20 YRS AGO: UFC legality upheld in Michigan as UFC continued battle against critics aiming to ban sport

The following is a look back at a PWTorch Newsletter cover story from 20 years ago marking a major advancement in the UFC’s battle against forces trying to outlaw and ban the sport. Torch supervising editor Wade Keller was one of the early pioneers in covering the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, long before any MMA-specific websites had launched years later, including extensive coverage of UFC’s early years fighting against high-profile critics including John McCain trying to get the sport outright banned. The full array of PWTorch Newsletter back issues dating back to the late 1980s covering the roots and rise of UFC and, in general, MMA as a sport, are available in the Torch VIP library, available for VIP members

UFC makes it past Federal Court

By Wade Keller, Torch editor

Monday afternoon U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn decicively struck down the Wayne County Prosecutor’s attempts to stop the Ultimate Fight Championship from taking place at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on May 17. Michigan’s prosecutor’s and attorney general’s offices filed a joint lawsuit against UFC promoters last month seeking an injunction to stop the event from taking place. They said the event violated an 1883 law that bans all unregulated prize fighting.

TorchCover387_600rectangleJudge Cohn said that the 1883 law is Victorian and puritanical and doesn’t apply to UFC. “And to the vast majority of the American people, this is not brutal or immoral,” he said. “This is entertainment the same way football and hockey are entertainment.” He compared the 1883 law to Prohibition and to Blue Laws that prohibit businesses from being open on Sundays.

Mayor Dennis Archer in an affidavit said he is “absolutely and morally opposed” to the UFC which “glamorizes violence for the sake of violence” and projects a negative image across America on Detroit. Cohn, though, said the mayor’s opinion in this case is irrelevant.

Cohn disputed that UFC hybrid fighting is by definition a “prize fight,” contending prize fighting applies just to boxing. The prosecution entered into evidence newspaper articles from 1883 which showed the law banning prize fights was enacted due to a bare knuckled style event that actually had stricter rules than UFC does today. Cohn said back then the laws were pushed by ministers who wanted to crack down on entertainment enjoyed by immigrants and lower classes. Those bare knuckled fights which were banned did not allow ground fighting. Cohn thus didn’t believe UFC bouts necessarily fit the law.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Lockman, who was frequently cut off in mid-sentence and openly criticized by the judge during the trial, told the Torch Monday after the decision that he believes the judge “twisted the statute” in order to avoid blocking the event. “I remain surprised at his interpretation,” Lockman said.

In the previous hearing Cohn ruled that pro wrestling was “real.” He said that since it was allowed, why not allow UFC fighting under the law? At this hearing Cohn said his words had been misinterpreted at the original hearing, and went on to say that pro wrestling’s treatment under the law was actually irrelevant to this case.

Odds are slim that anything could be done by the government at this point to stop the May 17 event from taking place. If the prosecutor’s office decides to stand by their original stance that the event is illegal, they could arrest participants and promoters during or after the event which would parallel in some ways the events in Quebec late last month. Then a trial by judge or jury in state court would determine whether the fighters or promoters were actually guilty of a criminal act. Cohn challenged the prosecution to do just that.

Olympia Arenas Inc. which runs Cobo Hall had said they would break their lease with SEG if the judge ruled the event was illegal. Since the judge did not do that, Olympia is standing behind their original lease with SEG. To break the lease now would put them at risk of being sued by SEG. If they don’t break the lease, they are at no risk legally and can profit from the event.

It is possible the prosecutors will attempt to appeal Cohn’s decision in Sixth Circuit Appeals Court in Cincinnati, but it appears unlikely they would get a decision in time to get an injunction to stop the event before May 17.

Cohn’s decision from a strict legal standpoint was more of a “no decision” than a precedent in favor of SEG. They may yet run into problems in other states where similar laws exist.

Democratic Mich. Rep. Greg Pitoniak proposed a bill on May 2 which would explicitly ban UFC and all mixed martial arts fights from taking place in Michigan where the intent of the fights is to injure an opponent to win. The bill can not become law before May 17, but if eventually passed, UFC could not return to Michigan.

Pitoniak acknowledged to the Detroit Free Press that he had never seen a UFC match, but contended, “This ‘anything goes’ mentality is very dangerous.”

In a May 3 Free Press article by Kate McKee, UFC’s own hype on their video tape boxes was cited. The hype boasts of “fractured bones, stitches, contusions, concussions, lacerations, hematomas, hyperextensions, torn ligaments, bruises, and blood. And it’s all real!” McKee went on to point out no serious injuries have actually taken place at UFC events.

In court SEG’s Bob Meyrowitz said SEG had nothing to do with the language used by the video tape distributor, including an early tape which claimed UFC had already been banned in 49 states. Meyrowitz said he has asked Vidmark Video to change the language on their boxes three times in recent months.

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