Dana White stands in the wings of the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan’s swank Upper West Side, chatting with one of the more than 300 fighters signed to his UFC brand. A few fans have finagled their way backstage, and they snap photos of White, the coarse, charismatic president of the UFC who has helped shape mixed martial arts into one of the nation’s most popular spectator sports.
On the other side of the curtain sit hundreds more mixed martial arts fans. It’s an ornate Art Deco theater, a place that has hosted the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. But right now, the name on the neon marquee facing Broadway? “UFC PRESS CONFERENCE TODAY, HOSTED BY DANA WHITE.”
The fans are here to ask about Nate Diaz’s chances against Jim Miller, about a possible UFC super show at Cowboy Stadium, about the dramatic rise of Jon Jones as the UFC’s top young fighter. But there’s a more subtle message being told here. It’s a message much bigger than the typical pre-fight hype for the nationally televised "UFC on FOX" fight.
That message is this: The UFC has made it, and so has Dana White. They’re as big as you can get, America’s fastest-growing sports league, bigger than boxing. They’re a decade removed but a world away from when White and his business partners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, took over the near-bankrupt UFC and turned it into the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion. Hundreds of fans have chosen to spend their Thursday afternoon here — at a stinking news conference! — eager just to breathe the same air as White.
But White can’t put on a show here, in the media capital of the world. Not yet. He can’t get his Octagon inside Madison Square Garden, the arena that defines “making it” more than any other venue in the United States. New York and Connecticut are the only states that still ban professional mixed martial arts events, such as the UFC, after Vermont recently OK’d the sport.
And so, a couple days from this moment, White and his fighters will leave the skyscrapers of the city behind. They will cross the Hudson River and head to the Izod Center in dreary industrial New Jersey, the closest the UFC can get to the Big Apple.
The argument for New York keeping its ban on professional mixed martial arts is an argument cloaked in morality: Should our society really give its stamp of approval on such a violent sport? Should a sport that glorifies bloody knockouts get a pass while other sports leagues such as the NFL confront the awful reality of widespread brain damage among ex-players?
They are powerful, high-minded arguments, ones that ought to be debated with utmost seriousness. Yet when it comes down to it, the fact New York still bans mixed martial arts isn’t a moral dilemma at all. Instead, it’s a nasty political and personal squabble involving the UFC’s parent company and a labor union, a decades-long spat that White derides as “political (bull—-)” from “(bleeping) gangsters.”
And so on this chilly May afternoon in New York City — the same city that’s home to the NFL, and on the same week when football is facing an existential crisis after the suicide of Junior Seau — White answers questions from New York fans for nearly an hour. He hangs around another hour, posing for pictures and signing autographs. And he promises his fans that his organization is lobbying hard in Albany, hoping to get the ban overturned by the end of this legislative session in June.
We’ll be in Madison Square Garden soon enough, White assures them.
“It’s not an if — it’s a when,” White tells FOXSports.com after the crowd peters out. “Can our business continue without New York? Hell yeah, it can! We can go on for 20 years without New York. . . . But going into Madison Square Garden, it’s just one of those historic venues. All the major fights, all the major sporting events, all the big acts. It’s just one of those milestones in a company’s history."
They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But the limbo status that mixed martial arts and the UFC inhabit in Albany begs another question: What does it say about your organization if you’ve made it everywhere, but you can’t make it in New York? In fact, on Monday the New York state assembly announced that it will not vote on any legislation regarding the ban during this current session.
There was a time not long ago when mixed martial arts was the realm of outlaws.
To be frank, it wasn’t even a sport. Not really. At first, it was pure spectacle. The UFC began its rise in the 1990s with a no-holds-barred attitude and “There are no rules!” as its original cry. Politicians around the country got up in arms. Sen. John McCain called it “human cockfighting.” Three dozen states, including New York, enacted bans on the no-holds-barred style of fighting.
Yet the sport’s popularity continued to grow. Promoters became more business-savvy, toning down the violence and enacting unified rules that excised the most violent parts of the sport. Gloves were mandated, as were weight classes. With that, the sport exploded.
Legislatures struck down their bans, and New Jersey became the first state to sanction the sport in 2001. Over time, pay-per-view buys blew up. A reality television show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” softened people’s views of the fighters, and the public began to see them as people instead of barbarians. All of this led to FOX’s seven-year television deal that was signed with the UFC last year, the moment that officially welcomed the sport to the mainstream.
Yet, despite so many signals that mixed martial arts and the UFC are here to stay on the world sporting stage, New York continues to hold out, even in the face of a lawsuit the UFC filed against the state last year, which argues the ban should be overturned on First Amendment grounds.
On a recent afternoon, the unlikely face of the opposition to mixed martial arts in New York is sitting in his office in Albany, chatting on the phone.
This will be Assemblyman Bob Reilly’s final year in the legislature. The Democrat is 72 years old and plans to call it quits after his fourth two-year term expires in December.
