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When I think about late Sen. John McCain’s legacy within the realm of combat sports, the first thing that comes to mind, perhaps not surprisingly, is an episode of “The Simpsons.” In it, Marge lobbies to get violence taken off of TV because of its negative influence on children. After she writes a letter urging the network to “please try to tone down the psychotic violence in your otherwise fine programming,” the hyper-violent Itchy & Scratchy Show gets hilariously bowdlerized. Instead of finding new and exciting ways to brutally murder each other, the cartoon cat and mouse gently sway back and forth on rocking chairs drinking lemonade. Of course, to the relief of the children, the violence would soon return, more psychotic and psychedelic than ever.
McCain’s most infamous contribution to MMA discourse was referring to it as “human cockfighting” in 1997. A year prior, he saw a tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and said it was “barbaric” and “not a sport.” He wrote letters to the governors of all 50 states asking them to ban the sport. When McCain became the chairman of the commerce committee, which oversaw the cable TV industry, the major cable operators at the time stopped airing UFC events because they were “too violent for children.” I know what you’re thinking, and, yes, the UFC was only available on pay-per-view at the time, so it was a nonsensical rationale, but reason often has no place when corporations are currying favor from Washington. Then unsanctioned and with minimal rules -- no biting, no eye gouges, no groin strikes -- the UFC was swiftly plummeting to its American death.
We need not rehash the story in detail from there; the reports of MMA’s demise proved premature, and as the UFC began to work more closely with state commissions to develop regulations, it slowly became what it is today. The violence returned, more regulated and organized than ever, attracting more money and higher-quality athletes along the way. Despite McCain’s original disgust with the sport, he eventually softened up to it.
It was fitting that on the day of the Arizona senator’s death, the most violent attraction in the sport -- Arizona native Justin Gaethje -- notched his fastest win since January 2014. It was his most lopsided victory since joining the UFC. He folded a trash-talking James Vick in a minute and a half with a single, crushing right hand. It looked like a religious offering to the gods of gravity, as the 6-foot-3 Vick succumbed to the tugging demands of the mass below him with sudden, dynamic force. It looked like a controlled building demolition, like a giraffe learning to walk. It was stunning, exhilarating and sensationally violent.
It was no wonder that this type of performance happened against Gaethje’s lowest-ranked UFC opponent to date. That’s not really a knock on Vick, considering Gaethje’s three previous opponents. Now that he’s 2-2 in the UFC, with his losses coming against former champ Eddie Alvarez and surging contender Dustin Poirier, it’s worth either reiterating or recalibrating our expectations of “The Highlight.”
Gaethje will likely not win the UFC title, and that’s perfectly fine. His forward-moving, punch-kick-pressure style of fighting does not make for many winnable matchups against the top of the lightweight division, but he will reliably be a marquee action-fighter who will produce “Fight of the Year” candidates -- or, against lesser opponents, “Knockout of the Year” -- virtually every time he fights. His currency is pure, unvarnished violence. In a way, that’s a lot more valuable to the UFC; you can’t have title fights every month, but you need exciting fights as often as possible. It may be better for “The Highlight” to avoid Top-5 opponents for a little while and let the highlights compile against bangers in the 6-15 range. Once the dust settles at the top, Gaethje will be ready to step into a championship bout that will almost certainly be the most violently action-packed title fight ever.
Yet the Arizona son’s all-out violence was not the only fitting homage to McCain’s combat sports legacy. The late senator was also known for being a high-profile supporter of the Ali Act, legislation that sought to empower boxers and cut down on managerial and promoter exploitation of the athletes. Among other things, the Ali Act forced finances to be publicly disclosed -- a lesson in transparency the UFC would be wise to adopt. In general, the Ali Act was seen as pro-boxer in terms of leveling the financial playing field.
After the fight, Gaethje talked about reevaluating his financial deal with the UFC. “The way I put it all on the line, I need all my money upfront,” as opposed to the standard split between show money and win money. This is sensible for all fighters, especially with the UFC’s nebulous and fluid policy when it comes to paying fighters when their opponents drop out at the last minute, but it is particularly sensible for Gaethje.
Gaethje has never been shy about acknowledging the type of fighter he is and the type of career he’ll have, and the dependability of excitement he brings to the table is certainly not commensurate with the uncertainty of winning with such a style. While the UFC certainly benefits from the split-pay model, it is at odds with the type of fights the promotion wants. If you want fighters to put it all on the line, then why would you incentivize a win-at-all-costs mentality? If anything, that won’t make fighters want to take unnecessary risks; it will make them want to take the safe route and ensure a larger paycheck.
This is not a new discussion, but when a fighter brings it up again, it’s worth banging on this drum. This is especially germane with Bruce Buffer’s recent comments that Nate Diaz should be “thanking the UFC and bowing to Dana White” for earning a lot of money -- as if it’s not a mutually beneficial partnership where White and the UFC make significantly more money off the risks and labor of folks like Diaz and Gaethje. Guaranteed paychecks are good for the fighters and the fans.
McCain’s political legacy is complicated, in and out of the fight game. There are legitimate reasons to feel any number of ways about him, and those reasons will surely be exhumed in the coming days. For now, though, Gaethje’s violent performance and vocal support of better financial treatment for himself -- and by extension other fighters -- was a fitting sendoff for perhaps the most significant politician for combat sports.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.