Tonawanda News — Professional mixed martial arts, one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., is illegal in New York state and has been since 1997. The UFC and its parent company, Zuffa, have been fighting for the past four years to legalize the sport, but to no avail. There was hope in June 2012 when a bill to overturn the state’s ban made it to the State Senate and was passed, but it never reached a vote in the Assembly.
So in November, Zuffa filed a lawsuit against the state citing that the ban is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Victory MMA promoter and Tonawanda native Don Lilly recently joined the fight against New York state. He’s a plaintiff in the lawsuit, joining UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, Gina Carano, Frankie Edgar, Matt Hammill and Dana White.
“I want the state athletic commission to basically govern MMA,” Lilly said. “Govern MMA just like boxing and pro wrestling to try to give the athletes some kind of guidance. Since Eric (Herbert) and I did the first T-NT show, there have been like eight other promotions which have popped up around New York state.”
The T-NT fight series, put on by Victory MMA, is an amateur promotion, which has been legal since 2010 when, Lilly said, the state came out and said so. The series continues this Saturday night when its third show goes live at 7:30 p.m. at Rainbow Rink in North Tonawanda.
But Lilly thinks that professional MMA should be legal and that’s why he’s advocating for the change, and that’s why he spent an entire weekend in Manhattan in early February. One route that may be the key into New York state is through an outside commission.
In early February at a hearing of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, the state attorney general’s office noted that the MMA ban didn’t pertain to a pre-approved third-party sanctioning body like the World Kickboxing Association. So if there are no other options, Lilly said promotions can start using different commisions to saction a professional show in New York state, but he’d prefer the state just legalize the sport.
Herbert, also from Tonawanda, is 4-2 as a professional, but since the Raging Wolf promotion went out of business — it was considered legal because it’s overseen by a tribal commission — he hasn’t been able to fight in front of friends and family.
“I manage seven professional fighters in Western New York and in Buffalo — MMA fighters — and trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio get stagnant for them and their fans,” Lilly said. When Eric and Eddie Weizer fought in the (Seneca Niagara) Casino, they sold 100 tickets themselves to the fight. Friends and family wanted to see them fight.”
The other side of the argument that mma advocates have pushed is the economic benefits to legalizing the sport in New York state. Lilly said that projections show that a UFC event at Madison Square Garden would generate about $15 million for the city. A UFC event in Buffalo at the First Niagara Center is estimated to bring in about $8 million to the Western New York economy. Lilly said these are dollars that this community just can’t afford to turn away.
“Everyone sees the numbers and they are like, ‘We can make money,’ and they are right — we can,” Lilly said. “But that bill has been there for two years. The state is crying about everything, (about) making cuts, taking stuff away from education. Wouldn’t the state love to put $15 million in on a weekend? And that’s just one weekend. Or $8 million to the region of Buffalo? That’s the economics of it.”
Lilly wrestled at Tonawanda from 1990-96 and earned a varsity letter all six seasons. He joined the Navy after graduation and when he returned to Buffalo in 2006 he made up his mind that he wanted to be involved with MMA. It’s been his passion ever since.
“We are going on almost our fourth year in july at Victory, training with world champs and bringing in different guys, being the first to bring MMA to New York,” Lilly said. “Our record is 42-8 and we haven’t lost an amateur fight in almost two and a half years.”
Lilly said that Victory MMA is one of the top gyms in the state and the success of its fighters speaks volumes.
“(Eric and I) are just two knuckleheads from Tonawanda who basically had a goal and are still building it,” he said. “We are not done yet, I’ll tell you that. We got a pretty good product here.”Contact sports editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.