I cursed out loud during the late-night airing of an interview with UFC president Dana White on local sports station SNY in May of 2011. With a Cheshire Cat grin, the UFC front man brought an official start to a publicity war between union supporters and the sport of mixed martial arts that, at the time, I believed was completely avoidable.
While many interviews and press conferences would see him repeat the sentiment for over a year after, the SNY interview was the first time that White placed direct and sole blame for MMA not yet being sanctioned in New York on “the unions.”
The Las Vegas Local 226 Culinary Union and its parent group, Unite Here, have had a very public and hostile relationship with the Fertitta family, who are the majority owners of the UFC and of Station Casinos in Las Vegas. Exactly how this relationship has affected the process of lifting New York’s ban on mixed martial arts is filled with a lot of myth and misdirection. How unions both lobby and interact with one another is complicated and a mystery to the general public. Further, since union members almost never release statements as individuals, it’s easy for “the unions” to be painted as a monolithic force for evil. It’s also easy for individual union members to wash their hands of any responsibility for resisting MMA in New York. What actually happened lies somewhere in the middle.
The first bout between MMA sanctioning and Unite Here had ended in 2008. The original bill to reinstate the state sanctioning of mixed martial arts after the 1997 ban of the sport had been introduced into the State Senate and Assembly that year. UFC parent company Zuffa had been lobbying hard in New York. At the same time, the Fertittas had hit a particularly rough patch in the ongoing battle with the Local 226. In response, Unite Here did make some significant campaign contributions to New York politicians who opposed MMA.
However, between 2006 and 2008, Unite Here’s campaign contributions had more or less completely dried up. A former sponsor of the MMA bill in the Assembly, Steve Englebright, blamed the initial failure of the bill in 2008 on the fact that no one in the legislature understood exactly what MMA was. The bill was defeated unceremoniously without lobbying in either direction having a serious effect.
Unite Here would continue to duke it out with the Fertittas for years. But the proxy war over New York MMA pretty much disappeared between 2008 and 2011.
The war started to heat up again in April of 2011. As it had twice before, the MMA bill was set to pass through the State Senate with relative ease. However, it lacked key supporters in the State Assembly. The failure to win over Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would prove to be the single most important stopping point for the MMA bill in both 2011 and 2012. This year, Silver has made his first vaguely positive comments about MMA, telling the New York Post that the sport’s sanctioning was inevitable. Whether that translates into support in the coming year remains to be seen.
With the battle going on in the Assembly looking grim in April 2011, a representative of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council named Josh Gold sent a memo to the State Senate, which was already more or less in the bag for MMA, badmouthing the UFC’s business practices.
The New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council is not a member of Unite Here, which Gold immediately asserted when I interviewed him about the memo. When I asked Gold about why the memo was sent to the Senate, which was already decidedly for MMA, rather than to the Assembly, where there was still an uphill fight going on, he was hesitant to give a direct, on-the-record answer.
However, another source from within the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the organization did not want to waste resources directly opposing the whole sport of MMA, which they had no problem with. But, due to the conflict between the Fertittas and the Local 226, sympathetic unions would be taking every opportunity to make any Fertitta-owned business, including the UFC, look bad in the public eye.
Off the record and anonymous sources saying they had no problem with MMA but would remain silent and complacent in the image that unions were all anti-MMA would become a theme.
To make sure my anonymous source wasn’t just blowing smoke, I also checked with Keith L. T. Wright, chair of the Assembly Labor Committee. Wright confirmed that no member of Unite Here, or any union group, approached him with concerns regarding MMA or the UFC.
The Senate memo became public knowledge when MMAFighting.com reporter Ariel Helwani posted a copy on May 11 of 2011. The copy of the memo he posted was complete except for the header, which revealed that it was Gold and not a Unite Here representative that wrote it.
At the time, Helwani was at the UFC Summit in Las Vegas rather than at his residence in New York. The SNY interview that officially kicked off the “UFC versus Unions” rematch came very shortly after. While the internal workings of the UFC brass are still a matter of speculation, it is my belief given the timing of these events that, sometime between April and May of 2011, the UFC decided that it could use the same tactics as its union detractors by turning the sanctioning process in New York into a venue to give the enemy bad publicity.
After the SNY interview, protest letters and proxy groups from Unite Here started to sprout up left and right. One of the loudest of these proxy groups was “UFC: Unfit for Children,” which cataloged every inappropriate public action or interview done by a UFC employee. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was by far the MVP of bad behavior.
White struck back with his usual charm at every press conference where the issue of sanctioning came up, openly blaming “union idiots” for the failure of MMA to pass in New York for as long as the story was hot.
More recently, Zuffa has filed a lawsuit with other MMA figures against the New York State Attorney General. The suit takes issue with the current MMA ban on constitutional grounds. Since the suit was first filed, Zuffa has backed off significantly from the anti-Union chatter, at least in public.
While Unite Here’s proxy groups still occasionally write what amounts to public hate mail regarding the UFC, their actual monetary contributions to MMA detractors remain and have remained a non-factor.
About the author: Peter Lampasona is a freelance journalist who has worked sports news in print and television.
Photo Credit: Jim Genia – Rebellion Media