Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Freedom means the right of consenting adults to pound the snot out of each other

It’s tough to disagree that mixed martial arts the fastest-growing sport in the world right now, and I’d advise you not to try unless you want to end up in an armbar or chokehold. The most well-known MMA organization, Ultimate Fighting Championship, consistently draws enormous buyrates for its pay-per-view events, comparable to the top shows produced by the longtime king of the PPV mountain, World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the WWF, for those who haven’t kept track of pro wrestling since the days of Hulkamania and the Gobbledy Gooker.) The UFC’s ever-increasing popularity has resulted in a weekly reality show among other TV series, a total worth of over $1 billion, sponsorships from the likes of Budweiser and Harley Davidson, among others, and a weird Friends storyline. MMA has surpassed boxing in terms of gambling revenue and looks likely to continue to capitalize on boxing’s failing reputation.

The point is clear: anyone with any sense of business would tell you to strike while the iron's hot--or, if your striking game's not so good, maybe you can wrestle the iron a bit, go for some ground and pound, or hope you can get the iron to tap out. (Okay, that was lame. I'm trying here.)

Unfortunately, if the UFC wanted to put on a show at the world’s most famous arena–and trust me, they really do–they’d be shit outta luck.

Professional MMA is illegal in the state of New York, for which we can thank the efforts of Sen. John McCain, who, famously referring in 1998 to MMA as “human cockfighting,” led a largely successful fight to ban the sport from many states. The thing is, at the time, his assessment wasn’t all that far off; the earliest incarnations of the UFC and other MMA organizations truly were little more than crude glorified streetfights that even current UFC president Dana White agrees were pretty far over the line. The MMA world adopted a number of badly-needed rule changes–the emergence of weight classes, for one, and the banning of techniques such as headbutts and stomps and knees to grounded opponents–which not only protected fighters but provided for much more entertaining, intricate matches between vastly more technically proficient fighters. McCain has come around to some extent, and many states relaxed restrictions on MMA, including McCain’s home state of Arizona.

But not New York, which is currently ground zero for the fight over the fights. State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who seems to have a hell of a lot of spare time despite dealing with a staggering budget crisis, has taken it upon himself to lead the crusade to deprive the state of desperately needed tourism and tax revenue by maintaining the ban on MMA. Moreover, I find the argument that “ultimate fighting” (and calling it that, I should note, is a huge pet peeve for fans–”ultimate fighting” is a scary-sounding term derived a specific brand name, not the name of any sport that actually exists) is especially more dangerous than established sporting events, an assertion usually put forward by elitist critics who don’t want to sully themselves with such low-class silliness, to be particularly ridiculous. Tell that to Kevin Everett, who was paralyzed after a botched tackle in an NFL game, or to the family of Eddie Guerrero, whose shocking and tragic death came after years of painkiller abuse in making a career as a smaller guy in the big man’s world of pro wrestling. But Reilly isn’t trying to kick the Bills out of Buffalo or the WWE out of Madison Square Garden, because those just aren’t such easy targets.

The first UFC event at Madison Square Garden would undoubtedly be among the two or three biggest sporting events of the year, and would be promoted to the point where it would be on par with some of the biggest boxing and wrestling events of all time. As a fan I’m certainly interested in the possibility of propelling the sport to unprecedented heights, but the financial upside is so obvious it hurts. Even aside from what is, to me, the stupidly simple principle of allowing consenting adults to do what the fuck they want with themselves in a controlled environment, now’s not such a hot time to prohibit the opportunity to collect a welcome bit of spare change. No one gets hurt from legalizing MMA–well, other than the dudes who might take an elbow or knee to the head, but I wouldn’t worry too much about them. They’re tough guys (and gals). They know what they’re doing. It’s long past time we left them the hell alone, if only so New Yorkers can reap the benefits.

Hat tip to Cage Potato. Creative Commons-licensed image by Fedjake.