John McCain Breaks Up a Fight

The senator says extreme fighting should be banned. You got a problem with that? Eddie Goldman does.

The style is familiar.

Digress, for a moment, and consider McCain's move for campaign-finance reform. The senator takes a reverent position on the side of the gods--skipping the details that his legislation has a rat's chance of passing, and that it would do very little to change the system. By ignoring the facts, he gets lots of media coverage, and actually hosts record-setting campaign fund raisers at which he preaches about campaign-finance reform. What's good for John McCain's coffers is good for John McCain.

Similarly, no one could take issue with a man who's against the notion of people beating each other to a pulp for fun and profit. Again, with this issue, McCain doesn't dally with the details. Never mind that in the years since McCain first struck his anti-extreme-fighting pose, the sport's organizers have scrambled to clean it up. McCain will continue to posture, and continue to make headlines.

Could John McCain be a hypocritical, grandstanding bully? His continuing battle against extreme fighting--which his constituents noticed for the first time only last month--seems to have been proving that theory for years.

Again and again, in interviews, McCain has played loose with the facts. He has vastly exaggerated the extent of the violence associated with extreme fighting, and has refused to acknowledge rule changes and safety precautions that make extreme fighting far less dangerous than it was when he first logged his complaints.

Peculiarly, McCain is no wimp when it comes to other violent sports. He was a boxer in the Navy; he's a follower of professional boxing and, in fact, no stranger to pugilistic violence. McCain was ringside at the 1995 boxing death of Jimmy Garcia; he has seen the ultimate brutality of boxing and, yet, remains a fan. He has sponsored minor legislation to promote boxing safety, requiring such measures as the presence of a physician and other conditions that are already common practice in extreme-fighting bouts.

McCain's position doesn't make sense, says Goldman, who had been trying to figure out the senator's motivations for years. Then he 'net-surfed upon a snippet from a November 1995 Mother Jones article that mentions John McCain's ties--via campaign contributions and his in-laws' business--to Anheuser-Busch, the single biggest corporate sponsor of professional boxing. What if McCain was trying to quash UFC, Goldman wondered, for fear it might one day threaten boxing's market share and thus hurt Anheuser-Busch's interests?

"We've been starting to put the pieces together in the last couple of years," Goldman says, "because the question is: If nobody's been killed in this sport, nobody's been seriously injured, why does McCain get so obsessive about this? Why is it so important to him, as a U.S. senator, to do this kind of stuff?"

Goldman has tried to get answers to his questions. McCain's office has refused Goldman's requests for an interview. Similarly, the senator's press office did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Athletes have been mixing different martial arts in Brazil and Japan for decades, but it wasn't until Robert Meyrowitz created UFC in 1993 that extreme fighting became known in the U.S. UFC is a trademarked name, as is the Octagon, an eight-sided steel arena--designed (a la Conan the Barbarian) by UFC's "creative director" filmmaker John Milius--where the matches take place.

Meyrowitz, whose background is in radio syndication--he created the King Biscuit Flower Hour--owns a company called Semaphore Entertainment Group. It produces programs that are sold to pay-per-view providers; Meyrowitz has the distinction of having brought Ozzy Osbourne into America's living room. UFC was an instant pay-per-view success. That was no small feat. Meyrowitz and others had been trying for years to create a pay-per-view hit. Music concerts weren't clicking in a market dominated by boxing and wrestling; extreme fighting was a natural, albeit brutal, choice.

The only real rule, at first, was no eye gouging. In the first UFC matches--now available on tape at your local video store--it's not unusual to see a contender kick out his opponent's teeth, or beat continuously on his head, closed-fisted. The blood flowed, and so did the money. In 1994, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm, "combat sports"--of which UFC takes the lion's share--grossed $11 million. In 1995, the figure rose to $25 million; combat sports represented almost 10 percent of the entire pay-per-view event market.

On top of that, UFC promoters pushed the no-holds-barred imagery, and snagged themselves millions of dollars in free press. From Esquire to People to Mad, everyone was writing about UFC. The creators knew they'd made it into the public's consciousness when the popular sitcom Friends set up character Monica with a boyfriend who longed to be a UFC participant.

In the real world, people like Lyman Markunas were tuning in and joining up, too. A friend lent Markunas a UFC tape in 1994. "I watched it, I was like, I was made for this sport," Markunas says. Markunas began to train locally.

Around the same time, someone lent John McCain a tape, too. In 1996, McCain and his colleague Colorado Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell wrote to the governors of all 50 states, calling UFC "a brutal and repugnant blood sport . . . that should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the U.S."

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