If you’ve been watching television and reading Champions (you’d better have!) you’ve probably noticed everyone keeps talking about this Saturday’s UFC 205 being historic. If you’re newer to the sport of MMA, the reasons may be a bit of a mystery to you.
Sure, Conor McGregor is fighting again, and that’s always a big deal. And, to be certain, he’ll be vying to be the just the second simultaneous two-division world champion in MMA history (Dan Henderson was the first), so that is historical.
But a great deal of what makes UFC 205 historically significant is simply where it will take place – New York City, inside Madison Square Garden. To understand why those things are important, you need to know a bit more about the near-death struggles MMA went through to become a legal, recognized sport, as well as the peerless fighting legacy of The Garden, itself.
Below is a short historical guide to how the world’s fastest-growing sport will finally, for the first time, do business in the biggest media market in the world, in the largest city in America, on its most storied fistic stage.
On Nov. 12 1993 eight participants in something called the Ultimate Fighting Fighting Championship changed the face of martial arts and professional fighting, forever, by showing what worked in real fights. Royce Gracie beat three men in one night inside a cage with few rules other than the barring of biting and eye-gouging, and in so doing exposed the world to his family’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu style.
Gracie was the smallest competitor in the tournament and utilized a quietly lethal form of grappling to survive and them defeat much larger men. Some saw beauty in that technical overcoming of odds in a real self-defense situation.
Others saw brutality. That is why, despite instant popularity, the UFC, and the sport which would eventually be called mixed martial arts (MMA), had to exist in legal grey area for a long time.
That first event, UFC 1 held in Colorado, was essentially unregulated. Future events would follow suit.
Soon, however, folks like Sen. John McCain led campaigns against the new sport, condemning its dangers and supposed moral depravity despite admitting that he’d never actually watched an MMA fight.
Soon, the UFC went from underground to outright banned – in 36 states including New York and from cable television. This exile from even the fringes of mainstream society was predicated on it not being sanctioned by athletic commissions in many states, and it began to hurt the UFC’s bottom-line.
The company floundered until purchased by a former opponent of MMA getting sanctioned in Nevada, Lorenzo Fertitta, and his brother Frank Fertitta, owners of Station Casinos, in 2001. Having previously sat on the influential Nevada State Athletic Commission, Lorenzo Fertitta and his co-owner brother, along with their childhood friend, minority-stake owner and new UFC president Dana White, were well-positioned to go back to state commissions to get sanctioning for the sport, something which previous owner SEG had tried unsuccessfully to do.
The Path Towards Acceptance And Regulation
After getting sanctioned in influential states like Nevada and New Jersey, the UFC still had a long, expensive road to getting the promotion and sport recognized and regulated by other states and some international jurisdictions. After years of effective lobbying, the UFC had successfully expanded to many new international markets and obtained legal status for professional MMA in all but one state in the U.S.
That state just happened to be perhaps the most important one, New York. In addition to being home to some of the best teams and fighters in all of MMA (squads like Renzo Gracie’s academy in Manhattan, Matt Serra’s in Long Island, and fighters like Renzo, Serra, Chris Weidman, and others), NYC has the largest media market in the U.S. with its largest population.
The Last Holdout
Still, the state of New York hadn’t hosted a UFC event since UFC 7 on Sep. 8, 1995, which was held in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and the big leagues of MMA had never once held an event in New York City. New York was the last holdout of U.S. states to not regulate professional MMA.
The opposition was funded by Culinary Local 226, a union long at odds with the former owners of the UFC – Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta – because of their anti-union stance in their Station Casinos. The local wanted to make the then-owners of the UFC pay for their anti-union stances, and chose MMA, in New York, as their tangential battleground.
The UFC won that battle in New York, finally getting a bill to regulate MMA passed through the NY state legislature and signed into law this past year. The Fertittas subsequently sold their ownership stakes in the promotion and the culinary union has begun to have success in organizing some Station Casino workers, notably at a Rohnert Park, California casino location.
With the legal and legislative battles won for MMA in New York, big-time MMA will finally make its debut in the nation’s largest city.
The Mecca Of Big-Time Prizefighting
UFC 205 may represent the promotion’s most quality card, from top to bottom, led by three world title contests, scheduled for five-rounds, each. The UFC clearly wants to come correct to Madison Square Garden and it is because they have big shoes to fill.
For a century, the Garden has been host to some of the most important fights in boxing history. Jack Dempsey defended his world-title there in 1920, Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta rocked the arena in ’42. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier I & II took place at MSG (in ’71, and ’74, respectively), pound-for-pound great Roberto Duran won his first world championship in a Madison Square Garden ring in ’72, and Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis had their first record-breaking and controversial heavyweight world-title unification in the midtown sporting mecca in ’99.
UFC athletes will finally get their chance to show on the biggest stage that they too can deliver the type of legendary action so many great boxers have. You’d better believe that every participant on the UFC 205 card this Saturday will feel that weight and excitement, and you won’t want to miss watching what they can do with it.