This piece originally ran on the Bloody Elbow Substack newsletter on December 4, 2023.
The UFC is returning to California in 2024, will it bring Power Slap?
The state of California has been dreaming about a major UFC event for a long time. That’s why the announcement around Thanksgiving, under the radar no less, of UFC 298 happening in February of 2024 at the Honda Center in Anaheim took everyone by surprise.
My first reaction? The UFC doesn’t run to a high-tax domain unless someone is paying the bills or negotiating a new business angle to feed the Endeavor beast.
If you’ve been a dedicated reader of the Bloody Elbow Substack, you might recall an article I published last July regarding state athletic commissions facing a devil’s bargain in regard to Power Slap and UFC.
If you’re a state already attracting a slate of UFC shows, you don’t want the gravy train to stop. Legalizing Power Slap is one surefire way to make sure there are no calendar interruptions. And if you’re a state that has been desperately trying to recruit UFC forever and ever? Maybe you can scratch UFC’s back on Power Slap and perhaps some room can be made on the event schedule for you.
On November 29th, the California State Athletic Commission detonated a regulatory bomb with an agenda posting for their upcoming Saturday, December 9th meeting in San Francisco before the Devin Haney boxing fight at the Chase Center. At their next meeting, CSAC will be discussing and considering temporary licenses for both Bare Knuckle FC and Power Slap.
On a Saturday morning when the combat sports world will be focused on boxing, Executive Officer Andy Foster will be heading an athletic commission meeting that could absolutely change the landscape of combat sports. One Golden State handshake could immediately skyrocket the value of the Power Slap franchise. Both Dana White and Hunter Campbell would be very happy with that development.
Legalization of Power Slap would allow Endeavor to build enough momentum to steamroll the rest of the major US athletic commissions into giving slap fighting their own seal of approval. Once that happens, the possibility of book-ending Power Slap events on UFC and WWE event weeks in combination packages is officially on the table as part of Endeavor’s sold show suffocation strategy.
Sanctioning as the ultimate form of legal protection
Under traditional doctrine of US state and Federal law, combat sports are legally viewed as ultra-hazardous. That’s an important distinction because an ultra-hazardous industry is held to a strict liability standard.
When an exhibition or a sport is sanctioned by a state athletic commission, that is a form of legal protection. It’s a form of immunity. Dana White getting Power Slap sanctioned by major state athletic commissions means he can theoretically run in a market like Nevada and have a form of state immunity in a lawsuit. If a state sanctions an event like Power Slap, they obviously could share in any legal liability if there is a wrongful death or gross negligence lawsuit. Now you can see why Dana White wants as many states as possible to sanction Power Slap.
A recent legal development, additionally, has given UFC and Endeavor an extra-needed boost in terms of case law regarding the scope of liability protection from future lawsuits.
Mark Hunt filed a lawsuit against UFC, Dana White, and Brock Lesnar over Mr. Lesnar failing two drug tests for his UFC 200 fight. Hunt sued UFC for racketeering and breach of good faith, claiming that UFC supposedly had knowledge about Lesnar’s activities and that he didn’t consent to getting battered by a guy on performance-enhancing drugs. The judge in the case, Jennifer Dorsey, ruled against Hunt because he couldn’t provide direct factual proof of a conspiracy between UFC & Lesnar to engage in criminal-ish behavior that would have impacted the UFC 200 fight. The judge went further and argued that Mr. Hunt couldn’t prove that his consent was violated in the Lesnar fight because there wasn’t enough of a deviation in expected violence to demonstrate a clear connection between the doping and the punishment absorbed in the fight performance.
This opinion by Judge Dorsey has now been cited, according to Google Scholar, in at least four different new legal opinions throughout the 9th Circuit in the United States.
Having government sanctioning your fight event means everything in terms of promoter protection. It can be a legal lottery ticket.
Why California? Why Andy Foster?
Nevada regulating Power Slap was a foundational step for Dana White.
California regulating Power Slap would create a snowball effect.
In our July 2023 article detailing UFC’s next political lobbying campaign to get Power Slap legalized, we focused on four unique states: Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and California.
Florida was supposed to be prime real estate for Power Slap legalization. Governor Ron DeSantis played ball with Endeavor during the COVID era and fast-tracked UFC in Jacksonville. It was good business for both sides.
So why hasn’t Florida already legalized Power Slap?
Because Governor DeSantis is in a significantly weaker political position now than he was a year ago after defeating Charlie Crist in the 2022 Mid-Term elections.
According to a Politico article published in late September 2023, the Governor simply doesn’t seem to have the muscle to use the bully pulpit in Tallahassee to twist arms like he used to. That doesn’t mean legalization won’t happen, just not at the moment. It’s the last thing his shaky Republican presidential primary campaign needs right now.
Tennessee was the old stomping grounds for current Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Jeff Mullen. If anyone knows the lay of the land in Nashville and Knoxville, it is Mr. Mullen. It’s the perfect market to package UFC and Power Slap events. The fact that legalization didn’t happen there (yet) is a surprise.
