clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UFC's Marc Ratner reflects on Boxing Hall of Fame career

New, comments
Esther Lin photo

The UFC's Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, just a week out from being the first pure regulator to be elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, noted the significance of that honor just hours after the death of the Hall of Fame's most famous member, Muhammad Ali, on June 3.

On June 26, 1961, a 16-year-old Ratner drove himself for the first time to a major fight, to see Cassius Clay, as Ali was known at the time, beating Duke Sabedong at the Las Vegas Convention Center. While the fight itself wasn't among one of the best-known of Ali's career, history will tell us the weekend was among his most important.

A relatively small crowd attended the show. That same weekend, a sellout crowd was in the same arena for a pro wrestling match featuring Fred Blassie vs. Gorgeous George. Ali was mesmerized as he watched the two wrestlers, both experts on interviews, build the fight up and draw the sellout crowd. It inspired him to learn to talk like they did.

"I still have the tickets," said Ratner, about that fight. "The ironic part is I saw him fight at the Forum (in Inglewood, Calif.) against Kenny Norton, and here we are at the Forum," he said hours before UFC 199 started.

Ratner said that news of his election to the Hall of Fame is even more significant because of the events of the past week.

"It's very much overwhelming to me," said Ratner, who knew Ali a little bit but started with the Nevada Athletic Commission after Ali retired. "I have to write and say a lot of thank you's. To be recognized really is special, a little bit overwhelming and I'm a little bit awed."

"I'm a regulator, not a trainer, fighter, or a newspaper guy."

Larry Hazzard, who has headed the New Jersey Athletic Control Board on-and-off dating back to 1985, and whose sanctioning and being involved in creating the modern rules of MMA, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010.

"But (Hazzard) was a world-class referee first," Ratner noted. "I'm only a regulator."

He thinks back to the Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, which he still considers the biggest fight of any kind in history.

"It was almost 50 years ago," Ratner said. "That captivated the nation. That fight, if it was held today, would probably sell eight to 10 million pay-per-view buys. There's been nothing like it ever since But I give Floyd (Mayweather Jr.) all the credit in the world. He did more than four million buys (for Manny Pacquiao). He did Dancing With The Stars and WrestleMania. That was great marketing, and I believe that's mostly his ideas."

Ratner will be inducted at the ceremony on June 12 in Canastota, N.Y. He'll go win along with longtime boxing writer Jerry Izenberg, judge and television commentator Harold Lederman, announcer Col. Bob Sheridan, trainer Whitey Esneault and boxers Petey Sarron, Lupe Pintor, Hector "Macho" Camacho and Hilario Zapata..

A key figure in getting the ball rolling on MMA's acceptance as a legitimate sport, Ratner, now 71, was involved in officiating and running the clock at various sports events dating back to the 60s. He was always a boxing fan, dating back to watching Archie Moore fight live at Cashman Field in Las Vegas when he was ten years old.

He would regularly attend Wednesday night fights in Las Vegas. People knew of him from his officiating local high school and college sports and was asked to join the commission as an inspector in 1983.

Ratner worked for the NAC through 2006. He was acting as executive director from 1992, overseeing not just boxing, but being one of the first commissions to regulate UFC events, as well as kickboxing, including the K-1 organization from Japan during its heyday, and pro wrestling events, including the 1993 WrestleMania show.

Ratner started as an inspector. He became the state's chief inspector in 1987. He was named interim executive director in 1992, when his friend, Chuck Minker, had to step down due to cancer. After Minker's death in 1993, Ratner became the executive director.

It's little remembered that Ratner was an opponent of MMA early on. He even appeared on the Larry King show in 1996, joining with Arizona Sen. John McCain in a debate against then-UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz and top star Ken Shamrock over whether UFC, as the term MMA was not being used yet, was a legitimate sport.

"The advertisements were no holds barred, no rules, anything goes," he recalled about the early days. "How can you have a sport with no rules? I remember Senator (Richard) Bryan saying, `You can't have that.' Once they had the Unified Rules in place, that made it doable."

