Magazine article The New Yorker

Free Fighting

Magazine article The New Yorker

Free Fighting

Article excerpt

Fifteen years ago, Governor George Pataki signed a law that banned exhibitions of "combative sport" in New York. Boxing was specifically excluded from the ban. So was wrestling. Also judo, Tae Kwon Do, and karate. The law's real target was ultimate fighting, a martial-arts hybrid that developed a reputation, in the nineties, for providing anarchic mayhem--some promoters suggested that participants would be fighting to the death, or nearly so. The sales pitch worked too well: fans were lured in, but so were politicians, not all of whom appreciated the aesthetic appeal of a sport that combines staccato strikes with legato grappling. (Fighters can be knocked out, choked, wrenched into submission, or rescued by the referee; if both contestants endure, judges declare a winner.) John McCain, a lifelong boxing fan, issued a two-word verdict that was meant to end the debate: "human cockfighting."

But the sport, now called mixed martial arts, has persevered and prospered. New rules were adopted, and many holds were barred. (For instance, if you notice that your opponent is lying on the mat, and therefore in need of a blow to the head, you are welcome to use your fist or your elbow, but not your foot or your knee.) Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading promotional organization, is one of the most profitable sports leagues in the country, and one morning last week Dana White, the U.F.C.'s co-owner and public face, presided over a press conference at Radio City Music Hall, where he announced a fight card scheduled for May 5th, to be held nearby, sort of--across the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers, at the Izod arena, in New Jersey. Pataki's law hasn't been overturned, and New York is now one of only a few states where the U.F.C. is unwelcome.

During the press conference, White said he was committed to getting the sport legalized in New York. In November, the U.F.C. and other plaintiffs sued the state, arguing that the ban is unconstitutional. "We're going to keep grinding and grinding and grinding and grinding until we get it done," White said. "Grinding" is a term of art: it describes an M.M.A. technique, pejoratively known as "lay and pray," in which a fighter takes the fight to the ground and keeps it there, in the hope of impressing the judges just enough to prevail.

A few blocks away, at a more modest event, about three dozen M. …

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