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Punch Drunk Love

John McCain has made plenty of political enemies in his day, but among the most surprising is Eddie Goldman. The New York resident doesn't fixate on McCain's position on campaign finance, or his religious views, or his support for the Iraq war. What upsets Goldman is the way John McCain treated ultimate fighting.

Yes, ultimate fighting--that no-holds-barred hybrid of boxing, wrestling, and martial arts immortalized in the hit movie Fight Club. Ultimate fighting sprang up in the early 1990s with a flurry of neck chops, spleen blows, and roundhouses to the face. Goldman, a longtime sports commentator, was an early fan and evangelist; McCain was an early and vociferous critic. He condemned the sport as "human cockfighting," leaned on cable companies not to televise it, and sought to ban it nationwide. "It's an abuse of power story!" fumes Goldman. "The vehemence of McCain's position had no rational explanation."

Even less passionate observers agree that McCain was obsessed. A decade ago, Slate editor David Plotz interviewed McCain at his Senate office. McCain loves boxing, and Plotz politely challenged his belief in that sport's moral superiority to ultimate fighting, noting that boxers can be killed and often retire with severe brain damage. "At that point," Plotz recalls, "he said, 'If you can't see the moral distinction, then we have nothing left to talk about,'" and abruptly stalked out.

Plotz had hit a nerve: McCain's beef with ultimate fighting has its roots in a lifelong romance with boxing--and what the sweet science represents. The candidate has been a selfdescribed boxing "fanatic" since he was a scrawny, 127- pound fighter at the Naval Academy in the mid-1950s. As a midshipman, he hid a forbidden twelve-inch black-and-white television in his room for secret viewings of Friday night fights. His boxing background, McCain told Newsweek last year, actually helped him survive punishment as a prisoner of war: "I knew how to take hard blows."

As a politician, McCain's passion for the sport has endured. In 2004, he paid $1,400 for a prime seat next to then-Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid at a marquee Vegas bout between Bernard Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya. Not even the campaign has kept him away; during one swing to Nevada last year, McCain found time to see De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the MGM Grand. And he'll talk reporters' ears off about the sport. Aboard his campaign bus in New Hampshire last year, he held forth on the fate of the 42-year-old Hopkins who was set to battle the young challenger Winky Wright. "I don't think he's going to beat Winky Wright. He's too old," McCain said, veering dangerously off message. (McCain might happily note today that Hopkins pulled off an upset.)

Boxing is a fitting obsession for McCain. Like the 71-year-old senator himself, the sport is a cultural throwback. A civilized way, dating to Ancient Greece, for one man to prove his strength over another, boxing was the great love of McCain's idol, the manly Teddy Roosevelt, who was partially blinded by it. But it also appeals to McCain's impish side--evoking the irascible Rat Pack style of Las Vegas he finds so appealing. (McCain is an unapologetic gambler: One acquaintance of mine tells of shooting craps past midnight with McCain in Vegas several years ago; McCain even loaned the guy's wife $50 to get her started.)

In the Senate, McCain has sought to translate his love of boxing into policy. Initially, he was motivated by the grim lives of journeymen boxers, for whom he battled to win health care and pensions. "John has a real love for the sport, and it was evident," says the famed boxing commentator Bert Sugar, between drags on a cigar. "Of all the pressing problems, boxing wasn't one of them. And, yet, he devoted his time and saw it through."

McCain was especially fixated on the fairness and integrity of the sport, leading him to denounce crooked oversight and push (thus far unsuccessfully) for a federal oversight commission. "When there is a lack of fairness, he fights against it," says Ken Nahigian, a former top McCain aide on the Senate Commerce Committee who coordinated McCain's boxing policy fights. "The boxing bill was sort of a microcosm of his philosophy." Indeed, McCain is often stirred by evidence of unfair play in sports--railing against steroid abuse in baseball and seeking to ban Internet gambling on the grounds that players have no way of knowing whether the games are rigged.

As is his knack, McCain has made some colorful enemies in his crusade to make boxing "a truly honest and legitimate sport." Most notable is the infamous giant-haired promoter Don King. When McCain said at one 1998 hearing that "[c]ertain promoters have become quite skilled in duping boxers into signing long-term contracts that represent nothing more than a sophisticated version of indentured servitude," it was clear that King was among his targets. (A King associate later groused that one McCain reform bill, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, "should have just [been] named ... the Don King Reform Act.") In 2004, King delivered a bizarre high-profile endorsement of George W. Bush: "I'm sure that Mr. King, who's well-known for his philanthropy, has only engaged in the political process for altruistic reasons," McCain cracked to The New Republic's Jason Zengerle at the time. Now that McCain is the GOP nominee, King, who couldn't be reached for comment, has evidently seen the Democratic light and donated the legal maximum to Barack Obama.

In 1997, when a crazed Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a Las Vegas heavyweight boxing match, McCain went ballistic. "I, along with the 1.6 million Americans who watched the fight, was appalled by what took place last weekend," read a press release issued by his office. McCain subsequently opposed Tyson's efforts to regain his boxing license. But his disgust with Tyson's rule-breaking, ear-gnawing fisticuffs was nothing compared to his reaction to ultimate fighting. In 1995, McCain saw his first ultimate fighting video. As he explained to CNN's Larry King: "[S]ome of it is so brutal that it nauseates people; even hardened individuals are repelled by this." McCain quoted with revulsion an ultimate fighter who boasted about pounding an opponent's brain stem and digging at his eye sockets.

Not long after, McCain sent letters to all 50 governors railing against the "brutal and repugnant blood sport ... that should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the U.S." More potently, in early 1997, he became chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the cable industry. A few months later, the president of the National Cable Television Association warned that ultimate fighting broadcasts could damage the cable industry's standing in Washington, and several major cable operators stopped airing the sport. (In recent years, McCain has quieted his objections, citing selfregulation that has cleaned up ultimate fighting.) Goldman offers a vague and sinister conspiracy theory which holds that McCain carried water for Anheuser-Busch, a major boxing sponsor he says felt threatened by the new sport; McCain's wife, Cindy, chairs one of the country's biggest Anheuser-Busch distributors.

Far more likely, ultimate fighting offended McCain's core sensibility: that there is such a thing as a good fight--one that is both clean and fair. Ultimate fighting had blown up the traditional rules and etiquette of boxing. It appeared to McCain lawless and wild and utterly without the supposedly dignified "honor" of an old-school heavyweight fight.

Boxing, in other words, represents McCain's belief in the honorable war, one in which both sides follow a mutually agreed-upon code of organized violence. George Will has even suggested that McCain, as a former POW and torture victim, believed ultimate fighting violated the boundaries of "appropriate manliness." Or, as Goldman puts it, "From just an ideological standpoint, [boxing] is the pure, noble, manly art of fighting. And anything else--fighting on the ground, kicking--you just don't do!"

This also happens to be a nice summary of McCain's attitude toward campaign politics--his stated attitude, anyway. Now, with Barack Obama outmatching him as a presidential candidate, however, McCain's credo will be put to the test: Can he adhere to the ethos of honor and fair play that he so fanatically defends? Or will he succumb to temptation and strike at Obama's political brain stem and eye sockets? Goldman doesn't expect much from his old nemesis: "To me, I think most politicians are hypocritical from start to finish." Whether McCain campaigns more like a boxer, or more like an ultimate fighter, will help determine the truth of that statement.