Mixed martial arts promoters flex Hill muscle

Cash, lobbyists put smackdown on statehouses

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On the state level, Zuffa successfully fought to get the Illinois General Assembly to sanction MMA in 2007, and at the same time made more than $30,000 in contributions to elected officials, including $7,500 to then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

But soon after the battle was over, Zuffa’s money went elsewhere - since August 2008, reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show that Zuffa and members of their family have not given Illinois lawmakers a penny.

On the national level, Zuffa officials contributed to Mr. McCain’s presidential bid in 2008 and recently padded the coffers of congressional leaders, including Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, and Mr. Reid, a Democrat who is likely the sport’s most powerful political ally, according to records from OpenSecrets.org.

In July, Mr. Reid and Mr. White held a contest in which a fan could sit in the front row with them at UFC 116, an event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena just outside Las Vegas that featured heavyweight champion and former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar. Before the event, Mr. Reid expressed his support in a post on his website.

“I’ve been a fight fan ever since I boxed as a young man, and the UFC’s impressive rise has certainly caught my attention,” he said. “UFC 116 at the MGM Grand will bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to Las Vegas, giving our local economy a real boost at a time when we really need it.”

MMA’s latest battle is in New York, where Zuffa officials are trying to overturn a 13-year-old ban on the sport, and have stepped up their campaign donations to the governor and his possible replacement, and to lobbyists and members of the state Legislature.

Campaign-finance records filed in New York show that about a month after embattled Gov. David A. Paterson received $25,000 from Zuffa, he rolled out a state budget proposal in January that relied in part on raising $2 million from MMA events to help close a $9 billion shortfall. The budget maneuver would have constituted a de facto end to the Empire State’s ban on the sport.

When that plan and other sanctioning proposals died, Zuffa pushed forward, sending $74,600 to Democratic state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s gubernatorial bid, $36,200 to the New York State Democratic Committee and smaller amounts to friendly state lawmakers in Albany.

The Cuomo campaign did not return calls seeking comment on whether he wanted to see MMA sanctioned to operate in the state.

But Mr. Reid has weighed in from his perch, urging New York to welcome the sport and telling a reporter this summer that “I’m going to see if I can talk a little sense to them.”

The whole business doesn’t sit well with one opponent, New York state Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a Democrat who has led the fight against sanctioning MMA fights. He said the campaign money is “a blatant attempt to influence lawmakers.”

Mr. Reilly, who represents an Albany suburb in the state Legislature, also said Mr. Reid’s comments trying to influence the state crossed a line.

“That I find out of bounds,” he said, “especially when you attach that to the money coming to Reid from the UFC and Zuffa.”

At stake is Zuffa’s long-standing desire to tap New York City’s media market, the largest in the world, and to bring the Octagon, the signature cage UFC fights are staged in, to the fabled Madison Square Garden.

For the UFC business team, putting on a show in the Big Apple would be the culmination of a decade-long push to gain mainstream acceptance and a place in the pantheon of professional American sports.

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