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.
But Goldman's theory meshes with much that Arizonans already know about their senator, about his style and about his finances. And that invites closer inspection.
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."
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:
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."
Bachand says he spent $4,000 on the padded, rubber-coated, eight-foot-tall chain-link fence wrapped around a boxing ring. He was convinced of the event's safety.
"I'm not into legislating morality, like some other people may be," Bachand says, "and I saw a list of rules of regulations from the promoters that seemed to be pretty safety-conscious."
Then, just 10 days before the event, John McCain dropped a line to his friend Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, expressing his concern that the boxing commission may not have jurisdiction over this "repugnant" event because contestants were not paid.
"Unlike boxing or traditional martial arts contests," McCain wrote, "unrestricted or ultimate fighting competitions are not legitimate sporting contests. They pose a great risk of serious injury to the contestants, and present excessive brutality to the public as entertainment."
On the day he canceled the event, Bachand announced he did not want to take on the U.S. Senate. A week later, he had mellowed.
Bachand now tells New Times it was safety concerns that caused him to cancel the event. He was worried that the boxing commission or law enforcement authorities might try to shut down the fight in the middle of the show.
"My decision was made based on the fact that if they shut it down, I would have 2,600 beer-drinking, angry people in my venue, and it could have gotten very ugly and somebody could have gotten hurt. I wasn't as concerned for the participants as I was for the general public," Bachand says, adding that his decision cost him as much as $50,000.
Bachand and Gaffney say they never heard from McCain, or anyone in his office, regarding the safety precautions taken for the event. The men have no explanation as to why McCain intervened via a letter to Romley in their business venture.
"I'd like to know why," Gaffney says. "[McCain] has yet to give us answers."
Three days after the canceled Phoenix cage fight, Eddie Goldman muses via e-mail:
It is a classic case of abuse of power. It is about a brooding, obsessed Senator interfering in a local affair, somehow scaring off a local theater owner into canceling a sold-out show a few hours before the doors were to have opened, and issuing defamatory statements about a sport he knows next to nothing about.
It is about a Senator with a huge stake and fortune in Anheuser-Busch, the prime commercial sponsor of boxing, using his bully pulpit of the U.S. Senate to condemn--without one single fact, without even the pretense of an investigation--an entire genre of sports as posing "a great risk of serious injury to the contestants." Oh yes, these sports just HAPPEN to be the main competition to boxing on pay-per-view.
Eddie Goldman may have been shocked, but Arizonans remember John McCain's ties to Anheuser-Busch.
On his 1996 financial-disclosure form, McCain acknowledges owning between $1 million and $5 million in Anheuser-Busch Company stock, along with significant interests in Hensley and Company, his father-in-law's Anheuser-Busch distributorship.
His wife Cindy McCain is listed as an employee of Hensley and Company, at an annual salary listed mysteriously as "more than $1,000"; she also has a company car.
Anheuser-Busch and Hensley and Company have given generously to McCain's campaigns.
For example, Anheuser-Busch's political action committee donated $2,000 to McCain's initial Senate campaign in 1986, and another $2,000 in 1992.
During the 1995-96 reporting period--a nonelection year for McCain--Anheuser-Busch's PAC and individual employees contributed a total of $4,000 to McCain's campaign. Hensley and Company contributed $7,200.
So far, this election season, Anheuser-Busch's PAC has donated $1,000 to the McCain reelection effort.
It's no secret that Anheuser-Busch is a huge corporate sponsor of boxing. Just go to the Budweiser Web site and click on "boxing":
Budweiser, the King of Beers, is the long-time king of corporate boxing sponsorships, bringing fans the greatest bouts in history.
. . . Not limited to the high-profile championship bouts, Budweiser also sponsors pro boxing on the major sports networks and national televised cards on premium cable and pay-per-view television.
. . . Whether it's professional, amateur or Olympic boxing, Budweiser is almost always part of the action. Budweiser has gone from being involved in the sport of boxing to being a part of the bouts themselves. Budweiser's presence is now synonymous with boxing.
Okay, okay, we get it.
Goldman emphasizes how important that presence is to the brewer. "Beer is sold as an image," he says. "They spend a fortune to create the image of these things as being tough, being cool, being associated with their favorite athletes, and if I'm drinking a Budweiser, I'm like one of the tough guys."
Anheuser-Busch did not return calls seeking comment.
Has McCain ever let his personal business interests influence his official actions before? Could be. In 1992, the McCains owned more than $1 million worth of stock in Hensley and Company. At the same time, the Senate Commerce Committee, on which McCain sat, steadfastly refused to consider beverage-container-recycling legislation--legislation strongly opposed and lobbied against by the beverage industry, including Anheuser-Busch.
Lyman Markunas doesn't like boxing. He plants his feet on the floor and points to a spot a foot away. "You stand there. I stand here. We beat on each other."
In Markunas' eyes, there's no point. He calls himself a "reality fighter." That doesn't mean he's out on the street with knives and guns, but simply that he likes to get down on the ground and roll around with his opponent--grappling, they call it. He's competed in his sport, but never in front of a crowd of thousands. The adrenaline rush would have been incredible, he supposes, still down in the dumps almost a week later.
The show's organizers are miffed, too.
Promoter Tom Gaffney says he thinks McCain presumed to speak for the people. But, he says, "You don't sell out a show of 2,600 people as fast as we did . . . if people don't want the event."
As for McCain's point that extreme fighting is "repugnant," Gaffney jabs, "That's his opinion, what's repulsive. I may think pornography's repulsive, but other people still want to see it, and they see it. That's censorship. I don't care about what McCain thinks. I don't care about what anybody thinks. I care about what I think. If it's legal, I can do it."
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Whether extreme fighting remains legal in Arizona remains to be seen. The state boxing commission has already canceled a professional extreme-fighting event scheduled for February 15 at Phoenix Civic Plaza, but no definitive statement regarding the sport's future in the state has been made.
In the meantime, Lyman Markunas will continue to practice. And Walt Sweet will continue to coach. "It's not a malicious thing," Sweet says during Markunas' Wednesday-evening training session, raising his voice to be heard over the sounds of 300 pounds of flesh smashing into a mat, as Markunas slams his partner, Jason Wright, to the ground. "It's just that they love it so much."
The bottom line, Sweet says, is that last month's cage fight got too much publicity. It was better before people in Phoenix knew that Mark Kerr and Kevin Jackson--two UFC champions--live in the Valley, before people knew Arizona has, in fact, become a haven for extreme fighting. Sweet drops his voice.
"By the way," he says, "we've been doing this in Arizona for the last three years."