How far has the UFC come in the last 20 years? You could find the answer Tuesday morning inside The Capitol building.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was once the organization’s greatest enemy, dubbing the Ultimate Fighting Championship “human cockfighting” in 1997. Now, 16 years later, McCain told UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones that he would be purchasing his UFC 172 title defense against Glover Teixeira on April 26, according to UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” Fertitta said.

“We owe it to the future of the sport.”

McCain sat just a few feet from Fertitta on Tuesday. The two were part of a large group of MMA and boxing luminaries, politicians, executives and doctors who were pledging their support for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health’s professional fighters study, which focuses on investigating the effects of head trauma.

McCain was a major reason why the UFC was banned in every state and taken off pay-per-view in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Politically, he was MMA’s biggest adversary. On Tuesday, he joked with Jones about him possibly boxing Vitali Klitschko.

“That was just a rumor,” Jones told the Arizona senator with a laugh. “I’m not ready yet.”

McCain is still not a huge UFC fan, but has repeatedly said positive things about how far MMA has come since he railed against it.

SAUL LOEB-AFP

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called out Jon Jones today and his desire to fight heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko.

“I have to give him credit,” Fertitta said. “Without him doing what he did back in the ’90s to force regulation, this sport would be dead. It wouldn’t exist. Honestly, for all the negatives he caused, he actually allowed the sport to foster and grow.”

MMA is not all the way there yet. A reporter asked McCain on Tuesday if he wants to regulate “extreme fighting” on a federal level, which nearly made Fertitta grimace.

“That was kind of a bummer -- any time I hear ‘cage’ or ‘extreme fighting’ or something like that,” Fertitta said. “But compared to what it used to be? That’s nothing. I’ll take that all day long.”

McCain’s answer to the question was political in nature.

“Without [McCain] doing what he did back in the 90's to force regulation, this sport would be dead.”

“You want to be very careful not to encroach on the state’s abilities to do this regulation,” McCain said.

The senator didn’t exactly rip open his suit to reveal a UFC t-shirt. But he was basically saying that boxing and MMA are on an even playing field with regards to regulation at the state level. That’s progress, especially considering the things he said about the UFC in 1997.

Fertitta said many of those things McCain ripped about the UFC then were actually accurate. Things are very different now.

“He wasn’t saying in the past that he was necessarily against martial arts, he was saying, ‘This needs to be regulated,’” Fertitta said. “It just can’t be a free-for-all. There had to be some structure to it. Once the states then embraced it, he was comfortable and he’s been a supporter since then.”