Here’s who Bob Reilly is: He’s a retired schoolteacher and former bar owner. He grew up watching the Pabst Blue Ribbon fight nights and idolizing Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. He went to Notre Dame and remembers the famous Bengal Bout boxing matches between students. He coached track for nearly three decades, including for three years in East Africa. He donates his entire Assembly salary to charity. He has a big liberal heart and a quiet, measured tone.
A few years ago, Reilly spoke up in a legislative committee when mixed martial arts activists first mounted their campaign to legalize professional fights. His logic was pretty straightforward: Mixed martial arts is a violent, bloody discipline; violence begets violence; we want to eradicate violence in our society; why in God’s name should we sanction this sport?
After Reilly’s speech, his committee voted to keep the ban. And since then he’s become the “accidental opposition,” as he calls it, appearing in a documentary film, on ESPN, in USA Today and in the New York Times, speaking on the single issue that has come to define his tenure in the Assembly.
“We have all sorts of laws we’re passing all the time to eradicate violence, sexual abuse, domestic abuse,” Reilly says. “I find it contradictory — bewildering to me — how people could support those laws somewhat adamantly and yet condone mixed martial arts.”
Why is he against it? It’s because of the disturbing recent revelations about brain trauma for athletes in contact sports, yet the UFC offers huge cash rewards for knockout of the night. It’s because of the 30-year-old fighter who died of a brain hemorrhage in 2010 after his mixed martial arts debut fight at a small-time promotion in South Carolina. It’s because he’s saddened at what’s become of Muhammad Ali after decades of punches to the head.
“Why is mixed martial arts or Ultimate Fighting popular today?” Reilly asks. “Why isn’t jiu-jitsu just as popular? Or judo? Why isn’t collegiate wrestling filling the stands?” He pauses. “It’s because there’s no blood. People say this is an outlet of manhood. It’s innate in males to fight, and this is an expression of that, and in that way it’s good, because it releases that. But I don’t think a civil society fights like that.”
Yet there are plenty of reasons why mixed-martial arts advocates find his arguments lacking, and not just because of the simple fact that all sports bring inherent risk. For one, there’s the Johns Hopkins study that shows mixed martial arts to be less dangerous than legal sports such as boxing or football. (The UFC has entered into a three-year study with the Cleveland Clinic to study brain trauma in its fighters.) For another, there’s the feeling that it surpasses the duties of politicians to ban this sport. The sport might sicken you, but does that mean it should be illegal? And there’s the fact that amateur, unsanctioned bouts are legal in New York, even though professional fights would have more stringent safety regulations.
Then there’s this dirty little fact that you don’t often hear from the moralizers: This fight is not really about morals at all. The effort to overturn the New York ban has made it through the state Senate three years in a row but has yet to make it out of committee in the Assembly. And the sticking point is simply politics.
“There’s a saying that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” said Marc Ratner, UFC’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “But when it comes to this labor union, it seems like what happens in Vegas comes to the New York Assembly.”
Here’s what happened in Vegas: The Fertitta brothers own Station Casinos. The Station Casinos have never allowed employees to be in unions. For decades, the Culinary Union has pressured the Fertittas to allow unionization. For years, the union’s organized weekly protests at a swank Fertitta-owned resort in suburban Las Vegas. But the Fertittas haven’t relented.
What does that have to do with mixed martial arts in New York? Absolutely nothing — except that the Culinary Union is very powerful in New York, and so New York has become a proxy battleground for a Vegas war. The Culinary Union has financially backed anti-MMA Legislators in New York, created websites explaining what it believes to be wrong with the sport and has drafted an MMA Bill of Rights (advocating for labor rights for fighters). The union has also objected to a number of aspects of UFC’s business practices, such as its draconian control over fighters’ image rights as well as its opposition to "right to work" for fighters — arguments which the union has also brought before the Nevada Athletic Commission.
John Cholish’s training ground for his own battle is the basement of an office building a block from Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, where he’s currently chugging from a gallon jug of water. The stench down here is overpowering, that cozy warm feeling of an indoor pool combined with the sweaty odors of the jiu-jitsu class that’s just wrapping up at Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy.
Cholish is a 28-year-old natural gas and crude oil broker for Beacon Energy Group. The young man has made it. He’s the son of a modest Jersey junkyard manager, yet Cholish went to an Ivy League school, works on Wall Street, owns a condo on Long Island. His days are spent in a fast-paced, quick-thinking world, focused about executing trades and analyzing the futures market and acting as an intermediary between traders.
But his evenings are very different, jumping from gym to gym across the city, stealing an hour nap in his car between training sessions as he’s preparing for his second fight in the UFC.
The story of how a Wall Street energy broker became a UFC fighter is, as you would expect, one of happenstance. Cholish had just graduated from Cornell, where he wrestled and majored in applied economics and management. He was working at Morgan Stanley in a high rise on the Madison Square Garden property, and he decided he needed to find a gym. The closest gym to his office? The Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, run by the world-renowned Gracie family. After that first night, Cholish was hooked.
