For Zuffa and UFC, It’s Back to their Real “Birthplace” Tonight
by Charles Jay
The UFC returns to Atlantic City for the first time in seven years, and it’s happening at the hippest, newest place the city has to offer, the Revel Hotel/Casino.
The Fx-televised card, which features Clay Guida and Gray Maynard in the main event, marks a triumphant return to the Jersey shoreline, and even more significant than that, it is a return to the beginning of the new era in mixed martial arts as it started its uphill climb into the consciousness of America, and later, the world.
The city and state has played a big part. Many people understand that there might even BE a UFC as we know it without the unified rules that were compiled by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, under the leadership of Larry Hazzard, back in 2000.
A little more than a month after the UFC was purchased for around $2 million by Zuffa LLC, the company that consisted of Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta and Dana White, they ran their first promotion at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Tito Ortiz and Jens Pulver were the big winners on the bout sheet, but the sport in general was to benefit for years to come.
This was a great signal for the organization, in the sense that it represented a presence in a state that was known for staging major boxing events and thus was a regulatory leader. Many people who go back more than a decade with the UFC remember that the common procedure then was to avoid states with strong commissions and thus strict regulatory practices. But Zuffa understood that the only way to gain mainstream acceptance and reassume a position on pay-per-view television (which John McCain has helped cut them out of) was to put a “new coat of paint” on its product.
Certainly it was a tamer version of the sport; gone were the “Wild Wild West” days where almost anything went. The new visionaries realized that it was time to clean up their act.
The state of New Jersey was already on that page. And the UFC, under its previous ownership, had been right there with them. Hazzard’s board actually began to sanction MMA events in September of 2000 with a show put on by the International Fighting Council. Then UFC 28 was held on the Atlantic City boardwalk. During this time, the NJSACB was reviewing rules, tweaking a few things, and getting MMA promoters into the practice of submitting to the same kinds of medical testing procedures and other safety measures that had been instituted for boxers.
Subsequent to Zuffa’s debut with the UFC, the moment that turned the sport around and got it headed in the right direction for good took place in April 2001, when the NJSACB held its now-famous “summit meeting” in which interested parties from around the country were invited for an opportunity to have input into the compilation of “unified rules” for the sport of mixed martial arts. These included the prohibition of certain blows that had previously been permitted, a system of time limits and weight divisions, and medical testing. North of the border in Quebec they were already doing much of this, and after Hazzard’s meeting, many of the states that allowed MMA, along with the promoters who had a stake in it, followed.
At a press conference that announced UFC 31, also in Atlantic City, Lorenzo Fertitta thanked Hazzard for “helping put MMA on the map.”
And Hazzard, the New Jersey official, wasn’t looking at it selfishly either. “We are very hopeful also that the state of Nevada takes a serious look at mixed martial arts,” he said at that same press conference. “I’m very confident that they will and I’m very confident that in a very short period of time we will be extending the level of exposure to another major venue in the combative sports industry, and that is the state of Nevada.”
As we know, that’s happened.
Hazzard was no stranger to leading the way in this regard. He had been out front in helping to establish unified rules for boxing that were adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissions, which have become adopted in all member jurisdictions. His regulatory actions in mixed martial arts, and the follow-up on the part the UFC, have helped cut the path for MMA to gain a place in the landscape of sport that has made it a regular staple on pay-per-view television, an accepted activity by most state commissions, and a form of entertainment that could bring a major network like Fox to the table.