From the beginning, there was going to be some establishment resistance to mixed martial arts. The sport, with its absence of structured rules, did not fit into the regulations that were laid out by the athletic commissions across the country. In fact, most of the regulatory people didn’t understand it, and therefore had no idea how to classify it. It certainly wasn’t boxing, which used hands only, or kick boxing, which allowed for kicks and which was sanctioned in some states. And it most definitely was not a “worked” sport like professional wrestling, which also fell under the jurisdiction of some of the athletic commissions.
Plus, there was not really enough mixed martial arts activity going on for the states to take the time out to draft rules and regulations for it. If there was the possibility of only a couple of events per year, why would they go through the process of engaging commission attorneys to draw up a new set of rules, or approach the state legislature with a bill to be passed, in order to accommodate it?
Besides, there was a growing – and influential – constituency of people who looked upon mixed martial arts as “barbarism” and “bloodsport.” Many of these people used an expression that became a standard for cheap shots as time progressed – “human cock fighting.”
When you have pervading mainstream attitudes like this, the atmosphere is ripe for political opportunity. And sure enough, out of the rubble emerged one of the great political opportunists of recent years.
John McCain, a United States Senator from Arizona, had gotten a lot of mileage out of his five-year internment in a Vietnamese prisoner of war (POW) camp; rather than the more realistic portrayal of him as a pure victim, the slick public relations machine he had cultivated was able to spin him into a full-blown hero. More often than not, McCain was successful in co-opting the press in what was a somewhat blind pursuit of political glory. His critics opined that he never met a camera he didn’t like or headline-grabbing issue he was not willing to sell himself out to. But he had a following, particularly among the media, that was willing to ignore the fact that despite his public stance for campaign finance reform, McCain was one of the great abusers of the process; in fact, he was one of the disgraced members of the “Keating Five,” which doled out political influence in exchange for hefty contributions and financial favors.
Though he had been labeled a “maverick” by most of the press corps, McCain was hardly that; rather, he was he was a very calculating political animal who often saw which way the wind was blowing and hurled himself – with sycophantic media grasping on to his boots – in that direction.
McCain purported to be a lifelong boxing fan, and claimed to be a boxer of some note at the Naval Academy, where he gained admission as a “legacy” (his father was an alumnus) and graduated near the bottom of his class. He favored legislation to bring about some federal control of boxing and would later spearhead efforts to pass more extensive bills in that quest. He was quite fond of accepting free tickets from the very promoters his legislation would have regulatory authority over. Coincidentally, these gifts and gratuities often landed him ringside, right in camera view, during an HBO or Showtime telecast.
It was only natural that McCain would jump on an anti-UFC bandwagon that already existed.
And in doing so, he became a major thorn in their collective side.
McCAIN BECOMES THE SPORT’S BIGGEST ENEMY
The leading purveyors of mixed martial arts had, in a sense, dug their own graves, promoting the sport as a no rules bloodsport that – at least in the case of the publicity surrounding one UFC card – could even end in death. Whatever the severity of the hype, there was always the atmosphere of impending danger hanging over the events, and the promoters didn’t do too much to tone it down. Lack of safety had, in fact, become a selling point.
Senator John McCain, smelling an opportunity the way a pitbull smells fear, made his big grab at anti-MMA airtime in 1995, right before the “Ultimate Ultimate” event was to take place. He made an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” with Marc Ratner, then the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, as his main support. Ratner was a big critic of the UFC as well; his interests at the time, of course, were tied up in boxing, and ironically he would join the UFC as a lobbyist years later.
McCain may have been influenced a great deal by those in boxing; his wife, Cindy, had inherited one of the biggest Budweiser distributorships in the country from her father, Jim Hensley, and Budweiser had a long-time relationship with boxing, where it had pumped a lot of money into sponsoring the sport. Then there were the numerous gratuities McCain had taken from boxing promoters. Whatever the motivation, he already had an agenda laid out, and that agenda was to bust up the sport of mixed martial arts any way he possibly could.
He famously made the comment that MMA “appeals to the lowest common denominator in our society,” an expression that is often misused by opportunists. Of course what he was basically saying by using the term “lowest common denominator” was that “a lot of people seem to like this stuff, and they’re all pretty much scumbags.”
Bob Meyrowitz was on hand to defend the UFC, along with Ken Shamrock, but this was one confrontation where, like so many wrestling matches, the outcome was decided well in advance. The former POW’s instincts were correct in this case; that the political correctness of his pitch was going to resonate with members of the general public, and the media, who were predisposed to thinking that mixed martial arts was little more than a sideshow.
McCain was hardly the maverick here; indeed, he was taking what would have been considered the “politically correct” road, and King offered little resistance to him. After what had to be termed a success on CNN, he sought to build on his momentum. He tried to solicit a lot of support from state governments, whether they did or did not have a boxing commission. What these governments should have told him was to shut up and mind his own business. Perhaps some of them did just that.