Now, six years later, he’s perhaps the most unusual fighter on Dana White’s roster, having trained with such UFC luminaries as Georges St. Pierre and Kenny Florian. He has added to his wrestling base and has become a well-rounded fighter, a change that mirrors the bigger shift in the maturation of mixed martial arts as its own unique discipline.
“One of the big misconceptions is that it’s this big barbaric sport,” Cholish says, over a sushi lunch a few days before his fight on the lower card for "UFC on FOX". “It’s two guys fighting in a cage — let’s not hide the fact that’s a tough scenario to get over. But the past five or six years, you’re starting to see mixed martial artists develop.
"In the ‘90s, it used to be your wrestler versus your karate guy, your boxing guy versus your ground guy. And now you’re seeing these guys are top-level athletes, your Jon Jones and your Georges St. Pierre, and they’re well-rounded at everything. . . . It’s poetry in motion.”
How magical would it be for Cholish to fight at Madison Square Garden? The site of his first job out of college, a block away from the gym where he learned this sport, in the city he grew up worshipping the major sports teams, the Rangers, the Knicks, the Yankees. He has season tickets for the New York Giants, and when they made the Super Bowl this winter, he bought a plane ticket and figured out how to get a game ticket when he got to Indianapolis. When the Giants won, Cholish cried.
But instead of walking out to the electric scene of the Garden on a Saturday night, a few days from this moment he’ll head to New Jersey, as close as he can get to the Garden.
“It would just be a dream come true — Madison Square Garden, the world’s greatest arena, as they call it, the best place on earth,” Cholish says. “You talk to any sports fan, you mention MSG and you don’t even need to say what it is. They know what it is. UFC the sport is there, but to be able to be at one of the best arenas, a place with so much history? There’s just an electricity in that arena that’s unlike anything else I’ve felt.”
As he talks about it, Cholish’s arm sprout goose bumps.
The goosebumps on the arm of a wholesome New York kid aren’t going to change the whims of Albany. So, on Saturday night at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., you watch as Cholish walks out from the tunnel and appears before the Jersey crowd, wearing a New York Yankees cap. Colleagues from his energy trading firm cheer from a luxury suite.
Cholish’s 155-pound fight becomes a chess match. The two fighters circle each other, bob and weave and avoid landing more than a few hard shots. The lubed-up crowd begins to boo: “Break his neck!” “Put him in a body bag!”
Make no mistake about it: This crowd is out for blood. Reilly, the assemblyman in favor of keeping New York’s mixed martial arts ban, has a point when he says this sport can be brutal and bloody and playing to our most base, primal instincts.
Cholish and his opponent are both booed after the unanimous decision names his opponent the winner. Later in the evening, the bloodsport continues. Ring commentator Joe Rogan interviews a fighter who won by a submission choke and applauds him for “putting him to sleep.” The crowd goes absolutely nuts when Lavar Johnson and Pat Barry, two heavy-hitting heavyweights, pummel each other, with Johnson landing more than 20 punches and elbows and knees in succession, many to Barry’s head, before the referee halts the fight.
“I’m trying to get that bonus check,” Johnson says after bashing his opponent’s head, and he does, netting an extra $75,000 for the knockout of the night.
Yes, it can be a brutal, violent sport. But the analysis of people like Reilly — the moralizers who at least lend cover for what’s become a political fight — misses plenty. They miss the end of each fight on Saturday night, when the fighters hug and congratulate the opponent, part of the culture of respect and honor and dignity that surrounds the sport.
They miss what happens after knockouts, when doctors rush into the Octagon and immediately examine the downed fighter — a very different scene than in boxing, where referees give knocked-down fighters 10 seconds to stand back up for more battle. They miss the crowd’s appreciation when a fight turns on a subtle grappling move instead of a knockout punch to the face. Yes, it can be a vicious, violent sport. But it also can be a strangely beautiful ballet, or a complicated and nuanced chess match.
As soon as the post-fight press conference wraps up in New Jersey, Dana White scurries out to go watch the Floyd Mayweather fight. What would become a bloody boxing match is about to begin 2,500 miles away at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. You can’t help but think of the strange juxtaposition: That the Mayweather fight easily could have been in Madison Square Garden but that the UFC gets chased across the Hudson River.
And you can’t help but think of something Dana White told you a couple days before, talking about the New York Assembly: “Are you really that arrogant that you should make the decision on what all the people in New York should be watching, whether they should be able to go to a live event? But a lot of these politicians, they’re going to go away. And MMA and the UFC isn’t going away. We’re here forever, even after me.”
Eight miles to the east, on the other side of the Hudson River, it was a day off in the NBA playoff series between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat. The streets of Midtown Manhattan buzzed with the neon glow and the drunken buzz of a Saturday night. Penn Station was filled with people coming and going.
Inside the Garden, the lights were on, but nobody was inside.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.