Inside look at how Illinois legalized UFC
Blago book gives insider look at Legalization of 'ultimate fighting'
UFC -- Ultimate Fighting Championship -- has become a well-known brand, the leader in mixed martial arts, thanks in large measure to its wide exposure on "UFC Unleashed," "The Ultimate Fighter" and other airings on the Spike cable channel.
Less well-known is how the sport -- which had remained banned in Illinois even as it built a national following -- ultimately was legalized here.
It didn't take any punches or kicks or choke holds for mixed martial arts to be legalized by the Illinois Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, just the usual mix of political clout and a little campaign cash, according to a portion of Blagojevich's new book, The Governor.
Other key players declined to talk about Blagojevich's version of the story, but public records back up key portions.
Blagojevich writes of his distaste for the sport, which takes place in an octagonal steel cage and combines boxing, karate, jiu-jitsu and other martial arts. But he says he put that distaste aside and signed the Legislation legalizing mixed martial arts to score points with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's brother, Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, the real-life model for the character Ari Gold in the HBO series "Entourage."
And why might Ari Emanuel care about mixed martial arts? Among his Endeavor Talent Agency's clients: Zuffa LLC, the Las Vegas company that owns UFC.
Blagojevich writes that he brought up the Ultimate Fighting legislation with Rahm Emanuel in a now-famous phone conversation in late 2008. According to the since-indicted former governor, who's awaiting trial on federal corruption charges, Emanuel was pushing for the governor to consider appointing a placeholder to fill the Northwest Side congressional seat Emanuel was giving up, allowing him to reclaim the seat whenever he might decide to leave the White House.
"After chiding him for not acknowledging the help I gave his brother Ari in the past to help one of his clients bring the sport of Ultimate Fighting to Illinois -- an idea, incidentally, that I didn't like but nevertheless I did to help him -- I told him I would talk to my legal counsel and see if there was a way where this perhaps might work," Blagojevich writes.
In February 2007, state Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano (R-Elmwood Park) had filed a bill in the Illinois House sought by Zuffa.
Little over a month later, the bill sailed out of the Illinois House, moving to the Senate, where Sen. James DeLeo (D-Chicago), then a key Blagojevich ally, signed on as lead sponsor.
At this point, Kim Morreale was working as a Springfield lobbyist, with Zuffa as a client. Four years earlier, during the first year of the Blagojevich administration, DeLeo had helped Morreale land a $65,000-a-year state job, according to state hiring records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Morreale remained on the state payroll for two years, getting a promotion and a $5,000-a-year pay raise, then quitting in December 2005 to become a lobbyist. State records show Morreale began representing Zuffa in October 2006.
It took till May 2007 for the legislation to legalize mixed martial arts to make it through the Senate. Amendments were tacked on, and the bill was sent back to the House, which voted 95-7 that June to approve it and send it on to Blagojevich for the signature it needed to become law.
Among those who voted to legalize mixed martial arts in Illinois: Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago), who, two months after the vote, married Morreale.
From the point the legislation was introduced until a few weeks after it took effect June 1, 2008, Zuffa made a total of $30,100 in campaign contributions to 23 state officeholders. DeLeo got $3,000 of that, Saviano $2,500 and McAuliffe $2,000, state campaign-finance records show.
Blagojevich's professed displeasure for the sport aside, he still accepted $7,500 in contributions from Zuffa in that same period, records show.
Blagojevich also appears to have been set to hit up Ultimate Fighting's backers for more campaign money in the second half of 2008, after the sport was legalized in Illinois, but his arrest in December 2008 apparently got in the way of those plans. A fund-raising document that federal agents seized from the Friends of Blagojevich campaign organization, obtained by the Sun-Times, listed potential contributors the campaign had its sights on in late 2008. Among them: Morreale.
Those seized records also mention what the Blagojevich campaign described only as a planned "Las Vegas Event with Ultimate Prize fighting."
Also, state phone records obtained by the Sun-Times show that Blagojevich's desk phone in his Springfield office was twice used on Nov. 20, 2008, to call Endeavor Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif. Each call was less than a minute long.
Representatives from Zuffa, Morreale and DeLeo didn't return messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Rahm Emanuel said the top White House aide would have no comment.
UFC's first event in Illinois was held in October 2008 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. It drew a near-sellout crowd of 15,539.