Friday, April 4, 2014

The UFC, the Culinary Union and the Battle for New York


Eric D’Arce climbs into the cage with his daughter before the show. When the preschooler throws punches, the ex-Marine goes down, smiling, laughing. Two and a half hours later Eric is breaking the arm of a kid named Nathanial in that very spot. But the celebratory cries of victory are muted, confined to only Eric’s nearest and dearest. In the dimly-lit recreation center, the crowd of a few hundred is conflicted, and waffles between excitement and stunned silence. It’s easy to cheer for a knockout. Not so easy for an arm snapped like a tree branch.

This is mixed martial arts, a.k.a. cagefighting, and this combative sport colored in shades of Clockwork Orange-esque ultra-violence could be Saturday night entertainment almost anywhere in the world. But it’s not just anywhere, it’s Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, in a state as conflicted about the sport as the crowd is about cheering when Eric bends Nathanial’s arm in ways God never intended it to go.

“Is MMA legal or not? Should it be? Why not? What’s holding it back?” Those are the big-picture questions, much harder for New York as a whole to answer than the question the Corona crowd is faced with, and at least their question is answered when a doctor rushes into the cage and stabilizes Nathanial’s arm, and Eric signals through the fence that he wants a little more love for getting the win.

Two months from this night the UFC will come to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., so close and yet so far from a place that won’t allow professional incarnations of the kind of amateur dance Eric and Nathanial and hundreds of others are doing within the confines of the Empire State. So close because it’s one short, crowded N.J. Transit ride across the Hudson River to check out some Octagon action; so far because Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the UFC, has been lobbying hard to get the law banning pro MMA changed since 2008, and have thus far succeeded in only falling short.

If you had to, you could blame part of the failure on the original owners of the UFC – Semaphore Entertainment Group – who made a Faustian deal with the Devil back in 1993, mortgaging the sport’s future with ad slogans like “Two men enter, one man leaves”, exchanging athletic legitimacy for spectacle and astronomical pay-per-view buy rates.

You could also blame the sport’s detractors, like Senator John McCain, whose holy crusade to rid the country of the scourge of cagefighting forever was nearly successful, or New York State Senator Roy Goodman, whose derogatory catchphrase “human cockfighting” possesses the half-life of a radium-226 isotope.

And to hear the UFC tell it, fingers can be pointed at both the Culinary Union, a labor organization that has carried a Nevada grievance across state lines in an attempt to hurt and hinder.

But all those reasons why and why not, that’s just politics, and on this Saturday night in Queens, it goes on the backburner when Eric leaves the cage and the next pugilistic pair get their turn.

Tonight, what matters most once the referee says “Go!” is how much local fighter Bernardo Cano can dish out to Ozzie Diaz and how much he can take in return. Wars waged in Las Vegas and Albany by men in expensive suits mean only so much when the lights in the Corona rec center are dim and the friends, the family, the anonymous fans – even the ladies selling lukewarm empanadas at the concession stand – watch in awe at the action, watch as Bernardo seizes the Puerto Rican by the neck with brutal finesse, squeezes, forces a tap out. This time everyone cheers loudly, because Bernardo is the new Golden MMA Championship welterweight king and a hometown hero, and all good Saturday night tales end with the hero winning.

And then the moment is gone, and it’s time to wonder again why New York remains the last state to resist sanctioning mixed martial arts.

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“This is like Groundhog Day, you know what I mean?” says UFC president Dana White, perched upon his throne (really, just a chair on a raised platform). He’s holding court before a sea of reporters, their cameras, microphones and tiny audio recorders thrust in his face. It’s the week of UFC 169. Given the proximity of that show to New York City, all media events are held in Manhattan, and this particular one is at Madison Square Garden. Someone has just asked if he thinks this will be the year the ban is lifted. “I’ve been sitting in this room, on this stage, answering this question for many years,” says White. “I hope so.”

Up until February, 1997, pro MMA was legal in New York. But the political climate for fights in a cage during that period of time was tumultuous at best, and after signing Senate Bill 7780 into law in October, 1996 – a law that empowered the athletic commission to oversee the sport – then-Governor George Pataki was putting his signature on a new bill that would ban it just a few months later. That’s the law the UFC and fighters and fans alike are still stuck with today.

That’s the law that White and his powerful lobbying apparatus – an apparatus comprised of legislators, a former Nevada State Athletic Commission chairman, PR firms and an endless number of eloquent fighters with bright white teeth in their smiles and calloused knuckles attached their handshakes – have been toiling year after year since 2008 to change.

It’s been a chore of Sisyphean proportions.

First there was Assemblyman Bob Reilly , who helped keep the annual MMA bills smoldering in the legislative pits of subcommittee hell. Never one to pass up an interview request, Assemblyman Reilly railed against the ills he perceived within the sport – ills such as the message it might impart to children and the idea that violence begets violence. He even lashed out against the character of Dana White himself.

