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MMA legalization in New York is unnecessary, but worth waiting for

Eli Manning was in the midst of his opening monologue as host of Saturday Night Live over the weekend when, live from New York, the Giants quarterback offered to show off his local knowledge by taking questions from tourists in the audience. Immediately, an SNL cast member planted in the crowd asked where her family could find some of the city’s legendary Italian food. And Eli drew a laugh by pointing her in the direction of an Olive Garden across the Hudson River. “Hey,” said Manning, “I play for the New York Giants, and all my games are played in New Jersey.”

Dana White could have told the same joke.

Then again, the UFC president might not find the humor in his fight organization’s protracted and still-fruitless bid to have mixed martial arts sanctioned in New York, as it is in nearly every other state in the nation. Especially after Monday’s news that the State Assembly once again will not bring an MMA bill to a vote this year.

According to a report in the New York Daily News, a conference of Democrats discussed the bill behind closed doors and Speaker Sheldon Silver, even while acknowledging that members were “pretty evenly divided,” decided to not bring the measure to the full Assembly. The Manhattan legislator did acknowledge, however, that the tide is turning. “I think it’s evolving,” he told the Daily News. “I don’t think two years ago it was a 50-50 proposition.” Other legislators told the newspaper that the informal tally actually tilted in favor of the MMA bill.

Naturally, this turn of events left UFC officials disappointed, even perturbed. “I feel 150 percent if we had a vote on the floor of the Assembly, we would win,” Marc Ratner, the company’s vice president of regulatory affairs, told the paper. “Not to get a vote is un-American.”

And yet unsurprising.

The UFC continues to battle a perception of MMA as a brutal, even barbaric display, an image advanced with a vengeance by the company’s most vociferous opponent: the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, in Las Vegas. What does a Nevada union have to do with a legislative debate in New York? The Vegas local has long been at odds with the UFC’s primary owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also own the non-union Station Casinos. So the union has taken its fight across the country, sinking its resources into mobilizing its labor brethren in the Empire State to oppose the UFC.

Union lobbying aside, the MMA bill also has had to overcome a generational gap in the Assembly. The story in the Daily News quoted an unnamed legislator as griping that Silver, a 68-year-old who has served in the Assembly since 1976 and been Speaker since ’94, “is still siding with a dwindling number of aging veterans.”

So the UFC gets to continue playing the waiting game … just days after staging an event, shown nationally on network television, less than six miles from Manhattan. Last Wednesday, fighters held open workouts at a gym near Tribeca. On Thursday, there was a press conference at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. On Friday, the Fox TV network hosted a gala party in midtown. Then the whole circus packed up and headed across the river to the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.

The UFC is actually doing just fine by setting up its octagon over in Jersey, as it did not just last weekend in the Meadowlands but also in March 2011 at the Prudential Center in Newark. Both venues are a short distance from New York City, with easy access via trains and highways. The Prudential Center in Newark is a spiffy new arena, and the Izod, while far from spiffy, is newer than the Garden and has limitless parking (if you can navigate the labyrinth of so-called access roads). Neither Jersey locale has the glittery nightlife or dining options of midtown Manhattan, but there are diners aplenty. And hey, there’s always the Olive Garden. Maybe it’s the Jersey guy in me saying this, but if it’s good enough for Eli, it’s good enough for Dana.

There is a deeper concern, though. For as long as New York declines to sanction MMA, the UFC will be soiled by a stigma that’s convenient for naysayers to use against the sport White’s company has built out of ashes. Banned. Bloodsport. Brutality. It hardly matters what’s true and what’s cruel hyperbole. Perception is reality when you don’t pay close attention, and casual followers of sports and the general citizenship are wont to believe what they hear over and over. It’s true that more and more mainstream advertisers are drawn to the UFC for its appealing fan demographic. But some are still keeping their distance, waiting for the sport to move more deeply into the mainstream. Sanctioning in New York would be a big step in that direction. That’s something worth waiting for, even if we shouldn’t have to.

-- Jeff Wagenheim