The Nevada commission voted to legalize and regulate MMA as a sport in 2001, which led to UFC being allowed back on pay-per-view. It took four more years before the promotion had significant financial success. But without that decision, it's inconceivable the sport would have even had a chance to turn around.

"I knew it was a big step in 2001 but I really didn't know," he said about that decision making. "I didn't really understand the sport because I didn't think the guy on the bottom could do anything. It takes a lot of watching the fights and going to fights to find out there's a real art to this sport. I remember the first fight we regulated in 2001, The Janitor (Vladimir Matyushenko) and Tito (Oritz). It was a horrible show, but what I remember is I got there an hour early, at 3 p.m., and there was a crowd in front of the building. I never saw that in boxing. It was a long night and everything went wrong."

Still, UFC rebounded. Only a handful of nights were like the first show in Nevada. The attendance and live gates started growing. And in 2005, when UFC made its television deal with Spike, the company's popularity exploded almost immediately. Fights that would have done 50,000 buys on pay-per-view were doing 300,000. Within two years of television, they were hovering at near 1 million for the biggest shows.

Most of Ratner's work during that period was boxing related, with both good and bad. He strengthened Nevada's stance against PEDs, as Nevada tested headliners for steroids in both boring and MMA long before most other states.

Due to that drug testing, two heavyweight champions, Josh Barnett in 2002 and Tim Sylvia in 2003, ended up stripped of their championships.

Still, his highest profile decision making could have backfired.

In the June 28, 1997 rematch with WBA champion Evander Holyfield and challenger Mike Tyson, arguably the biggest fight of that era, Tyson bit Holyfield's ear in the third round.

"(Referee) Mills Lane called me into the ring," he recalled about that crazy night. "I remember Evander jumping up and down. I thought he got hit low. Mills said, `I'm going to disqualify him.' From my work in football (Ratner officiated football for decades), I asked him, `Are you sure you want to disqualify him. Let's bring the doctor up.'

The fight continued. Tyson then bit Holyfield a second time.

"I got criticized around the world for that because we didn't disqualify him  the first time. If Mike had knocked him out after the first bite, I wouldn't be here today, that's for sure."

Even though Tyson was the biggest draw in the sport, Nevada, under Ratner, suspended him for one year and fined him $3 million.

The pressure on both sides was significant, between people who felt Tyson should never be allowed to fight again, and those, for economic reasons, or other reasons, who wanted him back as soon as possible.

"A year out of a fighter's life is a long time," he said. "That was a big thing. I got pressure. I remember I got a call from Jesse Jackson of all people. I said to him, `I'm not the chairman' It became a black vs. white thing, but it wasn't like Evander was white.

"But when I see Mike now, he's as sweet as can be and never held it against me."

Another decision that was controversial ended up changing boxing history and records.

"In 2006, Zab (Judah) is fighting Floyd (Mayweather Jr.)," he recalled. "Zab hits him low, and then Zab hits him in the back of the neck, Floyd's uncle jumps into the ring. Zab's father goes after Floyd's uncle. A lot of people felt I should have disqualified Floyd and there is a rule (about the corner going into the ring). But I thought it wouldn't be fair to Floyd to disqualify him since he was the one who got fouled."

A disqualification would have been a loss for Mayweather, and would have made it impossible for him to tie, as he has, or break, as he has the chance to do, Rocky Marciano's record of 49-0 for a career.

But with all the excitement of the job and the fights and the praise of his work, he can't escape mixed feelings about that tenure.

"I had guys pass away, seven in 14 years," he said. "That tempers everything I can talk about and I can never forget that, even though some died a day later or a couple of days later. It's a tough sport and people get hurt. What you don't know is what happens in sparring and they don't want you to know because you don't want your opponent to know. That's one of the things we have to get a better handle on."

One of sport's best kept secrets is in 2003, Ratner was approached by Vince McMahon, the head of World Wrestling Entertainment, about a unique idea. McMahon wanted to do an MMA show, with the idea of putting his two toughest pro wrestlers, Brock Lesnar long before he became an MMA fighter, and Kurt Angle, an Olympic gold medal winning wrestler in 1996, against heavyweight boxers Lennox Lewis, the champion at the time, and ranked contender Michael Moorer, respectively.

