ESPN anchor Jon Anik remembers back in 2008 when the network called on him to host a half-hour mixed martial arts program titled “MMA Live” that would air only on ESPN.com.
They filmed the show and went down to the cafeteria where there is usually a Who’s Who of star athletes. Anik and the show’s panel of current MMA fighters, which usually included UFC lightweight Kenny Florian, were little more than random guys in suits.
Fast forward to 2011 and “MMA Live” is received much differently. There’s a buzz in the building whenever the show is filmed and Anik’s co-workers and superiors are taking more and more interest. The show has also moved to ESPN2 where the opportunity to secure more viewers is significantly greater.
“What’s been most gratifying has been the general embrace of us and the show from the people at ESPN,” Anik told Joe Rizzo and Jeremy Fullerton during his appearance on Rear Naked Choke Radio on the MMA DieHards Radio Network. “Two years ago, they might not have known what MMA stood for.”
The diehard mixed martial arts fans understand the plights the sport is facing, but the casual fan that is just coming around to the sport – and there are many – may be shocked at some of the problems. What must Anik’s colleagues and ESPN’s executives think when they find out the sport that is growing so rapidly and gaining more popularity with every event is not welcome in every U.S. state? Kenny Florian is not a criminal, but if he wanted to perform his job, the one he trains for seven days a week and puts his heart and soul into, in the state of New York, it would be considered illegal.
The answer is yes. It is as asinine as it sounds.
MMA has come a long way since its no-holds-barred beginnings and is safer than many mainstream sports when it comes to serious injuries. It is still illegal in a handful of states, but the fact that it hasn’t been regulated in the Empire State is puzzling. A state that customarily is among the most forward-thinking in the nation loves to set trends. This time, lawmakers that simply don’t have a clue are holding back a sport that would generate millions of dollars for a struggling economy, all because they have an opinion that it’s barbaric.
“If you’re a high-ranking ESPN executive and come down to watch ‘MMA Live’ you probably don’t know the sport is not regulated in the state of New York, and to me that’s a red flag,” Anik said. “I think a lot of people would just assume that any sport that gets this massive coverage would just be sanctioned across the United States. We’ve made some appreciable steps and we’ve come far, but evidently we haven’t come far enough if you can’t have a UFC show at Madison Square Garden.”
In a press conference held at MSG on Jan. 13, UFC president Dana White and co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta reaffirmed the promotion’s plans to see through the legalization of MMA in New York. They brought New Jersey native and UFC lightweight champ Frankie Edgar with them. They presented an independent economic study that suggested the state could create hundreds of jobs and generate upwards of $20 million in annual spending. They explained in the most professional of manners that mixed martial arts is far from “barbaric.” Fertitta also made the maximum donation to current governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign in hopes of securing an ally in Albany where friends of the sport are few and far between.
It all may not matter, however, if the same stubborn group of politicians that has stymied the effort for years gets its way.
“We are asked about it constantly in New York and it’s frustrating giving the answer, ‘No, not yet,’ ” Anik said. “It’s just ridiculous that it’s not legalized in the state of New York given everything the UFC has done and given everything the sport has done over the last 10 years. I firmly believe there are a lot of powerful suits that still don’t want to see this thing happen because they still think the sport’s barbaric. They don’t want to learn about the sport. They don’t want to replace their ignorance with education, and as long as those people are in those seats I don’t think (legalization) is a slam dunk.”
Anik, like many journalists that cover the sport, is in a precarious position. They want to push the sport and promote it as much as possible, but that’s not their job. First and foremost, they have a responsibility to provide fair and balanced coverage, even when the facts lean so heavily toward one side that it’s hard to present both sides of the argument.
“We hope our coverage helps, but we’re in a tough position because we are journalists first and advocates a very distant second,” Anik explained. “We have to play it fair and balanced and present both sides of the equation: why should it be legal and why shouldn’t it. Of course, we didn’t present it that way (why it should be illegal) because none of us really believe that it’s an appropriate talking point.”
