How MMA Finally Made Its Way to Madison Square Garden

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

This Saturday a great miracle will happen in midtown Manhattan, though it will begin modestly. After nearly 20 years of MMA prohibition in New York State, two little-known fighters named Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian will step into a cage in Madison Square Garden, and the long and winding road to the arrival of professional mixed martial arts at Madison Square Garden will finally find an end.

Strangely enough there was actually a brief moment back in late 1996 when the legalization of MMA had actually been approved by the New York State government. In October of that year Republican Gov. George Pataki signed Senate Bill 7780 into law, amending the longstanding state law regulating boxing, sparring, and wrestling matches to included protocols for “combative sports.” The bill defined “combative sports as “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.”

But there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, as they say, and while MMA may have technically been legalized in October 1996, by the time the new law was scheduled to go into effect, on February 7, 1997, the sport was once again dead. Several high-powered politicians in the state railed against the new law. The most vocal and powerful among them was New York City Mayor (and likely our next United States attorney general) Rudy Giuliani, who vowed to block any attempts to put on MMA fights in the city. At the same time The New York Times was running a blistering crusade against MMA legalization, helping to turn the tide of public opinion and political will by attacking the sport for its almost total lack of rules. (The sport was still called NHB, or no-holds barred, back then. The rhetorical sophistication of “mixed martial arts” was still off in the future.)

Now under siege, the New York State Athletic Commission quickly put together a book of rules to allay people’s fears and disgust, rules that essentially ripped the soul right out of the budding sport and paralyzed anyone trying to make money promoting it. These new rules, which we were released just days before the new law was set to go into effect, included a ban on submissions and ground grappling and required fighters to wear boxing gear. In addition they mandated that the octagonal cage be 40 feet in diameter, much larger than the one being used by the UFC. There would be no way the promotion could comply with these new rules in time for their first sanctioned event, scheduled for the night the law went into effect, February 7, in Niagara Falls. As a result the promotion had to move the event on a moment’s notice from New York to Dothan, Alabama, and give up its plans for an event at MSG later that year.

Three weeks later, on February 25, Pataki and the State Legislature, reeling from the surge in anti-MMA sentiment, dramatically reversed course and came up with a new law, this one banning “combative sports” from the state. From triumph to collapse in less than a month.

But after the UFC changed ownership in 2001 and as the sport of MMA became a mainstream success throughout the aughts, more and more states shook off their squeamishness and paranoia and legalized the sport, and the dream of putting on a show at Madison Square once more became a possibility. Still, for a long, long time after it remained only that. The UFC began its full-court press on the New York State legislature in 2008, complete with lobbyists, political donations, PR reps, and protest rallies, but it would be nearly a decade before the dream became a reality.

The men most responsible for impending the sport’s progress in the state were Assemblyman Bob Reilly and Sheldon Silver, the ultra-powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly. For years Reilly prevented any pro-MMA legislation from making it out of his Tourism, Parks, Art and Sports Development Committee, arguing against the sport on moral grounds and citing “indisputable” facts about the number of deaths the sport had caused, the aim of the sport being to cause harm rather than demonstrate athletic skill, and the relationship between sport violence in the cage and real violence on the streets (not to mention the threats of violence from MMA fans against Reilly himself). Silver, meanwhile, in his capacity as the Speaker of the Assembly, prevented any pro-MMA legislation from coming to the floor of the assembly. Every year, the State Senate would pass a bill legalizing MMA and every year the bill would be prevented from coming to a vote in the Assembly. Silver said he took issue with the sport on moral grounds; critics say he took issue with the sport on monetary grounds, pointing to the donations he got from UNITE HERE, the sister union of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, which was and still is in a battle over workers rights with Station Casinos, a gaming company owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who, until July of this year, also owned the UFC.

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

All that seemed like water under the bridge, however, when Silver was arrested in January 22 on federal corruption charges, and even more so a week later when he submitted his resignation as speaker. And even better, two weeks later the Democrats in the Assembly voted to replace him with Carl Heastie, who had been vocal in the past about his support for legalizing MMA. Surely 2015 would be the year New York joined the rest of the country in legalizing MMA.

But alas, obscure Democratic parliamentary tradition prevented the bill from making it to the floor of the Assembly once again and the 2015 legislative session closed June 17 with MMA just where it had been the year before that and the year before that and the year before that: nowhere.

But 2016 began in a burst of MMA optimism. On January 13 Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo released his annual Executive Budget proposal for 2016-17, and for the first time ever it included support for MMA in New York. “The Governor seeks to authorize both amateur and professional MMA,” the proposal stated, “and will ensure that contests happen under either the supervision of the New York State Athletic Commission or an alternative authorized sanctioning entity.” Three weeks later the New York State Senate passed an MMA bill for the eighth straight year.

Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian will be the first fight of the night in NYC (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

Then the big news broke: On March 15 the leaders of Democratic Conference of the State Assembly informed its members of their intent to bring a pro-MMA bill to the Assembly floor, confident now that there would be enough support within the conference to pass the bill even without Republican votes. Over the next week the bill was blessed by all the necessary committees and on March 22, after three hours of heated and ridiculous debate, the New York State Assembly voted 113-25 in favor of legalizing mixed martial arts. One month later, on April 14, Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law, and 120 days later, on September 1, 2016, New York State finally shook off the shackles of superstition and paranoia and joined the rest of the civilized world.

So here we are. Nearly 20 years after this fiasco began it will end just where it should, at the once and future Fight Capital of the World: Madison Square Garden. Where Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson beat Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta and Rocky Marciano knocked out Joe Louis. And where, this Saturday night, Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian will make the long walk to the Octagon and add their names to that legendary list. 


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