Historic MMA Rivalries, part 5: Politicians vs MMA

Sen. John McCain

Mixed martial arts has and continues to see countless rivalries make their mark in the sport’s history books. While MMA’s origins can be traced across the corners of the globe, one rivalry nearly eradicated the sport from the United States.

Politicians rallied against the sport since the early days of its inception back in the 1990’s. The most recognized to do so would be Senator John McCain.

McCain’s infamous 1996 “human cock fighting” analogy has never faded away in the minds of fans and pundits and neither has his lengthy history with the sport. However, McCain’s interest had been piqued by the protests of another politician.

Calvin McCard, a local San Juan politician, opposed the idea of holding UFC 8 in Puerto Rico. He became the first notable politician to speak out against the sport of MMA and protested the event.

McCain, an avid boxing fan, took notice of the sport after watching a tape and did not like what he saw. In turn, he became the torch bearer for politicians desiring to ban the sport of MMA.

McCain aided McCard’s cause by sending out letters in order to prevent UFC from holding an event in Puerto Rico as well as to all 50 state governors, in hopes to ban the sport in the U.S. completely. While his efforts to stop UFC 8 failed, Governor George Pataki supported the Arizona Senator and banned the sport in the state of New York.

McCain and his allies would continue their battle against the sport, attempting to cut one of the primary resources: Pay-Per-View. Along with TCI (a former pay-per-view provider) owner, Neil Henry, John McCain convinced many of the pay-per-view providers to drop UFC and other MMA programming from its schedule.

McCain sat on the FCC commission and in 1997 became Chairman of the Commerce Commission, which oversaw communications in the United States, among other issues. After TCI, Time Warner, Cablevision and other PPV providers dropped MMA the audience numbers plummeted.

The audience the UFC had been able to reach through potential PPV subscribers in the 90’s peaked at 35 million viewers. In 1999 the number of subscribers depleted to seven and a half million potential viewers. The amount of buys diminished from 300,000 to 15,000.

With the majority of PPV revenue ripped away, the sport endured a “dark period.” From the late 90’s through the millennium, MMA went underground and survived through the internet, tape-trading and the few satellite and cable companies with PPV providers carrying MMA.

MMA had been black-balled by politicians and regulatory bodies because of its rules or lack thereof. In order to get into the good graces of the athletic commissions and PPV providers, the sport needed to go through some changes. First and foremost: new rules.

Former New Jersey State Athletic Control Board Commissioner, Larry Hazzard, Sr. led the charge for the creation of a new set of rules. A major turn in direction occurred  with the adaptation of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

Larry Hazzard, Sr.
Larry Hazzard, Sr.

The SACB had began sanctioning MMA (determined by rules submitted by the promotion) in 2000, prior to the completion of the unified rules.

Hazzard worked with the California State Athletic Commission in the drafting of the Unified Rules. California began drawing up rules based on criteria from Quebec. However, due to budget problems the execution of the rules in California would not occur for a few years.

In a meeting in Trenton, NJ on April 3rd, 2001; the unified rules were agreed upon by the SACB. The Nevada State Athletic Commission adopted the rules on July 23rd later that year. The unified rules brought new life to MMA, athletic commissions and  PPV providers slowly made their way back into the fold.

As of today, the sport has been sanctioned in 37 of the 45 states that hold athletic commissions, with more states to follow suit. Since becoming the UFC’s Vice President in May of 2006, former NSAC Executive Director, Marc Ratner has also been an advocate of working with commissions to get sanctioning for the sport.

New York seems to be one of the next sates to sanction the sport, after banning it eleven years ago. However, Assemblyman Bob Reilly has lobbied against “ultimate fighting” being sanctioned in New York, dubbing it “brutal and savage.”

For every Larry Hazzard and Marc Ratner, there will be a Bob Reilly or John McCain. Reilly’s recent statements show no matter how many strides the sport makes, politicians may never be satisfied. That being said, don’t expect members of Capitol Hill to be hovering over the sport with a shovel anytime soon.

-Matt De La Rosa

(Editor’s Note: Historic MMA Rivalries is a five-part series written by PRO MMA – http://promma.info staff writer and host of THE INFO, Matt De La Rosa. To read parts 1-4 of the series go HERE.)

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