The key was getting the event sanctioned in Nevada, because McMahon felt he needed that for the public to believe the fights would be real. He wanted the event in Las Vegas for the credibility aspect, since that city had replaced New York as the fight capital of the world. Ratner told McMahon that the one thing he wouldn't allow is pro wrestling worked fights on the same show as real fights, either all-real or all-pro wrestling. As it turned out, the idea unraveled when Lewis, who originally came to McMahon with the idea, backed out when finding out the legitimate wrestling ability of Lesnar. Lewis later claimed the only talks were about being a referee.

With K-1, Ratner actually had to ban a referee, a well-known Japanese fighter and office worker named Nobuaki Kakuta, from officiating for life in Nevada, after he blatantly favored Bob Sapp, the company's biggest box office star at the time.  Kakuta gave Sapp excessive time to recover from a knockdown and being exhausted in between rounds when he faced Kimo Leopoldo in a 2003 kickboxing match. Sapp came back to win via second round knockout.

He noted that one of the people who complained the most in the aftermath of the shady officiating was Dana White, who had bet a lot of money on Kimo.

Two years later, Ratner was first approached by UFC. The UFC's goal was to get the sport regulated under the boxing commissions in every state in the U.S., every province in Canada, and in the major international markets. Ratner at the time was the most respected commissioner in the country and had the contacts with virtually every major commissioner. In a sense, the hiring of Ratner gave UFC sports credibility in the commission world.

"Lorenzo (Fertitta) first came to me in the fall of 2005," said Ratner. "I got a call and was told that Lorenzo wants to talk to you over breakfast. I thought we were going to talk about something like usage of elbows, something commission related. But he said, `I might have something in the future you might have some interest in.' I didn't think about it at all, because I believed I had the best regulatory job in history. They called again in December of 2005. This time Dana was there. This time they said that, `We think you can help grow the sport. You know all the regulators.' I said, `I have some big fights coming up. They made an offer. They said every once in a while you'll have to travel to New York. We never talked about foreign countries. In March, they asked again, and said, `Are you going to come?'' I had a Cinco de Mayo fight (Oscar De La Hoya vs. Ricardo Mayorga), so I said I wanted to stay on for that. And then I came."

"My wife didn't think I'd do it," he said.

"I liked the weigh-ins. I was really into the day-to-day stuff. I was involved in negotiations. I really loved it," he said about the commission job. "I have fond memories of it, but tempered by the people who got hurt. But it was by far the best move I could have made at that time in my life."

He noted the reaction to MMA in the boxing world has completely changed in the decade since he made the move.

"Whenever I go to boxing, people always want to talk to me about MMA," he said. "But when I first left, people would ask me, `What are you doing?' People would say, `I hope you're getting paid a lot because you're making a big career mistake.'"

When he started, MMA was regulated in between 18 and 21 states. Just recently, with New York, the first goal of the UFC when they hired Ratner, as the final holdout, the sport is regulated in every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada. Now they are looking at getting the sport legal in places like Western Australia, so they can run Perth, which does allow MMA but not if it is held in a cage, and France, where it is illegal even though it is popular on television.

The battle in New York was long and frustrating. Ratner always stated it wasn't a question of if, but when, but as each year went by, knowing they had the votes for the bill to pass but the state assembly wouldn't allow a vote, when became a lot farther off than first expected. It remained that way until the closing moments of the hearing in the assembly this year when a vote was finally taken, and the bill passed by a landslide.

"Some of the things at the hearing, there were assembly members talking like legalizing this would lead to child molestation," he said, a line that was actually said by dissenting legislators. "The whole thing was horrible. But now when I look back an the seven-and-a-half years, it seems like the fight was nothing and it was all worth it."

Ultimately, besides financial, Ratner said the reason he made the move that shocked almost everyone in boxing, and even his wife and some of his friends, was his view of the future.

"The tipping point is that this was a new sport, and you want a legacy," he said. "I can say I was in on the ground floor."