Fighting Fascism: The gym owner behind Greece’s anti-fascist fight club

The sound of fighting could be heard from above ground — the dull echoes of boxing gloves as they make contact with skin, the…

By: Karim Zidan | 6 years ago
Fighting Fascism: The gym owner behind Greece’s anti-fascist fight club
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The sound of fighting could be heard from above ground — the dull echoes of boxing gloves as they make contact with skin, the thunder clap of shins as they struck Thai pads, and the cries of intensity as bodies collided during sparring sessions. Their passion was palpable, raising the temperature within the old half-basement in Athens. The smell of sweat wafted off visible stains on every t-shirt in the room. It was almost the end of the session.

Amidst the crowd of students was a middle-aged man wearing mitts and nudging a teenager forward with practiced drills. His short hair and thick goatee were specked with grey and his sharp eyes gave off a penetrating stare. He soon stopped and brought the proceedings to a halt. The class shook hands and strolled off in the direction of the locker rooms. A handful of pupils walked towards the bathroom, besides which hung a framed black flag that read “The Genuine Anti Fascist Fight Club.”

Ilias Lamprou wiped the sweat from his brow as he watched his students scatter across the room. Though just 40 years old, he has been involved in martial arts for over 20 years. He is the founder of the White Tiger Muay Thai Camp, a Greek-based martial arts gym that is home to over 100 students and labels itself one of the first anti-fascist gyms in Athens.

Lamprou is unlike other gym owners. Though he boasts 20 years of experience in Muay Thai, he admits he began practicing at a relatively old age because he is an “active anarchist” with an extensive history of combating oppression and attending solidarity movements in places like Palestine and Genoa. Along with two fellow activists, he sailed towards the Gaza Strip in 2010 and was subjected to brutal treatment from Israeli soldiers who intercepted their ship.

With an extensive resume in fighting fascism and far-right movements across Europe and Asia, Lamprou was introduced to Muay Thai as a means of self-defence. While it was supposed to serve a practical purpose during tense encounters with fascists, Lamprou found himself drawn to the sport which eventually changed his life.

“I fell in love with Muay Thai,” Lamprou told “It became a way of life for me.”

White Tiger Muay Thai

The intersection between Lamprou’s personal philosophy and his love for martial arts was an organic development. With a history of leftism in his family, he believes it was inevitable for him to find ways to oppose fascism in his own life. While adamant that he is not a communist, he speaks proudly of family members who were, including the man whom he was named after.

“Ilias was my mother’s elder brother. He was a communist and was killed by fascists during 1944. No one was able to recover his body.”

For many years, Muay Thai brought Lamprou personal pleasure and a sense of surety rooted in his ability to defend himself in difficult situations. It took him sixteen years to realize he could apply the political ideologies he had embraced to his martial arts activity.

“I really love to train both inexperienced and advanced fighters in Muay Thai. I love being in the ring with the fighters, sharing their agony, anxiety, joy, laughs or tears. At the same time, I’ve always wanted a world without states and authority, rich and poor, prisons and institutions.”

This fusion of his two loves — martial arts instruction and anarchy — became the genesis of the White Tiger Muay Thai fight club.

Greece’s History of Fascism

The spectre of fascism has haunted Greece for the better part of the last century. Its roots in the 20th century date back to the 4th of August regime, a totalitarian dictatorship led by General Ioannis Metaxas, who ruled the Kingdom of Greece from 1936 to 1941. The regime sculpted its rhetoric from Fascist Italy, with Mussolini as its inspiration. However, while their intention was anti-communism and a form of Greek nationalism based on a purified nation with a militaristic society, the Metaxas regime never developed into a full-fledged fascist dictatorship. It maintained a pro-Jewish stance with tolerance of religious minorities, and strengthened ties with Britain and France following Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940.

General Ioannis Metaxas
Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

By 1941, Nazi Germany had occupied most of Greece and installed a fascist puppet government in charge of the country. By the time the occupation ended in 1945, Greece had descended into civil war between the communist forces on the left and the Western forces of the political right, marking the first struggle in the eventual Cold War. During this post-war period, the authoritarian nationalism derived from Metaxism and the 4th of August regime were adopted by the group of right-wing officers who achieved a coup d’état resulting in the Greek military junta of 1967–1974. At the present day, however, the only party in the Greek parliament that stems from Metaxism is the extremist group Golden Dawn.

Golden Dawn is a far-right political party founded by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a former member of the 4th of August regime. He promoted the return of a right-wing military dictatorship just six years after the restoration of democracy in Greece (1974), and also advocated for the expansion of Greece by gaining territory in Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and the entire city of Istanbul. By the turn of the century, Golden Dawn’s program focused on anti-immigration policies and combating the spread of Islam in Greece.

Following the 2008 economic crisis and riots, Golden Dawn began to gain popularity amid those who opposed immigration, migrants, and anarchists. This led to an increase in violence against those segments of Greek society. In 2010, they won a seat in the Athens City Council. By 2012, the party ran during the Greek national elections and won 7% of the popular vote, which gave them 21 seats in parliament. Three years later, Golden Dawn had risen to become the third largest party in parliament with 17 seats.

