As far as debuts go, it doesn’t get any bigger. The UFC makes its first appearance in New York City on Sunday after a decade long battle to legalise MMA in the state.
To mark the inauguration, UFC president Dana White has constructed a card, which although hurt by missed weight cuts, is almost certain to be the most watched and most profitable event in the company’s history.
With three title bouts, topped off by a superfight with historical ramifications between lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and featherweight kingpin Conor McGregor, the UFC are arriving in a city, which has long been the apple of its eye, in some style.
And rightly so. For the unaware, New York was the last state to legalise MMA as an outdated law kept one of the world’s most popular combat sports out of the biggest media market in North America.
It also denied fighters the opportunity to walk out at an iconic venue, once heralded as the fight capital of the world: Madison Square Garden.
Indeed, UFC 205 is a fitting celebration, one which symbolises the evolution of a sport which has matured from its primitive origin.
And you only have to look back to the last time they put on a show in New York for evidence of its development.
An Octagon last graced the Empire State in 1995 at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium with UFC 7. The 11-fight card featured no weight classes, no rounds and no time limits with the marketing built around their tag line of ‘no rules’.
The main event saw Ken Shamrock fight Oleg Taktarov to a 33-minute draw and what the fledgling promotion had hoped would be a success, turned out to be a disaster with widespread refunds issued after the event ran over its allotted time on pay-perview.
Little did they know then, though, that the journey back to New York would last 21 years.
During the 1990s, Arizona senator John McCain was determined to kill what he viewed was a “barbaric” sport, campaigning to see it banned across most of the US.
And he might have been successful were it not for Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta buying the UFC alongside White in 2001.
Armed with cash, enthusiasm and political savviness, they breathed life back into a sport which had been seriously deflated by bans across the country.
Working alongside other groups and state athletic commissions, they worked to legalise MMA. Over 15 years, 49 states sanctioned the sport, allowing it to grow into the $4 billion company they sold it for earlier this year.
But crucial to that sale was the one remaining 50th state. From 2010-2015, the UFC funded lobbying bids to legalise MMA in New York.
Although bills would pass the New York Senate, it would be killed off in the state assembly due to a political wrangle between the ownership and a Las Vegas-based culinary union, which sought to keep the UFC out of the state in protest to the Fertittas’ business dealings in Nevada.
That all changed this year, though. A bill finally made its way to the assembly floor and the vote to legalise MMA finally passed by a vote of 113-25.
It’s been a long, expensive and exhaustive battle. A celebration is more than warranted and there are few better ways to do it than at the Garden with a talent-rich card.
McGregor bids to become the first simultaneous multi-division UFC champ when he enters the Octagon at MSG. It’s a clash which will mark the culmination of his life’s work and cap off an extraordinary journey from apprentice plumber to perhaps the biggest combat sports star on the planet.
Preceding that bout, is a stylistic match-up with the potential of stealing the show as the new welterweight champ Tyron Woodley meets the Power Ranger in disguise, Stephen Thompson.
In the other title fight, the pound-for-pound best female fighter on the planet, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, puts her undefeated record and strawweight title on the line against Polish compatriot Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
Indeed, as far as parties go, this one is star studded and it’s not to be missed. After all, there is only one first time.
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