How John McCain Grew to Tolerate MMA, the Sport he Likened to “Human Cockfighting”

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26:  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) speaks at a press conference to show support of  professional fighters study at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health on April 26, 2016 in the Russell Senate Building in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Spike TV)
John McCain speaks at a press conference to show support for the Cleveland Clinic’s professional fighters study on April 26, 2016. Paul Morigi/Getty Images

In 1996, John McCain called mixed martial arts “human cockfighting.” It was a good jab (never mind the fact that Arizona, the state McCain represented in Congress for over three decades, didn’t officially ban cockfighting until 1998). The term stuck. Even today, with MMA a popular and relatively main-stream form of entertainment, you’ll occasionally hear its critics use his “cockfighting” line. McCain, who died Saturday at the age of 81, may have wanted to destroy the sport in the 1990s, but he will be remembered by some as the man who helped save it.

McCain was not opposed to combat sports in general. He was a high school wrestler and an amateur boxer at the Naval Academy in the 1950s. McCain regularly attended boxing matches throughout his life and often sat ringside. But when he came across an Ultimate Fighting Championship tape in 1996, he was horrified. It looked nothing like his beloved pugilism. There were choke-holds and kicks, and fighters were permitted to pummel opponents on the ground. “To hit a man when he was down was un-American,” McCain declared.

McCain sent letters to every governor in the country and asked them to ban the “barbaric” enterprise (which he said was “not a sport”). David Plotz wrote about McCain’s war against the UFC for Slate in 1999, and he described the senator’s effective campaign:

Where McCain led, a prudish nation followed. George Will opined against UFC. The American Medical Association recommended a ban. New York state outlawed ultimate fighting, as did other states. The Nevada Athletic Commission refused to sanction UFC bouts, barring the UFC from the lucrative casino market … Lawsuits blocked or delayed UFC events all over the country, forcing the promoters to spend millions in legal fees.

When McCain became chairman of the commerce committee in 1997, he oversaw the cable industry. Looking to maintain influence in Washington, major cable operators shunned the UFC and hamstrung the company’s ability to make money via pay-per-view events. According to Plotz, “the UFC’s ‘addressable audience’—the potential number of PPV subscribers—shrank from 35 million at its peak to 7.5 million [in 1999].” MMA existed in America almost exclusively under the UFC banner, and the sport was down for the count.

It was undoubtedly rich that an avid boxing fan would accuse another sport of being overly dangerous, but this was more or less ignored at the time. In 1995, a year before he began his crusade against the UFC, McCain sat ringside at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and watched Colombian boxer Jimmy Garcia get pummeled through 11 rounds. Garcia was knocked out and stretchered to a hospital, and he died from his injuries 13 days later. When Plotz interviewed McCain in 1999, the senator cut their meeting short after Plotz asked him to explain the moral distinction between the two sports.

“If you can’t see the moral distinction,” McCain said, “then we have nothing to talk about!”

Still, the UFC of the 1990s was much different than today’s telegenic versions of MMA. There were few rules and no weight classes. Mismatched fights often came to unnecessarily gruesome conclusions. It was ugly, and whether it deserved to be called “human cockfighting” depended wholly on your opinions of cockfighting.

While McCain set out to destroy the UFC and MMA, he ironically wound up helping the sport. The bad press and persistent legal battles forced the UFC to work with state athletic commissions. It was a slow march towards legitimization, but the end result was a more modern and accepted iteration of what was once an amateurish celebration of bloody combat. Die-hards will insist that the sport was never overly dangerous to begin with, but few will argue that it hasn’t become more watchable.

McCain’s role in all this has not been forgotten. Dana White became UFC president in 2001 and oversaw the sport’s rebound and precipitous rise in America, but he’s eager to give credit to the Arizona senator. “I consider John McCain the guy who started the UFC,” White told Sports Illustrated in 2008. “If it wasn’t for McCain I wouldn’t be here right now.”

In 2014, then-UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta echoed White’s thoughts. “Without [McCain] doing what he did back in the ’90s to force regulation, this sport would be dead. It wouldn’t exist. Honestly, for all the negatives he caused, he actually allowed the sport to foster and grow.”

As MMA evolved, so did McCain’s opinions of it. “They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting any more,” he said in 2007. Faint praise, perhaps, but it was a start. In 2014, a reporter for Inside MMA asked McCain if he would have tried mixed martial arts had it been around during his youth. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” answered McCain.