Fight of the year remains no contest in Empire State
By Jerry Sullivan
News Senior Sports Columnist
Published:April 19, 2012, 12:01 AM
Jon Jones and Rashad Evans have no great love for one another. Jones says Evans is "evil," a pretender. Evans calls Jones an imitator, a mentally weak foe. Their disdain is mutual, their intentions malign.
But there's one issue on which the two mixed martial arts stars are in agreement: The slow, inscrutable dealings of New York State politicians.
Evans is from Niagara Falls. Jones, a native of Rochester, grew up in Endicott and lives in Ithaca. On Saturday night, they will meet in the main event of UFC 145, with Jones' light heavyweight (205 pounds) title on the line. The fight, which is being called one of the most anticipated in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, will be held in Atlanta at Philips Arena.
Yes, two UFC superstars from Western New York will clash in the octagon, with millions of fans watching their rising sport on pay per view, and it's happening in Georgia.
"It makes me proud that this fight is generating so much attention," Evans said by phone from New York City, where he was promoting the fight. "It would be great to fight at home, or anywhere in New York State."
The fight likely would have sold out the First Niagara Center. MMA is popular in Western New York, where cards have been held at smaller venues in the Native American casinos.
Or how about Madison Square Garden, which has hosted many epic boxing matches?
"Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, all the big fights happened there," Evans said.
"It would definitely have sold out Buffalo," said Jones, who was also in the Big Apple doing prefight publicity. "Or in Madison Square Garden, or even Yankee Stadium."
Yankee Stadium? "Definitely," Jones said. Well, a UFC card drew 55,724 to the Rogers Centre in Toronto a year ago.
"The Dolans at MSG are huge supporters of legalizing the sport," said Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for UFC out of Albany. "I'm sure the folks at [First Niagara Center] would love to have it in Buffalo. It means millions in local economic activity."
The problem is, UFC is illegal in this state. New York is one of five states in the country in which the sport isn't contested. UFC doesn't hold fights in Wyoming and Alaska because they don't have athletic commissions. The sport is banned outright in Vermont, Connecticut and New York.
The state legislature has considered a bill to regulate MMA the last three years. Each time it passed the Senate but died before it reached the floor of the Assembly.
Despite recent failure and continued opposition to mixed martial arts in the Assembly, the Senate again voted Wednesday, 43-14, in favor of approving legislation to legalize and regulate the sport in New York.
Last year, Evans and Jones visited Albany to make UFC's case to state lawmakers. Still, it didn't sway enough assemblymen, some of whom see the sport as overly violent and a poor example for the youth of the state.
"Last year, I visited about four senators," said Jones, 24, whose older brother, Arthur, plays defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. "I tried to persuade them to do all they could and talk to their friends in the Assembly. I think I put a smile on their faces."
Evidently, the smiles didn't rub off on enough assemblymen.
Bob Reilly, D-Colonie, finds nothing amusing about the issue. Reilly is the most virulent opponent of MMA. He considers it dangerous and barbaric.
Even at the national level, MMA has divided politicians. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president four years ago, has referred to MMA as "human cockfighting."
Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has lobbied publicly for MMA in New York. That drew the ire of Reilly, who called it "appalling" for a man of Reid's stature to dabble in New York's issue.
Of course, Las Vegas is the headquarters of UFC, so Reid's position is understandable. There's a widespread belief that New York's opposition to UFC has roots in a union dispute in Vegas, where unions were miffed when some UFC events were held in non-union casinos.
"I think it will be very difficult to get it by the state assembly," said Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, who represents Niagara County. "There are some very strong feelings over there."
"I don't have any really strong feelings on it one way or the other," Maziarz said. "I supported it. I don't know if it's any more dangerous than walking on a wire over Niagara Falls. I supported that, too."
Proponents of MMA say it's not nearly as dangerous as critics suggest. It's violent, yes, but they point to a Johns Hopkins University study that said the risk of injury is no greater than in other combat sports, such as boxing, which is regulated by the state athletic commission.
The most common injuries from MMA are hand and finger dislocations and sprains. Submission moves can cause serious shoulder and elbow injuries. Concussions are common in MMA. You can say the same for the NHL and NFL.
"It looks a lot more painful than it is," Evans said. "It's not like the guys go in without any training. We make guys bleed, but with the rules and regulations in place and the referees, you're not going to see guys take too much punishment. The worst I had was a broken hand."
Evans said he wants to hurt Jones, though. The two used to train together at the same Albuquerque gym. But they had a falling out last year when Jones replaced Evans in a March title fight after Evans pulled out with an injury.
Two weeks before winning the fight, Jones said he would be willing to fight Evans at some point. Evans, who had been a mentor to Jones — he says he even showed him how to dress with class — felt betrayed. He left the Albuquerque gym soon after.
Jones, like Evans a former junior-college wrestling champion, said his former friendship with Evans has been overblown. He said they had dinner once and worked out together but that they're essentially strangers.
The prefight sniping seems like the customary posturing before a bout, enhanced for the media's benefit. But both fighters say their animosity is real.
"Oh, everything's genuine," Jones said. "Definitely. I think a lot of it is jealousy on his part. I have a lot of things my opponent wants. He makes bold statements. I make them in return, and you guys come up with a good story line. Two guys who don't like each other."
Evans, 32, a former wrestling and football star at Niagara-Wheatfield, says Jones imitated his style and copied other MMA stars. Evans says he'll look in Jones' eyes Saturday night, kick his butt and call him a fake. If he does, it'll be an upset. Jones, the son of a Pentecostal minister, is favored at anywhere from 4-1 to 6-1. He's eight years younger than Evans. He's five inches taller and has a 10-inch advantage in reach.
Dana White, the president of UFC, is on record that "the only guy who can beat Jon Jones is Jon Jones." That doesn't suggest a lot of confidence in the other guy.
"I'll keep my opinions on that to myself," Evans said with a laugh.
Wild and unexpected things have been known to occur inside that octagon. Evans was a 4-1 underdog when he stunned UFC icon Chuck Liddell for the light-heavy crown in 2008.
Jones is the new darling of the sport, a young and outspoken fighter who has drawn comparisons to Ali. FOX made him grand marshal of the Daytona 500, though rain prevented him from executing his duties.
Evans said it hurts to know that it can't take place in their home area.
"I'm a Western New York guy," he said. "We don't have a lot of guys who come out and make a name for themselves. It's disheartening, to be honest."
"It would be great to have all our friends and family be able to come to the fight," he said, "right down the street."