Lawmakers of the ultra nationalist party of Golden Dawn
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty Images

However, during Golden Dawn’s rise in Greek politics, the xenophobic and violent party targeted migrants, Muslims, left-wing celebrities, and political opponents. Hundreds of assaults were reported and several migrants were killed. An attack on anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 was also fatal and led to the eventual arrest of Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos, as well as many of the party’s prominent MPs. The group is now classified as a criminal organization and is being held in pre-trial detention.

While the Golden Dawn case is ongoing in 2018, the party claims to have had a renewed surge in support following the election of US President Donald Trump.

“Trump’s policies have given us a new wind of support,” Elias Panagiotaros, a leading light of the far-right party and an MP in Athens, told The Independent. “It’s validating and reinforcing our nationalistic and patriotic policies – policies that we have been advocating for years. We should follow Trump’s beat. We shouldn’t leave Greece like an open field for migrants to come and go as they want.

“We should reclaim our country and our interests and put them first, just like Trump.”

Given Greece’s history of opposing fascist movements, Lamprou believes martial arts goes far beyond a purely practical purpose of self-defence, and is capable of imparting discipline and tolerance for incoming migrants and other ethnic minorities present in Greece.

Photo by Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The years of crisis in Greece revealed the huge problem of fascism,” Lamprou explained. “One of the many things that you can do to oppose fascism is to teach people to have respect, compassion, and solidarity for those that are different to us.

“This is another goal of martial arts and especially Muay Thai — respect and compassion.”

Martial Arts: A Double Edged Sword

If you ask Lamprou about the role of martial arts in the anti-fascist movement, he would inform you that Greece has a long history of fighting Nazis. The mass killings of Greek jews, communists, and social democrats created an environment ripe for resistance and paved the way for decades of clashes between the far-right and the left. In short, Greek anti-fascism arose from the destruction caused by fascism — an violent antidote to combat radical authoritarianism.

“Anyone should be ready to defend himself or his beloved ones against fascists attacks.”

However, while martial arts have proven to be an instrument for combating fascism in countries like Greece, they can also be a weapon for those looking to promote their neo-Nazi ideologies through combat sports across Europe and the Russian Federation. This was the case with Russian mixed martial arts apparel company and fight club, White Rex.

Founded in 2008, White Rex is a Russian clothing brand that appeals to fans of combat sports. The company produces shirts, hoodies, pants, sports gear, and other items branded with fascist and neo-Nazi symbols. Occasionally, the symbols are disguised, but not always; indeed, they have produced t-shirts that clearly show the black sun and swastika amalgamated into a single symbol. Some of the White Rex shirts openly state slogans such as “Zero Tolerance,” “Angry Europeans,” and “White Rex Against Tolerance.” Others, including women’s wear, sport symbols such as “88,” which stands for “Heil Hitler.”

White Rex, acting under the guise of an MMA lifestyle brand, reportedly funds far-right groups and bands with revenue from their sales, and even trains neo-Nazi thugs in martial arts and unarmed combat. Their continued existence raises questions about use of mixed martial arts as a medium for white supremacy. Therefore, the inherently violent nature of combat sports arguably provides an effective medium to both promote and combat equally violent ideologies.

While there is potential for martial arts to be used as a tool for violence on both sides, Lamprou believes the end justifies the means.

“Historically and socially, there is only one way to deal with fascism…violence.”

While Lamprou’s statement carries historical significance, he admits that his ideology is far more complex than simply teaching physical training to a new generation of Greek youth. According to the anarchist, “it is necessary to establish a martial arts camp without fascists or sexists” in order to rid his gym of toxic principles and systems of ideals and beliefs.

White Tiger Muay Thai

The historical relationship between anarchism and feminism is a complicated one. Some anarchist movements are blind to patriarchal oppression despite their staunch anti-authoritarian stances, while others have shown sympathy to the plight of women who opposed male-dominated societies. Even renowned fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin argued that “anarchy has historically been identified as female” because “men have reserved the structures of social powers to themselves.” This interesting correlation between anti-authoritarianism and feminism continues to develop in countries where far-right groups have become more active. This is evident with Lamprou, who sees an important correlation between fighting fascism and promoting equality for all.

“Physical training is very intense but also I try to be an example of correct behaviour,” he said. “I don’t like macho fighters, so I also try to make my gym a place where all would be treated equally. Anyone who can’t accept those rules won’t find a place inside White Tiger.”

Apart from fighting the patriarchy in his gym, Lamprou teaches his students to deny platforms to fascists. He does not allow them to complete in matches against opponents who either support or are affiliated to far-right movements such as Golden Dawn. Unlike Russia’s White Rex promotion, which regularly pitted its toughest racists and far-right fighters against migrants and minorities, Lamprou refuses to provide his enemies a platform to spread their propaganda. He believes martial arts can never belong to the fascists. The ring is for teaching respect and discipline, while the streets are for confronting fascists.

White Tiger Muay Thai

“You can’t separate anti-fascism from the bigger view of things that happened socially in Europe, America or even further. Historically, the state used fascism as a useful tool to hold back progressive changes. We need to overcome these obstacles in order to clearly see the way to personal or social emancipation.”

With a politicized perspective of the world around him, Lamprou makes no attempt to hide his hatred for oppression, as well as his willingness to combat it using the resources available to him. While aware that his choices are controversial to those who believe sports and politics should remain separate, he refuses to turn his gym into an apolitical space.

“I’ve been an anarchist for the last 25 years and I will not change my true self in order to be a “good businessman”.”

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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