Just not enough, evidently.
It is difficult to measure with any real degree of exactitude how much influence John McCain’s crusade against the sport of mixed martial arts had. It was obviously his desire that governors across the U.S. would unite to ban the competition from taking place, but that’s not how it unfolded.
Some of the states came out against the events; in others, it took a little “tweaking” to get them cleared. Certain rules changes, for example, had to be instituted to make it acceptable in places like New York, which had put it under the jurisdiction of its athletic commission. Then, however, politicians made further changes to the state athletic commission rules for mixed martial arts, and specifically for a UFC event that was lated for an upstate venue, unbeknownst to the organizers of the UFC itself, namely Bob Meyrowitz of SEG.
The rules changes the commission arbitrarily made included mandatory headgear and no kicking to the head. Also, for some reason, they mandated that the octagon be increased to 40 feet in diameter. This represented an increase of 25% over its customary size. Well, and octagon is an octagon, and in the UFC’s case, it was indemic to its existence; a symbol of what they were about. Sure, boxing rings could be 16 feet, up to 22 feet around, but that was usually determined by either necessity (what was available) or by mutual agreement of two main event competitors. Kicks to the head were not exactly unique to the UFC or to MMA in general; they were standard fare in the kick boxing world for years. What the NYSAC was talking about here was a bit excessive, and truth be known, intentionally prohibitive.
Despite vehement protests from UFC officials, none of these rules “adjustments” were about to be changed. By this time it had become customary – and frankly very wise – for promoters to have an alternate location at their disposal, just in case some court or commission was going to pull a fast one and screw them out of the original location. In this case (UFC XII), it was the gulf shores city of Dothan, Alabama, where no athletic commission could get in their way. And the UFC was very fortunate, in shifting the event literally overnight, that they were able to pull off one of its most entertaining shows ever.
This was really no way to run an operation, though it must said that this was still during the period the UFC and other mixed martial arts organizations were “playing it by ear.”
In many of the country’s jurisdictions, political pressure that was created by John McCain’s anti-MMA movement had its residual effects; yet, there was always a place where the MMA promoter could do a show, whether it was in a non-commission state or outside the country, like the Kahnawake Indian reservation in Canada. But in those days before everyone was reachable over the internet, there was a different, and as it turned out, more effective way to stop the sport from progressing.
It was here that McCain, the political opportunist extraordinaire, made his end run.
McCAIN GETS HIS POUND OF FLESH
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the entire sport of mixed martial arts, got thwarted by the bureaucracy after all, in a series of developments that illustrates how power and corruption in Washington sometimes work.
John McCain became chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in 1997; almost immediately he began a campaign to circumvent states rights on MMA, or at least minimalize them. The position on the committee gave him legislative oversight over a number of industries (some of which he was taking money from in the form of campaign contributions). One of these industries was cable television, which was in a tenuous position, with chronic allegations of overcharging customers with their exclusive municipal contracts and the insurgence of satellite delivery services.
Even though it was possibly illegal to do so, McCain let it be known to the cable companies, in particular the MSO’s (major systems operators) that if they were to continue to carry mixed martial arts events through pay-per-view channels, they would pay for it down the road in Washington (unless, we assume, they were to make massive donations to his political career, which might not have made economic sense to them).
One by one, the cable companies fell into line, doing exactly what McCain wanted them to do. They came up with frivolous reasons to justify not carrying MMA events – TCI, Cablevision, Time Warner, Viewer’s Choice and the others. This, in effect, cut off the primary revenue source for mixed martial arts promotions.
The companies did not want to admit they were being strong-armed by McCain, so they cited the violence of MMA, this despite fact that they all carried gratuitous extreme violence in their movie offerings, and had carried pay-per-view boxing events where fighters had been killed, not to mention X-rated movies.
Budweiser, a major advertising “partner” with boxing, was also one of the major contributors putting money into McCain’s campaign coffers, enabling him to travel to book tours, and those boxing events where he received free tickets, at someone else’s expense. The Anheuser-Busch company, in fact, was the fifth biggest contributor to McCain’s 1998 Senate campaign, forking over $51,563.
This wasn’t anything unusual. There was an atmosphere where a lot of interested parties shelled out what they could for some favors from McCain. For that ’98 campaign, there were a host of companies among his top fifty donors – including Viacom (which owned Showtime), AT&T (which controlled extensive cable interests) and Time Warner. These companies were also among the top eight contributors to McCain’s “Straight Talk America” political action committee from 1997-2002. Anyone who would lay out that kind of money for access didn’t want the guy upset at them.
There were also other companies with heavy investments in boxing, through their cable interests, who were big donors to either McCain or his fellow committee members, including Disney (which owned ESPN), Fox/News Corp., and Univision.
The die had been cast. Promotions were shut down. They just weren’t worthwhile for their financial backers anymore. Everyone suffered, including the originators of the UFC.
It was going to take a major change to make the business model lucrative again.