Texas is the biggest regulator on the block. Texan referees, fighters, and administrators have lots of UFC connections. This was always the most vulnerable major state in terms of political actors applying pressure to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to approve Power Slap.
So how did California end up being the wild card as the optimal pressure point for UFC to gain political consideration for legalizing Power Slap?
The relationship between Andy Foster and the UFC is deserving of focus here.
When Andy Foster joined the California State Athletic Commission a decade ago, he was riding the beginning of a wave of new MMA-oriented administrators that came to control various state athletic commission boards.
UFC was red hot and boxing was beginning to lose political clout. Under Frank & Lorenzo Fertitta’s reign of Zuffa, athletic commission politics was serious business, and having MMA-friendly allies was absolutely critical.
Then several developments took place that caught a lot of state actors off guard.
The first major development was the resignation of Keith Kizer from Nevada’s commission. He had apparently had enough of the non-stop political scrutiny that came with the job, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in January of 2014.
A big bone of contention was the issuance of Therapeutic Use Exemptions for fighters using testosterone. This issue dominated athletic commission politics for years, especially in Nevada.
It truly remains one of, if not, the ugliest political periods ever in Mixed Martial Arts. With Mr. Kizer out, there was growing belief that Andy Foster would make the jump from Sacramento to Las Vegas.
Lifestyle, proximity to UFC, and lots of other personal and professional factors made a lot of sense for him to hop, skip, and a jump so soon after landing in California. Then came the “job interview” in front of the Athletic Commission board. In the end, the NAC chose Bob Bennett. I suspect those in power, in hindsight, would have had a different experience with Mr. Foster in charge.
After the testosterone fiasco and legal issues drained state resources, Nevada turned the Athletic Commission into a self-financing operation. It was no longer attached to general funding from the state budget. The end result is the laissez-faire politics you see today from Nevada’s commission.
Strike two came when the Fertittas sold UFC to Endeavor.
Strike three was COVID. It was devastating for state athletic commissions, especially California. As we reported in September of 2023 on Bloody Elbow Substack, the finances look ugly — on the books — for the state athletic commission.
When discussing optimism for how he would dig his way out of financial turmoil, Mr. Foster alluded to his hopes that a UFC event would soon arrive in California. That proved correct, as last week’s UFC 298 announcement for the Honda Center in Anaheim provided a great Thanksgiving gift for the California faithful.
When I initially read the announcement, alarms immediately went off. Something had to give. Endeavor leadership isn’t coming to California unless there’s a business opportunity on the table. Did they get a rent-free deal for Honda Center? Was there a local Southern California sponsor willing to foot the tax bill?
Then came last Wednesday’s announcement that the California State Athletic Commission would discuss and consider granting a temporary license for Power Slap.
What’s in it for California Governor Gavin Newsom?
Why would California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has embarked on a worldwide political tour to build global political recognition, allow a state agency like California’s athletic commission to vote on giving a license for slap fighting in his own backyard of San Francisco?
Of all time frames, when California Governor Gavin Newsom smells political blood in the water and could be nominated by Superdelegates at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago to replace current US President Joe Biden, now is the time you would create a potentially high-profile political issue with legalization of Power Slap?
California State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Andy Foster prides himself on being a smart, cagey political animal. In my opinion, Mr. Foster wouldn’t be pursuing a vote on a temporary license for Power Slap without some sort of positive indication from the Governor’s Office. It strains credulity to believe that Mr. Foster would go rogue and create a political headache for Governor Newsom during a US Presidential campaign season.
A key element in this story may very well involve one of Governor Newsom’s best friends and business allies. According to Politico, one of the key votes on the Athletic Commission belongs to Doug Hendrickson. Mr. Hendrickson is an NFL agent for Wasserman and also a top confidant of Mr. Newsom. Mr. Hendrickson’s wife, Shyla, happens to be the trustee for Governor Newsom’s blind trust — a trust that includes hotels and wineries.
According to Ken Klippenstein at The Intercept, at least three of Governor Newsom’s businesses were doing business with Silicon Valley Bank. SVB received Federal intervention to save the assets of active customers.
Given the documented personal and professional relationships between The Newsoms and The Hendricksons, how could the Governor’s Office not know about Mr. Hendrickson being a key swing vote on granting a promotional license to sanction Power Slap in California?
Pairing the potential legalization of Power Slap with the potential legalization of Bare Knuckle FC? That is the definition of bare-knuckle politics.
Both the political risks and the health & safety risks of allowing slap-fighting events in California are remarkably high.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario: the day before UFC 298 in Anaheim, there’s a Power Slap event in Southern California. A contestant suffers a Traumatic Brain Injury that results in death, permanent disability, or a visual of a stretcher job. What kind of impact would that visual have on Governor Newsom’s political career?
Just because California issued a “temporary” license for Power Slap doesn’t mean that yanking the license negates the infliction of TBI. The damage is already done, even if it doesn’t air on television. Are you going to argue that a knockout in a slap-fighting contest is as innocent as a knockout in a boxing match?
California’s athletic commission has been dealing with a months-long investigation into the permanent disability of boxer Edy Valencia. Does the state want another fight-related medical emergency and scandal to deal with?
