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Q&A: UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta on legalizing MMA in NY, embracing Ronda Rousey, other women fighters

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Ronda Rousey, Lorenzo Fertitta

Ronda Rousey, right, smiles with UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta following her UFC 170 mixed martial arts women's bantamweight title fight against Sara McMann on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

For nine years, UFC representatives have traveled to Albany and urged New York legislators to support bills that would legalize mixed martial arts. 

So far, the effort hasn't been successful. But with growing support for the legislation and new leadership in the state Assembly, UFC leaders and MMA advocates are hoping 2015 will be the year New York becomes the last state to legalize and regulate MMA. 

UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta was in Albany Tuesday for conversations with legislators and to advocate for passage of the MMA legalization bill. His visit came on the same day the state Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee advanced the MMA bill. 

In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Fertitta discussed the trip to Albany, why the state should legalize MMA, the benefits of allowing the sport in New York and responding to critics who say MMA is anti-woman. 

Here is the Q&A with Fertitta: 

How was Lobby Day in Albany? 

Fertitta: We're feeling pretty good. We've had a very good reception. We've been coming up here since 2007. We've passed it in the Senate five years in a row. It just got through (the Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee) this morning. We definitely feel like we have support there. 

For the past five years, we have not been able to get a vote on the Assembly floor. But from walking up and down the halls and having conversations, we certainly have majority support there. Hopefully we'll have an opportunity this year to get the bill voted upon. 

The Assembly leadership situation was an impediment in the past. (Note: MMA supporters blame Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for the bill not coming to the floor for a vote in the Assembly.) New Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is a supporter of the bill to legalize MMA. Does that give you more confidence about the bill's chances this year? 

Fertitta: It does. We're cautiously optimistic. He has been a supporter in the past, but he's in a different role now. He's got to figure out what his caucus wants to do and manage that process. We're doing our best to try and educate the members and tell them, at least in our opinion, why this will be great for the state of New York. 

For those who may not have followed this debate over the years, what's the case for legalizing MMA here in New York? 

Fertitta: There's a lot of reasons for doing it. At the end of the day, New York is the only holdout. There's 49 other states in the union including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all have regulated and allowed mixed martial arts. It's now become a mainstream sport that's broadcast on free-to-air television via News Corp and Fox. It has become part of the mainstream sports landscape in America. Year-to-date, we're out-rating the NBA on ESPN and on TNT. We out-rate the NHL. We out-rate Major League Baseball. So, we're clearly part of mainstream sport. We have an impeccable track record of health and safety with our athletes. And we're going to bring a significant economic impact to the state of New York. Studies show, on a conservative basis, $135 million a year. 

In addition to that, the sport needs to be regulated because in 2014, there were 54 amateur events in New York that were unregulated, which means that fighters didn't get paid purses, they didn't do the same level of testing for pre-fight medicals, they didn't test blood for blood-borne diseases, they didn't have the correct medical staff on site and they didn't collect any taxes for the state. The Legislature needs to step up and allow the New York State Athletic Commission to essentially do their job and regulate the sport like they do other combat sports. 

You mentioned the economic impact. What is the market like for MMA and UFC in New York? What's the interest level like based on what you guys have seen?

Fertitta: Our highest ratings come out of New York. When you look at individual pay-per-view transactions, New York state is at the top of the list of all 50 states. There's a tremendous following and we know that we'll be successful. But even in addition to that, when you talk about doing an event up in Buffalo or Syracuse where the border of Canada is right there, we'll be able to attract the significant fan base that we have in Canada, importing Canadian tourists. When we do an event in New York — it's such a worldwide, global city — we're going to have people from all over the world attending that event there. There's a huge appetite for the sport and there's really no reason that it shouldn't be allowed in this state. 

We're coming off of UFC 184 and Ronda Rousey's successful defense of her title. In New York, there are critics of the sport who say that UFC and MMA are bad for women and anti-woman. What's your response to that claim from the some of the opponents of MMA legalization? 

Fertitta: First and foremost, no other sports organization in the world has embraced women athletics like we have. We took Ronda Rousey, Cat Zingano, Holly Holm and Raquel Pennington and put them on the top bill of our biggest pay-per-view card of the year, where they sold out the Staples Center in the biggest venue that we go to. We have embraced women athletics. We've given them the same opportunities that we give to the men. And quite honestly, when you talk about the millions of women that train in martial arts and MMA every day around America and the hundreds of thousands in New York state alone, it's really appalling that somebody would say that. I think you'd get a fairly visceral reaction from somebody like a Ronda Rousey or other women. This sport has essentially changed their lives. It's a comment that can't be backed up by any facts or any truths whatsoever. The sport of MMA is empowering for women. It certainly doesn't hurt them. 

Where do you go from here in terms of your advocacy efforts? 

Fertitta: We're going to do whatever we can do to be helpful in the process. Coming out, talking to legislators, answering questions, providing information and that, at the end of the day, is really all we can do. We've got to let the process play out. And once again, we're just hopeful that the democratic process can play out the way that it should, which is at least give the legislators an opportunity to vote on the bill, up or down, either way. 


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