By Josh Stein on May 21, 2009
Very little is more important to me, at the moment, than the legalization of mixed martial arts in the state of New York. There are a lot of important fronts in the ongoing battle to extend the legitimacy of MMA, but New York is paramount.
The symbolic gesture of a UFC event in Madison Square Garden aside, being able to access what may be the largest market of young, affluent people in an urban area would make American MMA legitimate, but I also think that cracking New York would bring down the dyke, and allow pro MMA to break out and received credibility in the legislatures in Michigan (another powerful, untapped potential fanbase) and Maryland.
There are very few states where professional MMA has not been legalized and every one of them is important, but because of the nature of union influenced New York politics, the third most populous U.S. state has held out. California and Texas (one and two, population wise) have opened up to MMA, but the media influence in New York adds another dimension and level of importance to the legalization of the sport.
There are a lot of reasons why the battle has been uphill, not the least of which is a struggle with organizing opposition to a puritanical democratic leader in the assembly. I’m not a political expert, but having tracked the political history of mixed martial arts, it seems clear to me that there are certain tactics that work, and there are others that don’t.
Now, during the early periods of legalization, when there was discussion of a national ban on the sport (a charge led by, lest we forget, John “Human Cockfighting” McCain), publicity battles held on television were the most powerful weapon of the primary organizers: the UFC.
Many have been careful to acknowledge that this charge was not led entirely by Dana White, and that’s fair. Ken Shamrock and Rich Franklin were both effective advocates, as well spoken, charismatic fighters who could easily demonstrate the intellectual capacity that the sport demands from its top level competitors.
The problem is that Dana White, and the UFC, has become a single advocate for the sport in the state of the sport. The media blitz on the part of the UFC has been fairly well organized. We’ve all heard about the billboard for UFC 98 in Times Square (though, personally, I would’ve preferred something more politically charged, but the UFC doesn’t seem to want to be openly confrontational with the state legislature).
Still, Dana White’s voice is getting old, and instead of being perceived as a young, charismatic, rough around the edges entrepreneur, he’s being seen as a promoter. Whether that’s due to an actual change in White’s status in the sport is arguable, but the change in perception is not, and a lot of that has to do with the UFC taking its place as a monopoly. For better or for worse, it’s a very real consequence.
As a result, when Dana and his fighters appear on television, he’s seen the same way as Don King when he appears on behalf of boxing. People think he’s looking for money or attention or both, and that’s not helpful.
There need to be other advocates in the state of New York, there needs to be a level of organization. Whether that’s the UFC pushing it, trying to crack that massive egg of a market that New York State and, particularly, New York City represent, it’s important that they bring in a new voice.
Of course, whatever MMA sanctioning bodies and other promotions may say about supporting legalization in New York, very few of them are making an effort to execute a media blitz.
The Internet is a great source of grass roots organizing, but the fact is, there needs to be a singular mind building the structure, even in a grass roots movement. Whether it takes hold and spreads virally, there needs to be an organization, and while the UFC has made an effort to use the mainstream media outlets (going so far as to appear on Dr. Phil, though I don’t understand how that really helps), they have failed to really do what great, modern political campaigns are doing, which is to generate support through the internet.
If MMA media outlets want to get attention, there has to be a level of communication superior to online petitions. There have been organizations with the capacity to perform these tasks, but media, as a result of competition between outlets, often fails to offer a cohesive plan (everyone pushing their own).
My solution is simple: create debate, generate conversations and ideas, feel free to dissent from each other, but, at the end of the day, we need to do something effective to demonstrate that the advocacy on behalf of MMA is not just Dana White.
There are people in the sport much, much more powerful than I am, and those are the people that need to look at this situation in New York and, even (and especially) those who don’t like Dana, need to hold their nose and support legalization, because whether you want to see a UFC event in MSG or think it adds additional pressure to states like Michigan and Maryland (among others), this is a battle we need to work harder to win.
Filed Under: MMA
About the Author: Joshua Stein is a writer and editor for MMA Opinion. He has worked as a photographer and journalist and has a number of print journalism credits. He also works as a moderator for MMAForum.com and a grappling columnist (covering judo, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling) for profighting-fans.com.