Mixed martial arts is the most up-and-coming professional sport in the world. No other sport is growing as fast on a global scale, and it is much more than just a fad.
These are strange statements, considering that pankration, the original MMA, is a sport that was first introduced by the Ancient Greeks in the mid-600’s BC, and has been practiced on some level ever since. A global phenomenon, MMA is the only sport other than soccer to garner this type of worldwide support.
However, for several reasons, MMA was not entirely well received in the United States when it first began to make headlines. So much so, that the sport has, at some point or another, been a political topic over the last nineteen years. In fact, in New York and Connecticut, its legality is currently a hotly contested political topic that has garnered lawsuits over the last year surrounding Constitutional rights.
So, what’s the problem?
The beginning of MMA as a professional sport in the United States goes back to 1993 with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. The organization didn’t have weight classes or much in the way of safety regulations. Throughout the first seven years of what later became known simply as the UFC, the organization faced several legal obstacles in multiple states, because some state athletic commissions (SAC’s) felt there weren’t enough rules and safety precautions governing the sport. In fact, there wasn’t much of a sport to define, and many felt it was a glorified thug-fest in which some fighters had a skill set literally defined as “street fighting.”
By 2000, rules had started to form within some of the promotions. These rules included mandatory use of protective gloves and prohibition of eye and groin strikes and kicking a downed opponent in the head. The rules began to “tighten up” the sport and make it more palatable to some SAC’s. That year, a couple other things began to change the MMA landscape.
In the spring of 2000, the California State Athletic Commission voted in some rules that later defined the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. A year later, the rules were finalized and accepted by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, which set the standard across the country.
After eight years of legislation and adoption of the rules throughout the states, the Association of Boxing Commissions adopted the Unified Rules in July 2009. However, New York and Connecticut are still holding out on sanctioning professional MMA.
MMA was first banned in New York under the administration of Governor George Pataki in 1997. When Pataki banned MMA, the sport was still young and several states had major issues with it. A lot has changed since then. Since the Unified Rules were created, 48 states have either sanctioned MMA, or at least allowed it, due to the lack of a SAC. But, New York and neighboring Connecticut still won’t allow the sport on a professional level. So that brings the question, is this a partisan issue?
The most famous slam on MMA came at the hands of Republican Senator John McCain when he referred to MMA as “human cockfighting.” Pataki and McCain are two very public examples of Republicans that did not approve of MMA as a professional sport. So, is it a Republican view? Are the Republicans anti-MMA?
In late 2011, Zuffa LLC, parent company of UFC, filed a lawsuit against the State of New York to have Pataki’s ban lifted. A bill made it through the New York State Senate Republicans, who voted it forward to the State Assembly to lift the ban. It turns out that there are some friends of MMA in the Republican Party that really want the sport to be legalized in New York.
However, MMA was dealt a huge blow when the Democrat-led Assembly made the decision to keep the vote off the floor, so the ban will remain in place for 2012. This is the third year in a row that the New York State Assembly blocked the vote, not even giving the sport a fair shake.
Theories exist that some unions are in cahoots to keep the sport illegal in New York to economically hurt the Fertitta brothers, majority owners of Zuffa, because of their use of non-union employees in their casino chain. While this may or may not be true, this is one possible political explanation. Especially since Democrats are blocking the vote, and that party traditionally sides with unions.
Regardless of why the ban still exists, this has become a big issue in New York, because several political leaders want the ban lifted for the positive economic impact the sport will have on the state. Connecticut is in the same boat with no plans to legalize MMA in the near future.
Does this mean that the Democratic Party is against the sport?
Again, not exactly.
On Aug. 18, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, actually competed in his first amateur MMA fight as a light heavyweight and won decisively by TKO. He has since retired from competition, but wanted to compete one time, out of love for the sport and the training he puts into it.
Back on the Republican side, McCain has come around a bit. In a NPR interview in 2007, he essentially stated that he is now at least understanding of the fact the sport exists and no longer views it in his original opinion. He still isn’t very fond of MMA, but at least he acknowledges that it has evolved and is much more respectable today.
While Ross Miller is an example of a politician hopping in the ring, what about the fighters who have hopped into the political arena?
Chris Lytle, a firefighter and former professional boxer, retired from MMA after a 12-year professional career in August 2011. Lytle was a 2012 candidate for the Indiana State Senate in District 28. He ran for the Republican nomination, but came in second with 30 percent of the vote. Lytle holds a degree in Sports Management from Indiana University, and is a family man who is married and has four children. Lytle is a typical Midwestern American with Midwestern values, and is hardly the only MMA fighter that has attempted a run at politics.
Retired fighter and current professional MMA coach Matt Lindland made a run at the Oregon House of Representatives in 2008. He won the Republican nomination and made the general election ticket, but his Democratic opponent defeated him. Lindland earned a respectable 41 percent of the vote that year, a great accomplishment. Prior to all of this, the native Oregonian went to the University of Nebraska on a wrestling scholarship, where he won a Big Eight conference title. He also represented the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling and won a Pan American gold medal, a silver medal at the World Championships, and a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Lindland holds several other gold and silver medals in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling.
A fellow Oregonian and possibly the most polarizing professional fighter ever, Chael Sonnen is one of the highest-ranked middleweights in the world. In 2010, he threw his hat in the ring for the Oregon House of Representatives as a Republican, a run that he had to pull out of due to legal issues involving money laundering charges, which he was convicted of about six months later. While Sonnen does not exactly carry the squeaky clean image that Lytle does, he is a former NCAA All-American wrestler who holds a degree in Sociology from the University of Oregon.
The issue of MMA legalization in New York and Connecticut should really be a non-issue. It’s a widely regulated sport in almost every state with a SAC, including a few without. Fox Sports would not have picked up a seven-year, $700 million deal with UFC last year if the sport was some sort of unregulated back-alley brawl.
Regardless of political affiliations, views on MMA vary widely, as the sport has not necessarily garnered support or disapproval from one party or another. Views can vary widely within political parties, and, just like any other sport, it is a non-partisan issue.
Hopefully, New York and Connecticut will come around and lift their bans on the fastest growing professional sport in the world.
Photo: Jacob Volkmann (top) battles Efrain Escudero (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)