Dozens of MMA fans traveled from New York to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to cheer New York-based middleweight contender Costa Philippou on in person in UFC 155, and thousands more of his supporters watched from the comfortable confines of their homes in the Big Apple. New York bars and restaurants were also packed to the brim with MMA fans cheering on their hometown hero. Philippou's scrap on December 29 at UFC 155 against the heavy-handed Tim Boetsch quickly became a bloody affair.
The two fighters circled each other, trading punches and wiping away the blood splattering into each other's faces. The crowd began to boo as the pace of the fight slowed in the second round, thirsty for more bone-crunching action: "Smash his face!" "Knock him out!"
The intensity built as the third frame opens. Philippou landed a gorgeous strike that opened a wide gash on Boetsch's forehead, and the bloodthirsty crowd cheered wildly.
With Boetsch's eye swelling and blood covering most of his face, the fight was mercifully called to a halt at 2:11 in the third round. Philippou walked away with his hand raised and instantly became a contender in the UFC's middleweight division, even though he's not allowed to fight in his home state of New York.
Sport or Spectacle?
In many ways, the Philippou vs. Boetsch scrap embodied everything New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly says about the sport of mixed martial arts. It's brutal, bloody, and violent. It plays to our most primal animal instincts and features bone-breaking submissions with a hearty dose of gruesome face-punching action.
Reilly is one of a handful of New York politicians standing in the way of Long Island-based fighters like Philippou from fighting anywhere near their hometown training camps, as New York has had a ban on MMA since 1997.
Reilly thinks recent revelations about brain trauma in athletes is a good reason why MMA should remain banned in New York. He wants to eradicate violence in our society, so he sees no reason why the sport should become legal in the Big Apple.
The UFC cannot run an event in New York until the state legislature passes a bill to legalize the sport of mixed martial arts.
UFC officials have been trying to overturn the ban for years, and the promotion often succeeds in getting a bill written and sending fighters up to Albany to speak with state legislators. They usually receive a positive response, but ultimately, the bill always ends up stalling or getting shut down completely.
The UFC has been banned in New York for 15 years, and it's not just Reilly who stands in the way of the promotion becoming legal in the state. The original ban in 1997 was mostly due to a grudge between the Culinary Workers Union and the current owners of the UFC.
The Culinary Workers Union is at odds with the Fertitta Brothers, who own 81 percent of the UFC stock. The Fertitta Brothers also run the Station Casinos chain, which is non-union. For years, the Station Casinos chain has organized weekly protests at a Fertitta-owned resort in Las Vegas to allow unionization, but the Fertittas haven't given in.
The battle has nothing to do with New York, except that the Culinary Union is very powerful in the Big Apple. The union, which objects to a number of aspects of the UFC's business practices, has financially backed anti-MMA Legislators in New York and drafted an MMA Bill of Rights.
The Culinary Workers Union, combined with politicians like Reilly, have kept MMA out of the media capital of the world.
Ban to End in 2013?
The UFC still cannot put on a show in New York City. Not yet. New York is one of just two states that still bans live MMA events, but UFC President Dana White believes change is coming in 2013.
White recently made headlines by admitting he plans to be in New York in 2013 for the UFC's 20th anniversary show.
White added that he wants to have the 20th-anniversary show at Madison Square Garden, and he believes the venue is fully behind him. Madison Square Garden, known by many as "The World's Most Famous Arena," hosted many of the world's most spectacular fights in the last century, but none were MMA bouts.
Some MMA fighters believe a change is coming in the year ahead. "I would love to fight in New York," said up-and-coming MMA 105-pounder Sarah Goodlaxson. "It's one state I haven't had the pleasure to visit yet. Madison Square Garden is one of the most famous arenas in the world, and it would be an honor to fight there."
So why should MMA fans expect 2013 to be the year when the UFC finally wins its lobbying battle in Albany?
Perhaps the most compelling reason for optimism for New York MMA fans is the fact that Reilly said goodbye to public life after four terms.
Reilly closed out his eight-year assembly career on December 31, 2012. Local politicians are also going to want to enjoy the revenue streams brought into New York City from a live MMA event. A 2009 study found that a single UFC event here would create $11.5 million in "net new" economic activity, including roughly $1 million in state and local tax revenue.
With so much money involved, it's hard to imagine an old grudge between the Culinary Union and the Fertitta Brothers will continue to stand in the way of what seems inevitable: MMA becoming legalized in New York in 2013.
Eric Holden is a lifelong fan of the UFC and supporter of the sport of mixed martial arts. He covered MMA news for Examiner.com, Yahoo! Contributor Network, and several Long Island-based publications. Follow him on Twitter @ericholden.
- Mixed Martial Arts
- Martial Arts
- New York
- Culinary Workers Union