Perspectives like Anik’s are important ones, because he sees things the average fan – and certainly the average politician – does not. From a media standpoint, sanctioning in New York means more publicity. It legitimizes the sport to networks and traditional media outlets, many of which are based in New York City. Shows at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan or at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island or up in Buffalo would be huge. There could also be events in areas like Syracuse and Albany.
Massachusetts became the 42nd state to legalize mixed martial arts in December of 2009, and the UFC immediately put Boston into its rotation of major cities that could host events. The UFC debuted in the Bay State in August of 2010 to smashing results. Stalwart newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald provided coverage, and Anik and the “MMA Live” crew were able to set up shop at the TD Garden for pre- and post-fight coverage. The sport got its chance and received the big-time coverage it deserved all because the right people in the statehouse decided to change their opinion. Imagine the buzz and coverage that would surround the first MMA event at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“We made an easy trip to Boston and we even drove to Montreal to save money, so absolutely we would be at MSG,” Anik said. “I also think ESPN could blow it out to a different extent like they did with the Boston show. Obviously Massachusetts was a big hurdle for the UFC and selfishly as a Bostonian I put that legalization on a pedestal, but I think if New York got done ESPN would blow it out of the water.”
The ability of the mainstream media to cover an event at The Garden would start an enormously positive chain reaction that would do nothing but further the sport. It would also give fighters another place to earn a living.
The big-name stars like Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre, et al, are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to professional fighters in the United States. There are several other organizations out there – from Strikeforce to Bellator to Titan Fighting Championships and Shark Fights– that have a large stable of fighters looking for fights. The impact of just 10-to-12 shows a year in New York would be felt across many promotions.
“Anytime you expand the opportunities it’s good for the sport,” said manager and promoter Monte Cox, whose list of clients has included UFC champions Tim Sylvia, Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin. “When California took over and started doing shows it was a big boon to the industry. Prices of fighting went up a little. The UFC went from paying guys $2,000 (to show) and $2,000 (to win) in the beginning to three and three and now we’re up to six and six. What’s going to keep guys like me in business is getting more opportunities. It’s hard to manage 70 people and keep them all busy, and these guys really rely on the opportunity to fight three or four times a year to make a living. There just aren’t enough fights to keep everyone happy.”
New York isn’t going to fix that on its own, but it could certainly help. These fighters aren’t waiting for more shows so they can be laughing all the way to the bank. They just want to have enough money to pay their bills and put food on the table while doing something they love. Didn’t that used to be called the American dream?
As Cox pointed out, there are talented fighters who aren’t in the UFC anymore who struggle to find constant work. It’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s that there are just so many fighters and not enough places to go.
“Right now I’m booking fights for Drew McFedries. Rich Clementi, Tim Sylvia, Jeremy Horn,” Cox said “These are all guys that are proven UFC guys that have around 10 UFC fights, but are not in the promotion because the UFC is pushing more for the younger guys. These guys still want to fight and they need a place to go.”
What both Anik and Cox agreed on is that even with the full-court press put on by the UFC brass and mounting public pressure, the sanctioning of MMA in New York is an arduous process. Gov. Cuomo seems to be on the side of the sport – or at least making money – regarding this issue, but no one is going to feel comfortable until an official bill is passed.
“I know how (ESPN boxing and MMA analyst) Franklin McNeil thinks it’s going to happen in the next six months, but I’m not as optimistic,” Anik said. “I think these things take time and hopefully by the end of 2011 this is something that is really legitimized and we’re talking about a show at The Garden.”
“I think it’s going to take time,” Cox said. “When California started we didn’t get a rush of extra sponsors. But after it was there for a year, it picked up. I think there are sponsors in New York that will be big, they just have to get exposed to it and they’ll see what the reaction is. Once everyone sees it, they’ll relax, realize it’s not that controversial and I think we’ll start getting sponsors.”
The facts have all been laid out regarding the money that could be made by the state government. The facts have been presented about the perceived safety of the sport. The cards are on the table, and now we have to wait.
White always tells his fighters not to leave it in the judge’s hands, but that’s exactly what he has to do in this case. And for the MMA community, that is the most unsettling fact of them all.