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MMA in New York: Zuffa Court Case Update

You win some and you lose some. While that adage is certainly true in the cage, it’s also true in the courtroom, as evidenced by the latest development in Zuffa’s lawsuit against the State of New York.

When last we left the issue of getting the ban on pro mixed martial arts competitions lifted, the legislature had once more let time run out on any pro MMA bills in the pipeline, and Zuffa’s lawsuit against the state – which cited a number of Constitutional protections (“Freedom of Speech”, Due Process, Equal Protection, Interstate Commerce) as being violated – was mired in the back-and-forth of motions to dismiss by the State Attorney General’s office and the resulting responses. Well, yesterday Judge Kimba Wood of the US District Court of the Southern District of New York ruled on the State’s latest volley, and now only Zuffa’s claim that the law as applied is unconstitutionally vague stands. What does this mean in layman’s terms?

  • Zuffa’s claim that the ban violates their First Amendment protections (i.e., free speech), and the notion that fighters are performers and fighting is a form of expression (with a message imparted to viewers via the storylines and presentation seen at live fights) is dismissed.
  • Also dismissed is Zuffa’s claim that Due Process and Equal Protection rights are being violated in how the law treats MMA differently than boxing and wrestling (both of which are obviously permitted in New York State).
  • Considering that promoters from within the state as well as outside of the state must adhere to the ban, the argument that the law violates the Interstate Commerce Clause is dismissed.
  • The claim that the 2001 Liquor Law banning the sale of alcohol at pro and amateur combative sports events is dismissed on the grounds that the State Liquor Authority, not the State Attorney General, would be the proper defendant.
  • Zuffa’s claim that the ban violates their protections under the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the law is on its face too vague, is dismissed. As per Judge Wood, the way the law is written is sufficiently clear enough for interpretation.
  • However, based on how the state has applied the law over the years – sometimes allowing combative sporting events to go on and sometimes actively shutting them down – the court agreed with Zuffa and allowed this particular claim, and how it applies to third-party sanctioning, amateur MMA, and MMA events on Indian Reservations, to move forward. “Erratic enforcement history” is the salient term Judge Wood used.

So while much of what Zuffa was arguing has now been dismissed, the court has ruled that one of the claims has merit and the case can move forward. In the meantime, all manner of amateur MMA events will continue to go on unabated, and one can only guess what will happen during the next legislative session up in Albany.


For a more-detailed analysis of the law, as well as copies of the court documents, check out Justin Klein’s excellent blog.