The Ultimate Fighting Championship , which grew out of seedy tough-man contests to become one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation, has now joined the political mainstream, too.
UFC, owned by Zuffa LLC, officially became a special interest when it retained Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to lobby on Capitol Hill.
The UFC, which started in 1993 with few rules, already knows what it is like to be knocked around on the Hill.
In the mid-1990s, then-Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral Meghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' MORE (R-Ariz.) famously described the competition of mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting” during a panel discussion.
McCain, who is now the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, sought to get the sport banned, and he succeeded in a number of states.
Brownstein lobbyists don’t face any big fights on Capitol Hill. They say their mission is to let lawmakers know how far the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), which combines karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and other forms of martial arts, has come.
“The sport that McCain objected to many years ago is really a sport that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Lawrence Epstein, general counsel for the UFC. In the mid-’90s, mixed martial arts were marketed as a sport with no rules. There were no time limits, rounds, weight divisions or judges.
But Zuffa now says it has turned MMA into a highly regulated sport that emphasizes the safety of fighters. Zuffa purchased the UFC in 2001.
The UFC is now sanctioned in 32 states and grossed $190 million last year. It took in more pay-per-view receipts than boxing.
“UFC is at the point where they are one of the fastest-growing sports leagues, and we want to make sure members of Congress are aware of the changes MMA has undergone,” said Makan Delrahim, a former top Justice Department official who is now a lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt.
The work is mostly educational, but Brownstein is also keeping an eye on the Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2007, introduced by McCain last year.
The boxing bill would establish a U.S. Boxing Commission with the Commerce Department to oversee the sport. Boxing is currently regulated by state and tribal boxing commissions.
The U.S. commission would be charged with protecting the safety and interests of boxers and would regulate boxing contracts, according to a Congressional Budget Office summary.
Critics argue the governmental boxing authority would add unnecessary regulations.
Delrahim said UFC is concerned it could be added to the bill.
“Sometimes those types of laws can become vehicles for other things, affecting other sports,” Delrahim said.
“Boxing has a whole different story and certain laws may have been appropriate, but it is a whole different operation for MMA; it wouldn’t make sense to apply the same rules.”
In 1997, the UFC faced being regulated out of business. When McCain took over the Commerce Committee, he sought to pressure the cable networks to drop UFC from their programming. Time Warner , TCI, Viewers Choice and a number of other networks refused to air UFC on pay-per-view, saying that MMA was too violent for children.
That was a big hit to the UFC, 35 percent of whose profits came from pay-per-view broadcasts.
“I said at that time that the state of Nevada could never regulate a sport that had no rules; that’s not a sport,” said Marc Ratner, former director of the Nevada Athletic Commission.
Ratner, who participated in the panel with McCain, is now a UFC executive. “The sport in the mid- to late 1990s was advertised as no holds barred, no rules, anything goes.”
But now, Ratner says, “There is absolutely no reason that the sport should not be regulated along with the sport of boxing.”
Ratner said Zuffa formulated unified rules of mixed martial arts, and set regulations that established weight classes, time limits and number of rounds.
“In the past Sen. McCain had concerns with MMA,” said Robert Fischer, spokesman for McCain. “The issue, though, hasn’t come up legislative-wise in the last couple of years, so he has not looked at it since.”
MMA proponents like to point to a five-year study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that concluded the rate of injury in mixed martial arts was comparable to that of other combat sports. The risk for brain injury was actually lower in MMA than in boxing.
“If McCain’s motivation for fighting to ban the sport was to change the rules and regulations of MMA, then that’s what we’ve done,” said Epstein. “We have been actively pursuing regulation through the U.S., and we believe it is prudent to have representation in Washington in case any issues arise at the federal level.”