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October 1, 2014

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UFC latches on to NFL’s big event for Super exposure

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Dana White takes questions during a news conference to promote UFC 168 Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

NEW YORK — Let the NFL worry how its fans will handle a cold weather Super Bowl in New Jersey.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has its own big chill on its hands — New York's continued freeze out of legalized mixed martial arts, preventing the dominant promotion from holding a card at Madison Square Garden, or any other arena, in the Empire State.

The Assembly has blocked legalization for years, basically putting an octagon around the state with a giant "Keep Out" sign affixed that not even Cain Velasquez could beat down.

Hey, even the Nets were welcomed back to New York. And who wants to watch them right now?

New York is the lone state running against the trend of holding regulated MMA cards. With it out of the fight game, the UFC has hunkered down in New Jersey and latched on to the NFL for Super exposure in perhaps the biggest weekend in sports. UFC will hold its Super Bowl weekend show at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., just a few miles from MetLife Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played Feb. 2.

The UFC is going to need a Hail Mary to score a date in New York.

"You can only keep it away for so long," UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said.

But New York has shunned MMA almost since the company's inception, when UFC 12 in 1997 was booted after the event was denied sanctioning rights. Ever since, New York has locked out all MMA, even as UFC has morphed into a global phenomenon and become a staple on network television, suffocating the sport like a rear naked choke inside the cage.

"A lot of the old school people don't understand it at all," UFC 169 headliner Dominick Cruz said. "It doesn't mean it's not a good sport."

Or a popular one.

Cruz will defend his bantamweight championship against Renan Barao. Jose Aldo puts his featherweight title on the line against Ricardo Lamas. And heavyweights Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem will slug it out on pay-per-view, with preliminary bouts on Fox Sports 1.

With all the media opportunities in and around Super Bowl week, holding the PPV card in the same state helps Fox and the UFC to work together and align themselves with the country's biggest sporting event.

The Saturday night card will be held just days after the NFL's Super Bowl media day also takes place at the Prudential Center. The opportunity is there for the UFC to attract even more fans, and maybe sway some New York lawmakers.

"The state of New York isn't going to make or break our business," Fertitta said. "We do business all over the world. We're doing most major capitals in Europe, South America, Asia. Most big cities are bidding for us to come here because they know the economic impact we have on the cities. But at the end of the day, it just comes down to principle."

The Senate in March approved a bill to legalize and regulate the combat sport that includes boxing, judo, wrestling and kickboxing. The Assembly has blocked legislation for years. However, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in March he now expected MMA to be legalized, but he wasn't sure when.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also own Station Casinos, blame a union beef for the MMA ban. Lorenzo Fertitta said the Las Vegas Culinary Union has targeted and pressured New York lawmakers to keep MMA banned as a way to strike back at the brothers for operating a non-union casino.

New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat whose district includes Manhattan's West Side, has long opposed legalized and regulated MMA.

"I oppose the legalization because it's a brutal sport and, up to now, nothing has been brought forward by promoters to protect the fighters themselves," he said. "Studies have shown the signs of brain trauma long after they've retired from MMA."

Hoylman said safety concerns, not union issues, are the reason for the ban.

"If we were to legalize the sport, we'd essentially be telling people that it was safe to participate in," he said. "That's absolutely not the case."

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle sponsors the bill that would regulate and legalize professional mixed martial arts. Morelle won't argue that MMA is violent. But so is boxing. The NFL. The NHL. Even pro wrestling. All are sports that have been run for decades in New York.

"I'll tell you why it's different, because we weren't around in ancient times to regulate boxing," Hoylman said.

That's not good enough for some lawmakers. Morelle said he was open to a compromise that would allow MMA events be run on a trial basis.

"I tell them, 'If they don't like it, then help me regulate it,'" he said. "If you haven't watched it or understand the reforms of the last 10 years, then you really don't understand the sport at all."

And while UFC is the undisputed leader in MMA events, the bill would obviously let all forms of the organized sport in, like Bellator and the World Series of Fighting.

But while the UFC would clearly love to run to a dream card at MSG, it's not that worried about it. After all, if New York doesn't want them, that's fine with president Dana White.

"I could care less," he said. "New York not opening doesn't slow down our business or affect us in any way shape or form. It affects the state of New York — money, jobs, all the things that politicians are supposed to be bringing to New York, they're not."

Still, the UFC sends fighters to press events in New York, like last month's Super Bowl weekend promotional stop not far from MSG, perhaps to thumb its nose at the lawmakers who have worked so hard to keep the company out.

UFC champions Chris Weidman and Jon Jones are New York natives and want to break through and find their names atop the marquee for a New York card.

"They're doing it out of politics alone which nobody can understand except the politicians themselves," Cruz said. "It's just crazy. The numbers are there. They add up."

UFC hit New York to trump a report that boasted MMA events in New York will generate $135 million in economic activity annually in the state. While those numbers are debatable, the fans' appetite for UFC is not. UFC averaged 1,129,000 viewers on Saturday night for FS1's "The Ultimate Fighter" finale. And White is thrilled with the stout PPV card for the Super Bowl show.

"When we bought this company, we weren't allowed on pay-pay-view," White said. "People said that we would never get it back on pay-per-view. UFC was not allowed. Now, we're on Fox. We're on major networks all over the world."

New Jersey has a stronghold on the east, though PPVs and Fight Nights have been held in Philadelphia and Boston over the last four years. White made a "100 percent guarantee" that UFC will return to Philly in 2014.

All the while, he's grown weary of answering questions about UFC's future in New York.

"There are so many naysayers about the UFC, it's crazy," White said. "When do we finally get, 'OK, maybe these guys know what they're doing and they're running a pretty good business?'"

Maybe in February ... after a Super night in Newark.

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