In 2009, Assemblyman Reilly circulated a 24-page memo to his fellow legislators titled “The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York”. Included among the faux-facts misconceptions:
  • “Some 13 deaths have been reported prior to the organization of the sport into the current franchises and the establishment of the present rules.”
  • “It is indisputable that according to the rules themselves inflicting injury on an opponent rather than a demonstration of skill is the primary criteria for ultimate fighting.”
  • “An example of how violence begets violence are the threats made to the author due to his opposition to the sport. Assembly staff deemed it necessary to report some of the threats to his physical well-being to the New York State Police. While legislators routinely receive objectives to various proposed legislation, the reaction from constituents and the general public rarely approaches the vileness of some of the email and blog message directed at the author in ‘support’ of ultimate fighting”
Eventually, Assembly Reilly lost his fight, a grand debate in the Tourism, Parks, Art and Sports Development Committee (where he showed footage of Brock Lesnar drubbing Randy Couture at UFC 91) becoming the legislator’s Battle of Waterloo by a vote of 14 to six.

That was in 2009. Five years later, the MMA bill has yet to make it to the floor of the Assembly for a general vote, despite the Senate passing their half of it, and current Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledging that sanctioning the sport (and thereby taxing it) could be a viable source of state revenue.
Because of his role as legislative traffic cop, and the great big red “stop” sign he’s held up whenever the MMA bill escapes committee, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been fingered as culpable – a notion driven home by the unofficial head counts that indicate the MMA bill would pass if it were to reach the floor for a general vote.
“I think we are where we’ve always been,” says White to a reporter at MSG. The reporter has asked about Assembly Speaker Silver. “If he would let this thing go through, it would pass in a minute, and everybody knows it.”

Could one high-ranking politician’s indifference to the sport be the source of all of Zuffa’s New York woes? Is one high-ranking politician’s indifference really what’s been holding MMA sanctioning back?

“This isn’t a New York issue,” says White to the assembled journalists. Most have heard this tirade before, as it’s been Zuffa’s mantra for years, but there are a few mainstream press outliers present who are hearing it for the first time. “This isn’t a mixed martial arts issue. It’s not a New York issue. It’s a Las Vegas/Culinary [Union] issue. The Las Vegas Culinary Union is orchestrating this whole thing with him because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the fourth largest gaming company in the country, [and] Station Casinos is non-union. And that’s why we’re not in New York. A Las Vegas issue has become a New York issue.”

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It likely started off as influence, an invisible guiding hand that could only faintly be detected if one played Sherlock Holmes with the crisscrossing trails of campaign donations.

And of course such influence was denied – it had to be, as no politician would want to spend the remainder of his or her term in a minimum-security prison, shivering in a cell as the wind off of Lake Erie howled outside. But public records don’t lie, and in their truthfulness they reveal that UNITE HERE, the parent company of the Culinary Union, made donations to Assemblyman Reilly’s campaign coffers, directly at first, then indirectly, with $30,000 going to the staunch anti-MMA advocate during his hotly-contested 2010 re-election.

Not long after Zuffa pulled back the veil and named the Culinary Union as their nemesis, very public volleys of mudslinging commenced. It was the kind of tit-for-tat often reserved for nasty separations and bitter divorces, only instead of child custody and claims of spousal abuse, it was unionized labor in Station Casinos and whatever nonsense came out of a particular fighter’s mouth in that week.

When Quinton “Rampage” Jackson made an off-color comment about rape, or a fighter got too misogynistic with his Twitter jokes, memos decrying MMA and bearing “National Center on Domestic Violence” on their letterhead were fired off to the governor, Assembly Speaker Silver and the press. In turn, Zuffa announced a written code of conduct that all fighters must adhere to.

After the U.S. Marine Corps failed to renew their sponsorship of the UFC, UNITE HERE trumpeted that as a win. They put up a website – – which became an online repository of negative commentary and slam pieces.

Zuffa’s counterpunch was a site of their own, Contained therein was a detailed explanation of the crux of the Culinary Union’s beef:
The Culinary Union has targeted Station Casinos because the company refuses to agree to a “card check” process whereby the Culinary Union may become the representative of its employees without being elected as such through a secret ballot election. Rather than simply following the secret ballot election process that U.S. federal law provides, the Culinary Union’s management has instead waged a dishonest campaign to pressure Station Casinos to capitulate to its demands. As part of that campaign, the Culinary Union has been engaging in harassment tactics that target all of the business interests of the Fertittas, including Station Casinos and the UFC. went up in May, 2013. The Culinary Union has yet to comment on it.

