John McCain Breaks Up a Fight

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

State and local politicians joined the senators' crusade. Eventually, by McCain's own estimate, the boxing regulators of 40 states banned extreme fighting. By 1996, profits had plummeted, says Paul Kagan Associates analyst Bill Metti. And UFC sustained a TKO in 1997, when two of the biggest cable distributors--TCI and Time Warner--dropped it.

Players in the cable industry are hesitant to characterize McCain's influence in their arena. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he has tremendous power--theoretically, at least. ("I don't fart without calling McCain," one insider reportedly confided to another.)

Tom Ulmstead, who covers the pay-per-view industry for Multichannel News, was surprised to see events pulled because they were too gory. "It was strange. Everything goes on pay-per-view," he says. But without a policy reversal from the states that have banned UFC, cable operators won't carry the events, Ulmstead says. He estimates that UFC loses $1 million in possible revenue every time an event airs.

To some extent, UFC was a victim of its own hype. The original bouts were marketed with catch phrases like "No-Holds-Barred" and "There Are No Rules" and "The Most Controversial Event of the Decade!" Such excesses provided McCain with easy targets. In the wake of McCain's attacks, UFC's organizers acknowledged the criticism by dimming the hype and establishing a set of rules. Bouts are now timed, and weight classes have been established. Light gloves are now required. There are no groin strikes, no head butting, no blows to the back of the head, no biting, no joint manipulations (meaning, you can't try to break your opponent's fingers). From the start, UFC has required HIV testing and has always had referees and medical personnel standing by.

But the senator persists. And the prohibitions continue. Semaphore has resorted to scouting international sites for its UFC bouts.

Multichannel News reporter Ulmstead, who says he hasn't spoken to McCain's office since the early days of the senator's opposition, says he assumes McCain has changed his stance on UFC.

"Does he realize that there are rules now? Because I think if he takes a closer look at it, I think he'll realize that there are rules now and it may not be as violent as he initially perceived it to be."

David Isaacs, Semaphore's chief operating officer, is fully aware that McCain hasn't changed his mind. Isaacs doesn't get it.

"Look," he says, "we've got Olympic-quality athletes participating and have a show that is distributed via pay-per-view, so that people only receive the show when they specifically request it. Given those two facts, I really don't understand Senator McCain's interest in banning what has proven to be a relatively safe sport."

Like his student, Lyman Markunas, Scottsdale's Walt Sweet, by appearance, wouldn't seem to be an extreme fighter. He's pink-cheeked and puffy, has a Santa twinkle in his eye. His firm handshake, in fact, comes as a surprise--along with his black belts in judo and jujitsu. He earnestly refers to his sport of choice as "submission fighting."

Sweet is obviously trying to undo the sport's bloody image. He carries with him a dog-eared list of rules for submission fighting--the rules that had been adopted for the Celebrity Theatre's January 30 event, which Sweet would have refereed. The three sheets are crisscrossed with yellow highlighter, and in the upper corner of one, Sweet has neatly written his crisp mantra, which sounds like an explication of Nike's "Just Do It" slogan:

Everybody say:

Pain is good.

Injuries are bad.

The idea, in Sweet's brand of extreme fighting, is to force your opponent to submit without injuring him. To that end, Sweet's rules are far more comprehensive than those used in even the kinder, gentler version of UFC. For example, closed-hand strikes to the head, face, neck, groin, spine and kidneys are prohibited.

No head butts.

No strikes using elbows or knees.
No biting, scratching, spitting, hair pulling or eye gouging.

No kicks, punches, finger-thrust strikes, hand edge chops, backhand punches or forearm strikes to the head, chin, neck, groin, spine or kidneys.

No hyperflexion of the neck/spine in a "rapid, cranking" movement.

Any of the above results in an automatic forfeiture.

Cups and mouthpieces are mandatory, as are gloves--of the lightly padded, open-fingered "grappling" variety.

In other words, your great aunt Betty could like this sport. None of this is very sexy, which is why promoters come in and drape barbed wire around the ring and run around shouting, "Anything goes!"

"We made it all macho and hairy-chested," Sweet says, adding that now his job is to educate the public about the sport's safety.

Bill Bachand, owner of the Celebrity Theatre, and Tom Gaffney, one of the show's promoters, say they contacted officials at the Arizona Boxing Commission last November, in an attempt to address any safety concerns early. The commission wasn't concerned, they say they were told.

"We asked the boxing commission, come down and look at the cage," Gaffney says. "Tell us what you'd like padded. Tell us what rules you'd like us to enforce. Tell us what you'd like us to do to comply. We couldn't get answers from them. We couldn't get any of them to come down to even take a look at the cage."

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