Battleground State: The Fight to Legalize MMA in New York (Part 1)

It’s a frigid February evening in New York City, and yet scores of fans have braved the cold weather to gather at the midtown Manhattan Hooters bar in order to watch the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view event entitled “UFC 109: Relentless.” Indeed, it’s so cold that most of the waitresses wear long-sleeved shirts instead of their usual tank-tops.

The restaurant is nearly filled to capacity, but according to Nick Bujduveanu, a 36-year-old hotel concierge in Manhattan who has been watching mixed martial arts (MMA) for about three years, the crowd is smaller than usual. “It’s a big fight, but not as big as some others,” Bujduveanu said. “Plus it’s cold out.” The main event on the card pits Randy Couture against Mark Coleman, both former UFC heavyweight champions and both in their mid-40s, leading some fans to label the fight “UFC 109: Retirement” or “Age in the Cage.”

Still, the fans expect a good show, and when Long Island native Matt “The Terror” Serra enters the eight-sided ring known as “the Octagon,” the fans give the former UFC welterweight champion a loud ovation. In 2006, Serra appeared on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality show on Spike TV sponsored by the UFC, and won a guaranteed title shot at Georges St. Pierre, the reigning UFC welterweight champion and one of the top pound-for-pound MMA fighters in the world. An 11-1 underdog, Serra’s pre-match vow to take the title back to his hometown of East Meadow became a reality after he caught St. Pierre with a powerful right hand to the head, and knocked him out in the first round. Today, Serra still considers his Rocky Balboa moment as one of his greatest memories. He owns and operates the Serra Jitsu Academy, a mixed martial arts school with locations in East Meadow and Huntington in Long Island, and trains approximately 500 students of all ages and experience levels in numerous combat disciplines. As a result of Serra’s UFC exposure, his academy has done so well in recent years that he’s moving the Huntington school it to a larger facility a couple of blocks away, and plans on opening it in the spring. But first, he has a fight to win, and veteran Frank Trigg is in his way.

The place erupts less than three minutes after the fight starts as Serra knocks Trigg out with the same right hand that felled St. Pierre. Serra is clearly thrilled about his victory and looks forward to celebrating with his family. “My daughter’s birthday is next week, and I’m like I hope I don’t show up looking like a Cyclops!” said an unscathed Serra after the match.

Despite all of his success, Serra has one dream that has yet to be fulfilled: his desire to fight at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately for him and other New York fighters, like Matt “The Hammer” Hamill of upstate Utica, mixed martial arts events have been banned in New York since 1997. At age 35, Serra doesn’t see himself fighting much longer, and he knows his chances of fighting at the Garden are running out. However, if recent events unfold the way he and many others at the UFC hope they do, then his dream could soon become a reality.

Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest growing sports in America. In the last few months, MMA-related events have earned record television ratings and pay-per-view buy-rates. The latest season of “The Ultimate Fighter” broke Spike TV’s all-time ratings record on two separate occasions. In December, the live season finale on Spike drew more than five million viewers, and last July, the UFC set a new pay-per-view buy-rate record, garnering over 1.6 million “buys” for its “UFC 100” event. In August, Strikeforce, the number two MMA organization in the United States, drew nearly 5.5 million viewers for its much ballyhooed network television debut on CBS. That show featured Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, who many consider the best MMA fighter in the world. Strikeforce also garnered publicity when it signed former Heisman trophy winner and National Football League (NFL) running back Herschel Walker to a contract. On Jan. 30, the 47-year-old Walker won his debut match in the cage, winning a unanimous decision at the “Strikeforce: Miami” event.

In January, New York governor David Paterson announced his budget proposal for 2010-2011, which included legalization of MMA events in New York state as a means of raising badly-needed revenue. Paterson believes that MMA events, which were once legal in the state, would bring in millions of dollars in revenue, as well as create hundreds of jobs. The UFC, which has been at the forefront of the legalization movement, feels momentum is on its side and is extremely confident that MMA events will be legalized in New York by April 1, which is the deadline for the state legislature to pass the budget.

However, despite its recent success and the sport’s growing appeal, MMA still faces an uphill battle for mainstream acceptability. The sport is undeniably violent, and blood-letting during matches is common. Fighters are encouraged to knock out or force their opponents to submit or give up, and are often paid hefty bonuses to do so. Critics of MMA believe that it encourages and glorifies violence, and some see it as nothing more than a fad with no more legitimacy than professional wrestling. As a result, not everyone in New York is ready to roll out the red carpet for MMA.

Continue to Part 2

NEW YORK CITY – Nick Bujduveanu (left) and Raihan Aretin (right) watch UFC 109 at Hooters in midtown Manhattan (photo by Victor Li)