MANHATTAN (CN) – The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading mixed martial arts promoter, claims New York state’s 1997 law banning live professional mixed martial arts fighting is unconstitutional and irrational. The UFC claims the ban violates its speech rights by regulating the content of public entertainment.
Zuffa LLC, which owns the UFC, and a group of mixed martial arts fighters, trainers and fans sued New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in Federal Court.
The plaintiffs claim that mixed martial arts (MMA) are derived from traditional martial arts, and emphasize moral, spiritual and social codes as much as technical combat skills.
According to the 105-page complaint, the concept of multidisciplinary martial arts was pioneered by legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, who refused to limit himself to a single fighting style, and became popular in the 1990s.
The plaintiffs claim that MMA, one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the United States, is safer than ever due to regulations that established weight classes, timed rounds, mandatory medical testing and drug screens.
“Originally sensationalized in the early 1990s as a ‘no holds barred’ fighting spectacle, MMA has evolved into one of the most highly regulated and controlled professional sports,” the complaint states. “This, in turn, had fueled MMA’s meteoric rise in popularity: MMA fighters grace the covers of mainstream magazines and star in popular home video workout programs, and the UFC is sponsored by the likes of the United States Marine Corps, Harley-Davidson, and Dodge. MMA appeals to fans of nearly every age and demographic, and its influence is widespread. Professional athletes in other sports incorporate MMA into their training regimens, citing the physical benefits but also the mental toughness that MMA builds. MMA techniques and training are taught to members of our nation’s military and law enforcement officers. MMA programs have sprung up to help stop bullying against students and instill confidence in them, and to steer kids away from gangs and other at-risk behavior.”
In August, the UFC began a 7-year contract with Fox to broadcast MMA matches, shows and related content on Fox channels. According to The New York Times, the contract is worth as much as $100 million annually to the UFC.
The plaintiffs say New York’s ban makes no sense, as other sports as violent as mixed martial arts, such as boxing, ice hockey, football and tightrope walking over Niagara Falls, are allowed in New York.
Paradoxically, they say, New York allows mixed martial arts amateur fights and gyms, and individual martial arts that make up the MMA, but prohibits professional mixed martial arts.
According to the complaint: “New York’s Live Professional MMA Ban was adopted in 1997, at a time when MMA was in its infancy, had few rules, and was prohibited in many other states. Today, professional MMA operates under a unified set of rules and is permitted in virtually all of the United States, as well as in numerous countries worldwide. Medical experts concur – based on studies and data – that professional MMA is as safe as or safer than many sports that are legal in New York, and, in some cases, wholly unregulated. These include football, ice hockey, downhill skiing, rodeo competitions, equestrian sports, and boxing. Most of the individual martial arts that comprise MMA are legal and performed live regularly in New York. Paradoxically, it is only their combination that is banned.”
The law prohibits professional mixed martial arts matches before a live audience, “advancing” professional MMA in New York, and profiting from such activities.
The plaintiffs say that even though former critics of the sport – such as Sen. John McCain, who famously dubbed MMA “human cockfighting” – changed their views, the state failed to repeal the ban.
A bill to overturn the New York ban passed the state Senate in June, but did not get a floor vote before the Assembly, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say the state could have addressed safety concerns through regulations, but opted for a total ban to “silence” the message of mixed martial arts.
“Present-day MMA is a far cry from the first tournaments that were billed as ‘no holds barred’ in the early 1990s,” the complaint states. “Today, MMA is a safe and hugely popular sport due to the introduction of significant changes by promoters such as the UFC, and regulations including the establishment of weight classes; the barring of more dangerous moves such as groin strikes, head butts, and joint manipulation; and the introduction of timed rounds – which were used in the first UFC tournament but phased out in later ones – that allow fighters to take breaks and receive medical evaluation during the course of the fight. The UFC has been the leader in these regulatory efforts by working with state athletic commissions to ensure uniformity of rules. These rule changes have significantly changed the sport, the popularity of which has increased exponentially.”
According to the complaint, 45 of the 48 states with athletic commissions explicitly regulate mixed martial arts.
The plaintiffs claim that professional MMA is responsible for just two deaths in the United States, as opposed to 27 deaths in U.S. professional boxing matches and 71 boxing-related deaths worldwide since just 1993.
What’s more, the plaintiffs say, the ban caused the proliferation of “underground” mixed martial arts matches, which pose real safety concerns for participants.
The complaint adds: “Not only does the Live Professional MMA Ban put New York at odds with almost every other state in the country, it is incongruous even within the state. Countless New Yorkers watch MMA on television; it is widely available throughout the state. Tens of thousands of children and adults train at New York’s many MMA gyms and schools. The plain language of the ban permits amateur MMA matches. Leading fighters train here. It is only professional MMA events before a live audience – and anything that advances or causes one to profit from live professional MMA – that are prohibited by the ban.”
The plaintiffs claim the state passed the ban based on antipathy to the supposedly “violent message” of mixed martial arts. They say legislators misunderstood the message and the nature of the sport, which values rigorous training and respect for opponents.
“While there surely are spectators who watch solely because of their misconceived hopes of seeing ‘violence’, countless fans watch MMA because of the variety of positive messages conveyed,” the complaint states. “When asked why they watch MMA, viewers commonly point to the technical skill and artistry of the fighters, the excitement of the competition, the respect between opponents, and the courage and determination to win that fighters display.”
The complaint adds: “MMA before a live audience is also expressive in a highly individualistic way. A woman fighter may use her performance to demonstrate to other women that they are capable of protecting themselves in any situation. A fighter who enters the arena draped in his home country’s flag pays tribute to his countrymen. Fighters pay homage to religious faith, various disciplines of martial arts, and personal heroes. None of this expression is about ‘violence.'”
The plaintiffs claim that live MMA events in New York could bring in millions of tax dollars and business and advertising revenue.
They add: “It is unfathomable that in a world drenched in violence – from first-person shooter video games, to violent movies, to violent lyrics in pop music, to graphic network news – the New York Legislature singled out live professional MMA as the one thing it believes sends an impermissible message.”
The UFC and the 13 individual co-plaintiffs want the state enjoined from enforcing the ban.
They are represented by Jamie Levitt with Morrison & Foerster.