THE INFLUENCE GAME: Ultimate Fighting ducks punch
By FREDERIC J. FROMMER
February 4, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) — Ultimate Fighting Championship has come to Washington to engage in the city's ultimate sport: lobbying.
The biggest name in mixed martial arts, UFC is a multimillion-dollar business that fills arenas, broadcasts events on pay-per-view and has deals with cable networks like Spike TV. The sport, which combines jiujitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, has put off some critics with its ferocity, including such tactics as kicks to the head.
The sport's owners are concerned that it could come under federal regulation by a proposed new commission to regulate boxing that two senior lawmakers are pushing. To help head that off, the Las Vegas-based UFC spent $240,000 last year lobbying Congress.
Its biggest task, said lobbyist Makan Delrahim, is to convince Congress that the sport has cleaned up its act since the 1990s, when it drew the opposition of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He once referred to it as "human cockfighting" and called for it to be banned.
"Back then, it was no holds barred, marketed as two men walk in, one man walks out," said Delrahim, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration.
Now, he said, it's a mainstream sport that is sanctioned and regulated by athletic commissions in 37 states. Delrahim said his clients don't care whether boxing is regulated, as long as their sport isn't included.
The UFC is making a similar argument in New York, as it tries to get that state to overturn a ban on mixed martial arts.
McCain, who is sponsoring the boxing legislation in the Senate, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said the bill would "better protect professional boxing from the fraud, corruption and ineffective regulation that have plagued the sport for far too many years and that have devastated physically and financially many of our nation's professional boxers."
The bill's House sponsor is Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who often spars in the boxing ring. He said there was no intent to cover mixed martial arts when the bill was drafted, and he didn't think the legislation would apply to it.
"It took me awhile to realize just how popular Ultimate Fighting is," King said. "I'm not crazy about it, either. I may just be too old-fashioned." But he said he'd prefer to keep the bill focused on boxing, because adding mixed martial arts might complicate chances for passage.
The proposed legislation would establish a U.S. Boxing Commission under the Commerce Department, charged with protecting the health, safety and general interests of boxers. The commission would oversee all professional boxing matches and license boxers, promoters, managers and sanctioning organizations.
McCain and King have pushed the legislation for years and came close to success in 2004, when it passed the Senate but not the House.
King said one obstacle was the opposition of former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was House majority leader at the time. "He didn't get along with John McCain," King said.
In 2005, the Justice Department sent a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, expressing "serious constitutional objections to several provisions of the bill," such as one that would limit the president's authority to remove members of the boxing commission. That letter was signed by William Moschella, an assistant attorney general; Moschella has since left the government and is now part of UFC's lobbying team.
The new administration of President Barack Obama has yet to take a position on the bill.
Congress has taken steps in the past to help boxers. In 1996, it established minimum health and safety standards for professional boxing, which were expanded by the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000. In 2004, Ali testified in favor of McCain's bill; his testimony was read by his wife, Lonnie Ali, because Ali suffers from Parkinson's disease.
King said the legislation is needed to protect boxers.
"Not just protection in the ring — they get abused by promoters," he said. "They can get abused going from state to state, getting brain damage. So we have to have coordinated rules. There has to be national standards set. There should be the ability to penalize athletic commissioners that don't comply."
The boxing industry is fighting back. "Our position is that the federal government, especially in times like we're having right now with a trillion-dollar deficit, doesn't need to create a new federal agency to regulate a sport," said Noah Reandeau, who lobbies against the bill on behalf of both the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Federation. He said the IBF has taken a leading role to establish uniform standards in the states.
King wasn't buying that. "I've been a boxing fan for almost 60 years," he said. "Those federations are always promising to do it next week. I'm still waiting."