NEW YORK – Madison Square Garden. For fighters, regardless of discipline, it’s the Holy Grail, the one place you must fight in before you hang up the gloves. For fans, seeing a big fight in the Garden is just as special.
“There is this palpable buzz that is very difficult to explain that starts on Seventh Avenue about an hour and a half before the first fight on the card,” said Scott O’Neil, President of Madison Square Garden Sports. “You can feel the energy as you walk outside the building. Then when you walk in the building the concourse becomes a Who’s Who of celebrities and taste makers of New York. And the whole drama around a big event in New York is here. It brings out celebrities, it brings out athletes - it’s the event of events.”
Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. Sugar Ray Robinson. Joe Louis. Roberto Duran. Mike Tyson. Felix Trinidad. The list of fighters who have graced “The World’s Most Famous Arena” goes on and on. Frankie Edgar, UFC lightweight champion, wants to join them.
“I can’t wait until I get to fight here,” said the Toms River native. “I’m from Jersey but I grew up a New York sports fan. It’s been a lifetime dream to fight here. Some of the biggest fights in boxing have been fought here, and I just want to have that opportunity myself.”
Right now, he can’t fight in the Garden or anywhere in New York, but if the 1-2 punch of UFC President Dana White and Chairman / CEO Lorenzo Fertitta have their way, the arrival of mixed martial arts in the Empire State will come sooner, rather than later, and they flew in to the Big Apple Thursday to show their commitment to getting MMA sanctioned here.
“It’s an education process,” said White. “We’ve got a great team here in New York, and I feel like we’re gonna get this done. If you look at the facts and do your homework, I don’t see how anybody can oppose mixed martial arts in any state or anywhere around the world.”
Currently, 44 of the 48 states with athletic commissions sanction MMA. New York is the highest profile holdout, but Fertitta, who, along with his brother Frank and White, purchased the UFC ten years ago when only one state - New Jersey - sanctioned the sport, is determined that their work over the last decade will continue to pay off.
“We decided we were going to run towards regulation,” said Fertitta of Zuffa’s mantra when taking the reins of the UFC. “We want to be regulated and that’s what we’re asking for in New York. We don’t want to just come in the state and put on a fight. We want the New York State Athletic Commission to regulate us.”
The UFC’s safety record is impeccable, with no deaths or serious injuries beyond some broken bones, yet beyond the fact that the organization’s events are sanctioned by state athletic commissions, having a UFC event in town is an unquestioned boost to the local economy. A study released today by the consulting firm HR&A Advisors states that MMA events in New York State would generate 23 million dollars annually (broken down into event spending, visitor spending, and multiplier spending) and create over 200 new jobs. In these tough economic times, those numbers are hard to ignore, yet New York hasn’t pulled the trigger on bringing the sport to the state.
“This is another example of New York being a nanny state,” said New York state Assemblyman Dean Murray. “We have to stop doing that. We have to give the choice. How many cable TV stations do you have? How many radio stations do you have? You have choices. By us not legalizing this it’s removing that option of all these literally millions of fans in New York State having the option to see their hometown heroes fight. In this economic climate, we don’t need more tax increases; we need a chance to raise revenue. And this is a wonderful chance.”
As White pointed out, the UFC 111 event across the river at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey in March of last year sold over 17,000 tickets for a four million dollar gate. One of the fans in attendance that night was O’Neil, who took his teenage nephew to the event. As the two waited to pick up their tickets, O’Neil’s nephew noticed Edgar standing near the ‘Will Call’ window.
“That’s Frankie Edgar. He’s the coolest of the cool.”
“Like Clyde Frazier cool?”
“We should say hello.”
The two introduced themselves to the soon to be lightweight champion and O’Neil’s nephew wasn’t the only one to leave with a positive impression of Edgar.
“It was my first experience with a fighter, and I was blown away,” said O’Neil. “And that was just the start. Just the way these athletes handled themselves outside the Octagon was spectacular. I’ve spent a lot of my career around professional athletes and I can tell you that I never saw anything like what I saw that day. The crowd was spectacular, the athletes were spectacular, and then you see the sportsmanship.”
You could say it almost had the feel of a big Garden fight, right?
“One hundred percent,” said O’Neil. “The only difference was that it wasn’t in Madison Square Garden. There’s something about walking in this building that is special and I think it takes it to a whole other level.”
Needless to say, a fan was born that night, so it was no surprise that at today’s press conference at MSG, White announced the UFC’s commitment to bring events to the Garden (along with Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse) once the sport is sanctioned in New York.
That was music to the ears of Edgar, who, like practically any sports fan in the Tri-State area, has fond memories of the arena.
“You come to the Knicks games, and I remember the whole atmosphere of the Knicks playing (Michael) Jordan,” he said. “My father’s into boxing, so you had the Ali fights here, and it’s got that nostalgic feel. To be able to fight here, and especially to defend my title, that would be tops.”
UFC in NY - Could This Be The Year?
“I can’t wait until I get to fight here. I’m from Jersey but I grew up a New York sports fan. It’s been a lifetime dream to fight here."