If Mr. Hendrickson votes to grant Dana White a temporary license for Power Slap in California, how does the public not connect the dots between Mr. Hendrickson and Governor Newsom? Is there a political scenario where Mr. Hendrickson votes no while the rest of the Athletic Commission board votes yes in order to give the Governor’s Office a sense of political cover?
What makes this such a difficult story to tell and navigate is that the public doesn’t know the motive behind the Governor’s Office watching the Athletic Commission discussing and voting on granting a temporary license for Power Slap. If you can’t spoon-feed the public a neatly wrapped narrative involving means, motive, and opportunity, readers lose interest and shrug their shoulders.
But make no mistake about it — once California legalizes slap fighting, it’s going to go national and you as a taxpayer may end up paying for Power Slap events in your state.
Under the Endeavor umbrella, their “flywheel” includes a growing portfolio of events that can be bundled into an event week that your state’s Tourism board or another alphabet state agency will pay in regards to a site fee or sold show contract. Bundle a weekend with Professional Bull Riders, Power Slap, and a UFC or WWE event. Power Slap has the potential to generate millions of guaranteed dollars in site fee arrangements.
For the state of California to grant its imprimatur on this business arrangement would be a remarkable political and cultural development. How could Governor Newsom attack former President Donald Trump for his relationship with UFC & Dana White if California’s Governor watched his own state approve a license for Power Slap?
Besides the obvious public actors, who else gains to benefit from Power Slap legalization in California?
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The Hunter Campbell connection
The relationship between Andy Foster and UFC boss Hunter Campbell is very real. They frequently talk to each other and mention each other’s names in public quotes from time to time. This is no state secret.
Bloody Elbow’s Zane Simon reported on their communications in an October 2023 report regarding UFC’s divorce from drug testing watchdog USADA:
“Alongside Campbell’s statements, Novitzky characterized USADA’s version of events, involving McGregor’s return as “garbage” and that it has damaged the UFC’s reputation as well as sowing confusion among fighters and managers. He also noted that USADA has been difficult to work with throughout their relationship.
“Not only for athletes, apparently, but for commissions as well. The UFC claims CSAC head Andy Foster reached out to them after USADA’s press release to congratulate them on moving away from USADA.”
Mr. Foster was featured in a high-profile role at the 2023 Association of Boxing Commissions conference in Las Vegas. Mr. Campbell was an opening speaker at the meeting.
During his remarks, Mr. Campbell volunteered an amazing admission regarding the origins of Power Slap:
“The first sort of conversation we had was, all things considered, is this something that’s viable? Second, is this something that optically looks worse from a health and safety standpoint than it actually probably is? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know that until you get in and beta test and actually do it with assistance.
My first call was actually Andy (Foster). I asked Andy, ‘I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’m thinking about doing this thing. What are your sort of thoughts?’ All of us, we know Andy, and his response to me was, ‘Well, I don’t know, man. That’s some funny stuff.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m going to get with the commission. There’s no way we’re doing this without regulation involved.’”
It speaks volumes that Mr. Campbell allegedly first called Mr. Foster before he made a phone call to Mr. Mullen. There’s an obvious trust and comfort factor between the two men.
The rest of Mr. Campbell’s remarks at the ABC meeting regarding Power Slap read like the Zuffa Myth 2.0. Nevada would soon sanction Power Slap after Mr. Campbell’s initial phone call to Mr. Foster in California.
Getting Power Slap sanctioned in Nevada is one thing. Getting Power Slap sanctioned in California? That’s the entire ball game. If you can get it done there, you can force legalization everywhere else. There are millions of dollars at stake.
For Mr. Foster, being the Executive Officer of the California State Athletic Commission pays a good salary. On their state employee web site database, The Sacramento Bee claimed Mr. Foster earned $150,000 USD in 2022. If he wants to hang around Sacramento for several more years and cash some good paychecks, he certainly can do so. However, the state of California combat sports is getting trickier to navigate each year. With promoters aging out or retiring, especially in boxing, it’s getting tougher to make the math work long-term.
Where does legalizing Power Slap in California fit into this equation? For Mr. Foster, he’s largely done everything he can possibly do on a professional level in the state. It’s a miracle he has been able to survive for as long as he has as the Executive Officer.
With a good gate figure for the Devin Haney fight at the Chase Center and possible legalization of Power Slap in California, Mr. Foster could easily ride off into the sunset and retire from California politics. Leave on a high note and let someone else take over.
Who could blame him? His ally Mr. Mullen has the Nevada job, so there isn’t another athletic commission job waiting in the wings like there was a decade ago.
If he wants to leave public office and work in the MMA industry, there are currently two players who have access to big cash. Who knows? If Mr. Foster plays his cards right, could his buddy Hunter might have a nice job waiting for him at the UFC?
Disclosure: We contacted the communication teams for Governor Newsom’s office — Jason Elliott, Anthony York, and Erin Mellon — on Thursday afternoon for comment. If we receive a comment from the Governor’s Office, we will include that statement as an update to this article.
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