John McCain Breaks Up a Fight

Senator John McCain likes to play on the national stage; that's why many of his constituents were startled January 30 to find him taking off after a local entertainment event. An upcoming match in a blood sport called cage fighting, he declared in a letter to his pal Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, was "repugnant." Romley wasted no time making sure the owner of the Celebrity Theatre--where the event was to take place--comprehended the senator's sentiments. The next week cage fighting was front-page news here, three days out of four. Days before the event, the state attorney general granted the Arizona Boxing Commission authority to determine whether the event should go on, but the commission chose not to act. It didn't matter. Celebrity Theatre owner Bill Bachand canceled the sold-out show hours before the bell, explaining to the Arizona Republic, "I'm not going to take on the U.S. Senate."

That left 2,600 ticketholders (who will get their money back) and 24 would-be fighters in the grip of profound disappointment, McCain constituents all.

One of the fighters, Lyman Markunas, 29, a brown-eyed chef at Wild Oats grocery, looks more like your yoga instructor than a guy who could beat the shit out of you. His cage nickname is "Doomsday," and he was scheduled as an alternate in last month's cage fight, a copycat of the popular Ultimate Fighting Championships shown in millions of homes via pay-per-view. UFC is a trademarked name, but it's come to describe the entire fighting style, also known as "shoot-fighting," "submission fighting" and "extreme fighting." In Portuguese, it's called "vale tudo," which means "anything goes." For simplicity's sake here, let's call it "extreme fighting." All of the versions incorporate judo, jujitsu, tae kwon do, karate, kickboxing, boxing and wrestling into a style that's an approximation of street fighting by trained martial artists in a ring--or a cage, as the plastic-coated, chain-linked, barbed-wire-decorated, metal contraption Markunas was to fight in is called.

"I am kind of disgusted, because of all the training I do," says Markunas, who studies boxing and judo. He wants a chance to put it to the test. He and his trainer Walt Sweet, coach of the Scottsdale Judo and Jujitsu Club, were taken by surprise. Until last month, they, like most other Arizonans, didn't know that John McCain was opposed to extreme fighting.

Eddie Goldman wasn't surprised at all.

Go online to the address www.tapout.com, and you'll find out who Eddie Goldman is; you'll also find Goldman's informal history of Senator John McCain's crusade against extreme fighting.

Goldman, a sports journalist and extreme-fighting evangelist, has been tracking the senator's successful attempts to snuff out this sport for two years. Goldman sounds like Rocky Balboa and writes much better than he sounds. He recently became editor of a small extreme-fighting publication; now he has a pulpit.

The guy is hardly making ends meet. He has no financial interest in the bouts. Nor is he even proficient in the sport. But, as they say in more delicate forums, you've got to follow your bliss, and Goldman's bliss is extreme fighting. He views himself more as an activist than a journalist, which is reflected in his magazine and Web site.

A quick news database search confirms that for years now, John McCain has railed against extreme fighting, regularly calling for the sport's abolition with appreciable success. McCain labels the sport human cockfighting, and he's taken out after it in his trademark bullheaded fashion. At McCain's urging, many states have banned it.

Extreme fighting lacks some of the gentility of, say, professional wrestling. But why does McCain care so much about a sport that, arguably, isn't much bloodier than hockey or football or McCain's personal sport of choice, boxing?

What Eddie Goldman knows about John McCain fits onto about two typewritten sheets of paper. But that's enough to impel him to go after McCain the way McCain has gone after extreme fighting. Goldman is angry, for sure, that his favorite sport is under siege, but he's angrier still because he believes McCain isn't acting in good faith.

In Goldman's eyes, extreme fighting is being harassed. And he says the story behind the harassment is rooted in McCain's self-interest. It's about a conspiracy involving Senator McCain, professional boxing and Anheuser-Busch, the brewing company.

Here's how Goldman's theory works: McCain opposes extreme fighting because it threatens the boxing industry's hold on the pay-per-view TV audience; boxing's largest corporate sponsor is Anheuser-Busch, whose second largest wholesaler in the country is owned by Jim Hensley, the father-in-law of Senator John McCain. Theoretically, says Goldman, what's good for boxing is good for McCain.

Goldman's railings against McCain look convincing on his Web site, which gets about 6,000 hits a day. But scores of interviews with extreme-fighting promoters, fighters and fans, pay-per-view executives, analysts and observers reveal that Goldman, as most conspiracy theorists, stands alone in his contentions. While many interviewed admitted they thought McCain's interest was illogical, few had stopped to think about it much.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.