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The ‘Ultimate’ Defeat for MMA in NY

Posted on 02/15/2011

A month prior to the fateful appearance of Senator John McCain on Larry King Live, politicians were taking action in New York to ensure that the “evil” that was mixed martial arts would never take place within their boundaries. In November of 1995, as Donald Zuckerman and his Extreme Fighting organization made its plans for the initial Brooklyn show, they found the permit being yanked by Governor George Pataki, acting in concert with local politicians.

Zuckerman was largely responsible for this himself. Knowing that media prejudice against him would necessitate he drum up publicity through means that were unconventional, to say the least, Zuckerman cooked up a scheme by which contacts he had at The New York Times would alert a state senator about the upcoming “brutal” MMA event and ask him if he was going to take some action against it. When that senator held a press conference at City Hall, Zuckerman strategically placed picketers at the scene who railed AGAINST the event as being too bloody and brutal for words.

Zuckerman’s approach seemed to be emphasizing the danger aspect of the sport in order to leverage the most publicity out of it, and the state senator walked right into it – he couldn’t possibly have been a more effective accomplice if he was being paid to do it. The grandstanding by the politician, egged on by the protestors, served to draw much more attention to an event in an outer borough that may never have gotten it otherwise. That then brought the pre-emptive move by Pataki in an effort to shut down the show.

Well, it was shut down, and it wasn’t. Zuckerman, looking to establish some kind of precedent, no doubt, but also at the same time getting more publicity, went to the State Supreme Court and obtained an injunction against Pataki being able to cancel the show. But the state appealed, and decisions on the event wouldn’t be made until a couple of days after the event.

Zuckerman, however, feared that the cops might come in and try to shut him down anyway, and because there was a responsibility to a pay-per-view audience, the decision was made to shift the event to the North Carolina backup location. The atmosphere was just too shaky.

On October 30, 1996, a law was passed in New York state that permitted and regulated mixed martial arts, under the auspices of the state athletic commission. There were naturally questions raised by those who were thinking clearly, namely, why would a state that seemed so dead set on banishing the sport and everyone involved in it now find itself embracing it, without any substantive changes in its conduct submitted by the promoters themselves?

Part of the answer may have been found in one of the strategic maneuvers by the UFC’s Bob Meyrowitz, which was to engage the services of a lobbyist to talk to state legislators, one of whom was the lobbyist’s business partner. A lot of the political activity in Albany was “under the radar,” to say the least, but after the bill passed, it didn’t stay under the radar for very long.

Zuckerman took advantage of the new law by announcing a show for Manhattan, right in the middle of the media capital, and he did it, in effect, in the New York Times, which covered the bill’s passage as a front-page story. News of the UFC’s lobbying efforts also was revealed as a part of this story, and that didn’t go over well with people like Pataki and the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. Shortly after the publication of the Times story, plans were undertaken to repeal the new law.

The UFC had its own plans – for a show in Buffalo. But the commission, acting almost as an agent for anti-MMA forces until the repeal went through, had watered the rules down so much that they were completely unworkable for the UFC’s purposes. They were, in fact, bastardized. Meyrowitz took the state to court, but it was ruled that the commission could tailor its rules in any way it desired when it came to an event they have regulatory jursidiction over.

Pinned into a corner, and now with the full understanding that its efforts to lobby the legislature, initially successful, had now backfired, Meyrowitz and the UFC so no choice but to move the event. And so literally in the middle of the night, SEG (Meyrowitz’s company) picked up everything, including the fighters, and moved the entire production to Dothan, Alabama, where fortunately for the UFC, the event wound up going off very well, despite the fact that almost everything showed up in town with no more than 18 hours notice.

For all of this trouble, Meyrowitz blamed his rival, Meyrowitz, presumably for getting in the face of the powers-that-be with his Manhattan show announcement and hubris in the New York Times. He was probably right about that.

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