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  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / Bee file, 2005

    Krazy Horse and Urijah "California Kid" Faber battle for a King of the Cage belt. A bill that would have regulated fighters' contracts was defeated amid political contributions by Zuffa LLC, which controls mixed martial arts events.

  • Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Fighters KO'd in Capitol arena

Published: Sunday, Jul. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 4, 2012 - 5:20 pm

In his day, Frank Shamrock was a bright star in the world of mixed martial arts, kicking, kneeing and punching his way to championship titles.

But inside California's Capitol, Shamrock and a handful of other former fighters who joined him were no match for the suits who run Zuffa LLC, the company that owns Ultimate Fighting Championship and dominates the mixed martial arts business.

When Zuffa executives came to town, the Legislature turned into a tomato can, taking a dive rather than tangling with a corporation that has turned cage fighting into a huge international business.

Zuffa, the Italian word for fight, hired top lobbyists and spread campaign money around as it choked the bill into submission.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, wrestled in college and has been a fan of mixed martial arts since he saw his first match 20 years ago. But after seeing a documentary about the fighters, Alejo decided they needed protection when they enter into contracts.

His bill, AB 2100, would have empowered the California State Athletic Commission to review contracts to make sure fighters don't sign away all their rights. Alejo calls the contracts "coercive" and says they authorize Zuffa to profit from fighters' images in perpetuity while returning little if anything in royalties.

"People coming up in the sport typically are teenagers, with few other options, and they will do anything to break in," said labor lobbyist and attorney Barry Broad, who worked to pass the bill.

The issue raised by Alejo's bill has a history, especially in California. Film star Olivia de Havilland famously challenged the studio system in a lawsuit and won a landmark 1944 ruling limiting studios' power over actors.

In 2001, the Eagles' Don Henley pushed for legislation that would have given musicians similar protection, arguing that they sign contracts at young ages that provide them with relatively little money if they became stars. So it is with fighters, Broad said.

"They're foreclosing your ability to capitalize if you become a star," Broad said.

Zuffa executives didn't return my calls. But in testimony, they defended their contracts and suggested they would stop holding bouts in California if the Legislature approved Alejo's bill, taking tax money with them.

Perhaps Zuffa would pull out of the state. Alternatively, the company might find a way to eke some modest profit, charging as it does up to $200 a ticket and filling arenas across the state.

"They own everything and they don't share it," Shamrock, who testified for the bill, told me by phone.

Shamrock, 39, grew up hard in Redding, moving from foster homes to prison before learning to focus his anger into the octagonal ring. He became a middleweight champ in 1999, testified here in the middle of the last decade as lawmakers prepared to legalize mixed martial arts. In 2006, he fought the first legal bout in this state not held on an Indian reservation. He won in 21 seconds.

He also had gotten sideways with UFC over contract issues.

"Honestly, I'm fine. I made money," said Shamrock, a fight commentator on Showtime. "But the next generation is not fine. Someone needs to look out for the workers."

There's money in those workers, as brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of Las Vegas know. They bought UFC for $2 million in 2001. Since then, their franchise has become unavoidable on cable and will become more so in the years ahead.

Zuffa last year landed a seven-year television deal with Fox said to approach $100 million. There also are lucrative pay-per-view bouts, $44.99 per view for one next Saturday.

The Fertitta clan made its fortune in Station Casinos, a Las Vegas-based casino company that operated the Thunder Valley Indian casino and seeks to develop tribe-owned casinos in the Sonoma County and along Highway 99 near Fresno.

Given its stake in Indian casinos, the family long has played in California politics, retaining Platinum Advisors, one of the top lobbying shops in town. Managing partner Darius Anderson, a major Democratic fundraiser, helped kill Alejo's legislation.

In Nevada, Station Casinos is the focus of an organizing effort by the Culinary Workers Union. To mess with the Fertittas, the union lobbies against Zuffa's efforts to legalize cage fighting in New York, one of the few states that still prohibits it.

By backing Alejo's bill, the union made clear that it has opened a new front in its organizing war. But despite the labor support, Alejo's bill fell one vote short in the Assembly Appropriations Committee; four Democrats ducked the vote.

Zuffa, meanwhile, gave $82,000 to politicians' campaigns in the days leading up to and after the vote.

"Really? Wow. I was unaware," Alejo said when I asked about Zuffa's donations.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, generally determines the fate of bills that come before his committee. In this instance, however, he voted for the measure; Zuffa gave him $2,000 a week before the May 25 vote, and $15,000 to the California Democratic Party six days before the vote.

A month after the vote, Zuffa gave $10,000 to a campaign committee controlled by Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, one of the Appropriations Committee members who didn't vote on the bill. Also in June, Zuffa gave $50,000 to Gov. Jerry Brown's initiative committee.

Solorio said he didn't solicit the donation. He opposed the bill because Zuffa stages fights at the Honda Center in Anaheim and worried it would have been "bad for business." Such measures, he added, should be handled by Congress.

On June 4, after Alejo's bill had failed, Zuffa executives appeared before the Athletic Commission, requesting that it oppose Alejo's bill and any like it that might emerge.

"The great success we have had in California over the last five, six years frankly has been jeopardized by AB 2100," Lawrence Epstein, Zuffa's general counsel, told the commission.

No one testified for Alejo's bill. The seven-member commission, including two Brown appointees, agreed with Epstein, saying the commission lacks expertise to police contracts.

It was an odd stand. Robert Fellmeth, a University of San Diego law professor, was an athletic commission member in the 1970s, and called martial arts contracts "outrageous."

"The commission's basic purpose is the protection of the fighter," Fellmeth said. "The idea that they don't get involved in the contracts is absurd."

The commission never told Alejo it was considering his bill, and he didn't know about the discussion until I asked him about it.

"Whose interest is the athletic commission promoting?" he asked.

Alejo plans to reintroduce the bill next year. Maybe it will pass. Then again, Zuffa beat the bill this year. It hardly seemed like a fair fight.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor



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