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UFC 169 is days away, and the traveling circus that is the MMA lobbying effort is making the rounds in Albany, where it’s hoped the ice around the state’s capitol will be thawed by lunches, interviews, handshakes and reason. A revised study commissioned by Zuffa has raised the projected economic impact sanctioned MMA would bring to $135 million (up from 2011’s $23 million estimate), and now it’s time to wield that info like a pickaxe at whatever (or whoever) isn’t readily melting.

The press conference is in a room tucked away in a corner of the Legislative Office Building, and it begins with a clip of the UFC’s 20-year anniversary video, testimonials of the sport’s evolution and viability played before a group of reporters whose sole beat is all things political. Around the edges of the room there’s a mix of legislators and Zuffa executives. A trio of fighters to – top-ranked female fighter Liz Carmouche, heavyweight star Travis Browne and The Ultimate Fighter runner-up Uriah Hall, who’s a native New Yorker – add to the ambience. Outside the room, down a hallway and in the main concourse, a few hundred parents and children are rallying for some educational cause, and beyond them the Red Cross has set up a blood drive. But those topics are for others to care about. Right now, it’s all about how the UFC has changed, become civilized, is no longer a bloodsport.
Usually, when Zuffa comes to town, an organization tangentially connected to the Culinary Union will stage an anti-MMA gathering of their own, but this time around there’s only a half-hearted press release. Without any recent fighter gaffes or jewels from Dana White’s mouth behind it, it gets little traction.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle takes his place at the podium. As the sponsor of this year’s MMA bill, which is designated A06506, he lends the effort perhaps the greatest bit of legislative mojo it’s had thus far. “Many people who talk about it talk about it as though this were 15 or 20 years ago instead of the present day,” he says. “So it’s really important for people in the course of that dialogue to understand the evolution of the sport and the safety of the sport. In fact, many people in the area of neuroscience – experts in this – have actually said that mixed martial arts is safer than many other full-contact sports.”

The reporters take notes.

“Yes, there are enormous economic benefits and that’s very important for New York,” he says. “We’re the outlier now for all of North America, so we need to do that. We need to recognize that the sport has evolved, it is safe, and that there are economic benefits for the State of New York if we do it.”

A reporter raises his hand. When Assembly Leader Morelle acknowledges him, he asks about the influence the Culinary Union is purported to have on certain lawmakers in Albany.

Assembly Leader Morelle shakes his head. Without hesitation, he stresses that he has had no interaction with organized labor on the matter.

After five years of getting nowhere near to the end of the glacier of resistance the sport has faced, this is what passes for the faint warmth of optimism.

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The Octagon was set up only once in New York, for UFC 7 back in September, 1995 – a year and a half before the ban. UFC 169 at the Prudential Center in New Jersey is the organization’s 18th visit to the Garden State, and though it’s hard to know exactly how many of 15,650 fans in attendance are from the other side of the Hudson River, it’s a safe bet a lot of them are – when Long Island native Al Iaquinta goes three hard rounds with some kid from Michigan and earns the unanimous decision, the cheers make it seem as if the majority of the audience is from Iaquinta’s hometown of Wantagh.

Iaquinta was eight-years old when UFC 7 happened and nine when the ban came. Like his contemporaries Uriah Hall, Ryan LaFlare and reigning UFC champ Chris Weidman, his minor league career was spent throwing down in cages at sanctioned shows in Atlantic City, which is at least a two-hour drive without traffic. To compete this close to home is a luxury.

When he exits the cage, Iaquinta is taken to the back, where an inspector cuts off his gloves with a pair of scissors and a doctor from the New Jersey athletic commission examines him for injuries. After that comes a quick shower and a change of clothes, and soon a handler leads him into the press room hidden within the bowels of the venue.
As the only New Yorker on the card, anything to do with the legalization of MMA there belongs to him. So of course, when he’s assailed on all sides by media and cameras and recorders, the questions come.

“It’s been too long that we’ve been saying that this is the year, this is the year,” he says. “New York could be making the money. We could be fighting right at home, packing out stadiums. We’ve got the champ on the Long Island. Let’s do it.”

From Eric D’Ace and Bernardo Cano winning their fights in Queens to Iaquinta at the Prudential Center and all the battles in between, the pervading theme is always there, unjustly diverting attention to a war greater than what transpires in the cage, a war being fought for reasons wholly unconnected to notions of decency and fairness.

Someone asks if this will be the year the ban is lifted – the inevitable million dollar question.

“I’m not holding my breath,” says Iaquinta.

Even the fighters are battered wives when it comes to the topic, all pretenses of hope and faith beaten down by the clenched fist of politics and unions and a labyrinthine legislative process.

“When it happens it happens,” he says.

By now, that Zen-like response is the only answer there is.

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