NEW YORK -- The UFC is returning to New Jersey this weekend, which means officials for the mixed martial arts promotion have been spending most of their time in New York City.
Makes perfect sense when you think about it.
UFC president Dana White has been working hard the last few years to get MMA sanctioned in New York, one of the only states that still bans it. So every time it stages a fight across the Hudson River, the UFC makes sure that press conferences, fan expos, autograph sessions and meet-and-greets are held in Manhattan -- right under the noses of state lawmakers.
"I've been saying for years, 'This is the year, this is the year,'" White said. "We spent the whole day up in Albany meeting with people, educating them, and we'll see what happens.
"It's just a few key people here in the state of New York that we need to turn," White said earlier this week. "And listen, if it happens this year, it happens, and if it doesn't, we're not going to stop. We're going to keep working and keep pushing until it gets done."
New York has been drowning in red ink for years, and former Gov. David Paterson considered legalizing MMA as a way to help fill a $10 billion deficit. But the subject was conspicuously absent when current Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his 2011-12 budget proposal earlier this year.
State Sen. Joseph Griffo and Melvina Lathan, the state athletic commissioner, have advocated on behalf of the sport, and an economic impact study funded by the UFC estimated major mixed martial arts events could yield $23 million in annual state revenue.
Lathan even attended a recent card promoted by Strikeforce in East Rutherford, N.J., where she was able to see firsthand a large crowd enjoy an evening of fights without any trouble.
"At the end of the day, do we have to be in New York? Do we have to be here?" White asked rhetorically. "At the end of the day, there are so many places we can do fights. But we should be in New York. We should be here."
The main event Saturday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., features light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua defending his title against Jon Jones.
Jones, the brother of Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones, is originally from Rochester, N.Y., and trained for a while with a team in upstate in New York. He hopes that he can eventually fight in his home state, though for now New Jersey will have to do.
"I want to share myself with New Yorkers as much as I can," he said.
Among the main opponents of MMA in New York is Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who has been against the sport on moral grounds. Other legislators remember the days when the sport was described as "human cockfighting" and its limited rules created health hazards for participants.
"Here's the reality: This is the most regulated sport in the world," White said, noting that unified rules and state athletic commissions help to ensure fighter safety, often by suspending competitors for several months if they sustain too much damage in the ring.
"Guys in the NFL and NHL can't miss three months. If guys missed three months for a concussion, there would be no NFL, there would be no NHL," White said. "That's the difference. Our sport is a million times more safe than both of them."
White believes lawmakers are beginning to understand that fact, and he points across the state line to Connecticut as evidence. Lawmakers there are close to lifting a ban on MMA.
Connecticut is home to World Wrestling Entertainment and, like New York, regularly hosts both professional wrestling and boxing cards. Connecticut has several events every month at its various casinos, while New York's main drawing card is the iconic Madison Square Garden.
Madison Square Garden Sports has even worked to bring Bellator Fighting Championships, a smaller promotion, to two facilities it owns: The Chicago Theatre and Boston's Wang Theatre.
It's still not the same as starring on Broadway, though.
"It would be their dream to fight in Madison Square Garden some day, so it's important for the sport," White said. "It's very important for the sport."