The throwdown in Albany to legalize mixed-martial-arts fighting—better known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, thanks to the leading company promoting the testosterone-fueled, almost-no-rules wrestling-meets-boxing-meets-street-fighting battles—was supposed to be an easy win for the extreme sport’s supporters. The Las Vegas–based Fertitta brothers took over the UFC in 2001 and have lobbied to make it more legit. Already it is legal in 34 states, including Nevada, New Jersey, and California. CBS and Spike TV broadcast bouts. But to go really mainstream, they need New York, with its media throng and upstate fans.
Frank Fertitta III and his brother Lorenzo made the cover of Forbes last month for what the magazine dubbed their “Ultimate Cash Machine.” The Fertittas come from a long line of casino entrepreneurs. Their grandfather, Anthony, ran gambling halls in Galveston, Texas, where he was convicted for beating up a Life reporter who came to town to investigate the scene. Frank Jr., the brothers’ father, was running Las Vegas’s Fremont Hotel when the Feds busted up the place to break a money-skimming operation (he wasn’t charged); the ordeal is said to have become the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. He later opened a local-friendly casino miles away from the Strip, and he passed that business to his sons.
In their quest to make Ultimate Fighting respectable, the Fertitta brothers have stationed doctors ringside and swapped the league’s old slogan (“There are no rules”) for a less anarchic one (“As real as it gets”). They started their New York offensive last year, hiring the political consultants at Global Strategy Group, a well-connected Democratic firm, and putting a high-powered Albany lobbying firm on $10,000-a-month retainer. They gave $25,000 to the state Democratic Party, another $15,000 to the Assembly Democrats, and have also cut large checks to Republicans.
But all that money might have been a bad investment. During what should have been a routine vote in the Assembly’s Tourism, Arts, and Sports Committee on June 11, Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a former high-school teacher, made an impassioned speech against the legalization measure—he asked why a state that banned cockfighting and dogfighting should allow this—that turned several lawmakers against it. A new vote is scheduled for June 16, with an eye to getting it passed by the end of the session, June 23. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver doesn’t watch UFC fights. (“Not a fan,” he declares.) Senate leader Joe Bruno, a former boxer, hasn’t weighed in. And Governor David Paterson says he’s not sure how he feels about it. But he was listening to a recent CBS telecast of a fight, the first appearance of a mixed-martial-arts event on network TV, when one combatant’s bulbous, cauliflower ear popped and spurted a fountain of blood. “It was gross,” says the governor.