn held onto a chokehold even after the referee stopped the fight). Class is how you behave when you lose. Maybe MMA fans can learn a thing or two from their archenemy.