The UFC Defies the Law and Books an Event at Madison Square Garden

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

You’ve got to give this to the Ultimate Fighting Championship: When they don’t like a hand they’ve been dealt they don’t just sit back and wait for something better to come along. They, like America itself, go forth boldly and with hope (and litigation) in its heart.

Take the interminable issue of MMA legalization in New York. For five years the UFC and every other professional MMA promoter and fan in the world had to sit back and watch helplessly as the New York State Assembly, led by anti-MMA Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, refused to allow legislation legalizing professional MMA to come to a vote. Then, early this year, the arrest of Silver on federal corruption charges and his subsequent resignation as speaker led to the hope (for the first time, true hope!) that 2015 would at last be the year for MMA in New York. Then—cruel joke—we had to watch yet again as the 2015 legislative session came and went without so much as a peep about MMA heard on the Assembly floor. “Oh, well,” we resigned ourselves again. “What’s six more months when you’ve been waiting 20 years? See you in January, when the whole cruel farce will begin again.”

In the face of such consistently recurring disappointment there are many in the world who would reign themselves to fate, but not the UFC, which announced yesterday, in a display of brazen optimism rarely seen outside morning TV talk show studios and the meeting halls of doomsday cults, that the promotion had booked Madison Square Garden—the crown jewel of the combat-sports world and symbol of all things thus far unattainable to MMA—for April 23, 2016. That’s right: The world’s biggest MMA promotion had booked a show in a state that doesn’t allow professional MMA shows within its borders. And they booked it for a date when next year’s legislature will still be in session, meaning even if legislators actually get around to voting on the MMA issue, and even if they vote yes, it’s very possible that vote won’t have happened by the time the UFC’s MSG premiere is scheduled to take place. What optimism! What boldness! What American madness!

So what’s going on here? Where does the UFC get the brass to make plans that defy the law? Well, where anyone else does in America when the legislative process has disappointed them, of course: the courts.

In a press release sent out yesterday, the UFC announced that it had that day filed a new case in federal court reiterating a claim it made in August to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit stating that New York’s ban on professional MMA violates the First Amendment Rights of MMA athletes and fans in the state. “This out-of-date law is too unclear for the public to understand, and has allowed regulators in New York to pick and choose arbitrarily what events they will permit,” the press release stated. “The statute, and the state’s pattern of enforcing it, violates the Constitution’s prohibition on unconstitutionally vague laws.”

Strange but the UFC may actually have a legal leg to stand on here. The so-called “vagueness doctrine” in the Constitution, which rests on the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, requires criminal laws to state explicitly what conduct is punishable under those laws. Laws that violate the doctrine are said to be “void for vagueness.”

And for vagueness you could do a lot worse than the current New York MMA law. Professional MMA has been banned in New York since 1997, a time when the state was caught up in the nation-wide, John McCain-led hysteria against what was then known as “human cockfighting.” But in February 2013 the New York State Attorney General’s office admitted in court that the law doesn’t apply to amateur events, meaning a pre-approved third-party sanctioning body could oversee the sport in New York. Which essentially means that unregulated amateur MMA is legal but regulated professional MMA is not. Add in the fact that, as the UFC press release put it, “events featuring every combat sport except MMA seem to be allowed in New York,” and you have a statutory situation that could at the very least be described as “vague.”  

Whether the New York statute rises to adequate levels of Constitutional vagueness in the eyes of the courts remains to be seen, but the UFC is going great guns this week in the belief that it will. Later this week the promotion says it will be asking a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction against New York state officials, claiming that by enforcing the anti-MMA law they’re acting against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. God only knows if the judge will agree, but as a longtime MMA fan living in New York I’m kind of delighted to see the sacred document of the nation, the greatest legal framework ever devised by man in the service of democracy, invoked in defense of professional cage-fighting, in a state whose representatives were among the few called on by history to sign their names to it. What a state. What a sport. What a country. What a world.


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