A losing fight in New York
New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly strongly opposes sanctioning MMA
But the UFC's Marc Ratner argues MMA is less violent than other sports
As MMA gains prominence, Reilly seems to be losing the fight to keep it away
Bob Reilly isn't shy when it comes to expressing his feelings about mixed martial arts. But his vocal fight may be a losing battle.
"I think it's going to be harmful to people," said the soft-spoken assemblyman from the 109th District in New York. "I think it's going to be harmful to our society and harmful to our economy."
Reilly likens MMA to dogfighting, and insists promoting the sport would contradict the state's goals of stopping domestic violence and bullying in schools.
To put it mildly, he is not a fan of the UFC, and rather than simply casting his vote against sanctioning MMA, Reilly has become the most vocal opponent in the New York State legislature. Because he sits on the Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development Committee, his voice counts.
He originally cast himself as a reluctant opponent of MMA, but recently he's thrown himself into the skirmish with a gusto, railing against the UFC's legislative tactics and conducting his own poll to prove New York residents don't want the sport legalized (67 percent of 468 respondents said they did not want the sport in New York).
So what's motivating Reilly to campaign so fervently against MMA and the UFC? It doesn't seem to be a case of political grandstanding, and oddly enough, it isn't even distaste for violent combat sports in general, as Reilly admits to being a fan of boxing and football.
"The only sport I'm against is mixed martial arts," he said. "I have people come up to me just about on a daily basis, unsolicited, and say, 'You're doing the right thing. This stuff is just brutal.' People turn this on when they're scanning through the channels -- that's their only exposure to it -- and there are people kicking each other in the head. As one of my aides saw recently, one guy punched the other guy, he was knocked out and falling to the ground, and as he fell, the other guy kneed him in the head. People see this and they are really offended and disgusted by it. They see the violence in it. They don't come up to me and talk that way about boxing or football."
But as Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of government and regulatory affairs, argues, just because fans don't see it doesn't mean they shouldn't. And, as long as MMA is available on TV, they likely will see it. Fights not at Madison Square Garden will be aired on Spike TV or pay-per-view.
"What you're really doing there is holding hostage the fans of the sport and telling them, 'Go to New Jersey, go to Pennsylvania to watch events,'" Ratner said. "Our ratings on Spike and our percentage of pay-per-view buys are huge in New York. So I don't understand how it's going to help the citizens, which I've heard him say he wants to do."
In addition to being the former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Ratner also refereed college football for more than 20 years and calls that sport "the most violent sport and injury-filled sport that I've ever been a part of."
He also saw boxers get killed in the ring, while in the 900-plus sanctioned MMA bouts held in Nevada, the most serious injury was a broken arm, sustained by Tim Sylvia, who later won the UFC heavyweight championship.
"Are there cuts and contusions? Absolutely," Ratner said. "But there are fewer serious injuries, and when you practice MMA, when you spar, you don't just take all those head blows. You have to learn to wrestle and learn jiu-jitsu. There are a lot of theories people have about how brutal it is that, once you look at the evidence, just don't hold up."
For Reilly, though, the perceived violence in MMA is just the half of it. He insists that allowing UFC events in New York will damage the state's economy by sucking money out of local municipalities and sending it back to UFC headquarters in Las Vegas. And the economic impact study commissioned by the UFC in 2008, which proved the opposite effect, hasn't changed Reilly's opinion.
"Based on [the UFC's] studies ... they would say they would bring in about $4 million in the live gate here," Reilly said. "They say the tax revenue would add about half a million to the local economy. And I say, yes, but at the same time $3.5 million would head back to Vegas. You can't take three-and-a-half million bucks out of the economy and expect it to work."
But Ratner is quick to refute such a claim.
"It makes absolutely no sense," he said. "When we bring a show in, whether it's Buffalo or New York City, between the staff, the fighters, their camps and the production people who actually make the show work, there's already between 175 and 200 people. That's 600-room nights -- they all stay there for at least three days or more -- at whatever hotel we use. That's without selling a drink or a ticket or having a meal. That's an economic impact already right there. When you come to a city, get a hotel room, buy a drink, eat a meal, take a cab somewhere -- none of that money comes back to Las Vegas."
Ultimately, Reilly and Ratner know they aren't going to change one another's minds this late in the game, no matter the polls or studies at hand. Reilly may not be able to get it off the air, but he is committed to keeping it out of New York as long as he can, though even he admits that may be a losing battle in the end. Against the economic power and influence of the UFC, he knows his hopes are dimming.
"Do I feel like David and Goliath in this? I do somewhat," he said. "Just the amounts of money involved alone. They were here recently giving very sizable donations to individual legislators, and they have this whole P.R. firm. And against that, I have myself. So yes, I feel like I'm up against a giant."
To hear Ratner tell it, the giant isn't going anywhere.
"We're in 37 states," he said. "We're in the legislatures in New York, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Wisconsin. We're going to keep working on it. New York will be one of those states. It's going to happen."
VIDEO: Reilly tells his side