UFC President Dana White’s speech at Trump rally a case study in political sportswashing

Last Thursday evening, UFC President Dana White appeared at a Trump rally in Colorado Springs and spoke to the raucous crowd at the Broadmoor…

By: Karim Zidan | 4 years ago
UFC President Dana White’s speech at Trump rally a case study in political sportswashing
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Last Thursday evening, UFC President Dana White appeared at a Trump rally in Colorado Springs and spoke to the raucous crowd at the Broadmoor World Arena for several minutes as he explained the various reasons why he plans to vote for the US president in the upcoming election.

White, who began his speech by announcing that he is not a “very political person,” proceeded to list off the Trump’s personality traits that he claimed the “public doesn’t see.”

“I’ve known this man for 20 years, White said during his short speech in Colorado. “We’ve actually become even closer since he’s become the President of the United States. When somebody becomes the President of the United States, you don’t ever expect to hear from them again. And I understand it. It absolutely makes sense. This guy is so loyal and such a good friend. Every time I see him — I saw him today. When I met him on Air Force 1, the first thing he said to me was, ‘How is your family?’ Good man, very loyal and a very good friend.”

This is not the first time that the UFC President has spoken out in favour of the sitting president. White spoke in support of Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC) and did several media interviews where he defended the president’s controversial policies, including the border wall on the United States’ southern border. White also visited Trump at the White House with former interim welterweight champion and conservative mouthpiece Colby Covington, where they posed for pictures in the Oval Office.

Since Trump’s election back in 2016, White repeatedly used his influence as the head honcho of the UFC to help bolster the president’s popularity and enhance his image. In several cases, he has even used the UFC as a direct platform for the president and his political ideology. This article will attempt to analyze White’s history with Trump to determine how the UFC is being weaponized as a political tool ahead of the US elections.

From the Taj Mahal to the White House

The first significant contact between the UFC and Trump occurred in 2001, shortly after ZUFFA purchased the promotion. At the time, the UFC had been relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi after then-Arizona senator John McCain referred to MMA as “human cockfighting,” a comment that tarnished the UFC’s reputation. Trump took a chance on the UFC and allowed the promotion to put on UFC 30 and UFC 31 at his casino, the former of which became the first state-sanctioned UFC event held in New Jersey, while the latter was the first UFC event held under the new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

The Atlantic City events were an evident success and helped the promotion restore its legitimacy. By late 2001, the UFC began hosting events in Las Vegas, which would eventually become the promotion’s home base. When the UFC returned to Atlantic City four years later for UFC 53, White credited Trump as the businessman to give the UFC its “first shot.”

It would take White nearly 15 years to repay the favour to Trump. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, White spoke on behalf of Trump, who was then running to become the 45th president of the United States. In his typical brash style, White rehashed the tale about how Trump helped legitimize the UFC by giving the promotion a chance when no one else would, and endorsed him to become the next U.S. president.

“He is a fighter and I know he will fight for this country,” White said at the conclusion of his bombastic speech.

White has since spoken publicly about Trump on several other occasions, using each opportunity to present the sitting president as a loyal friend and genuine human being. He has also defended Trump’s actions since becoming president, which, in turn, can be viewed as an extension of the UFC’s support of the president.

“I don’t agree with everything he says and I think some of the things that he does say isn’t exactly what he means. ‘Let’s build a wall’ and all this stuff – what he’s really saying is all these people coming from different countries need to do it the old school way,” White told UFC Unfiltered in 2016. “You register and you get your paperwork done. He is talking about people that are sneaking into the country. It is like when he gets in front of the camera, he gets a little too hyped up.”

White has also shown support for Trump’s sports-related concerns. Following Trump’s onslaught against former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem, White told Fox Business that the controversy was a “big deal” to him and that he believes in “standing for the national anthem.”

Then in 2018, White visited the White House along with outspoken MAGA supporter Colby Covington. Trump posed for photos with the two guests while the UFC championship was propped on his desk. And yet, White’s meeting with Trump did not end following the formal photo-op.

“I went back to the hotel, picked up my wife, and we came back and had dinner with the president in the residence,” White said. “We had dinner for three hours, and then he personally toured my wife and I around the White House.”

The Oval Office visit was yet another example of the longstanding relationship between the UFC and the current administration, a relationship that extends beyond a mere friendship between White and Trump.

Political Cagefighting

The UFC president is not the only executive who has a pre-existing relationship with Trump. Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood powerbroker whose WME-IMG company (renamed Endeavor) purchased the UFC for $4.2bn in 2016, was Trump’s agent when the billionaire starred in The Apprentice. WME-IMG later acquired the Miss Universe pageant from Trump. While it remains unclear the extent of Emanuel’s present-day relationship with Trump, the Endeavor CEO was one of the first people to get a meeting with Trump shortly following the election.

Incidentally, Trump also has a history with Ari Emanuel’s older brother Rahm, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, who later became the mayor of Chicago. Trump reportedly contributed $50,000 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign in 2010 in spite of the fact that Emanuel ran as a Democrat.

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Regardless of Emanuel’s personal political views, the UFC brass appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of the current President and his policies. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, individuals connected to the UFC leadership at the time donated over $1m to Republican congressmen and senators, as well as Republican committees and Super PACs. Some of the money (approximately $500,000) was contributed by Zuffa LLC, the then parent company of the UFC.

Given the longstanding ties between Trump and the UFC brass, it comes as little surprise that the promotion is being used as an occasional stage for the incumbent president and his ideologies. The UFC even produced a documentary showcasing its history with Trump and the supposed influence he had on their eventual success. The short film, which was titled Combatant in Chief, is was less of a history lesson and more a shameless example of the UFC using its infrastructure to idolize one of the most controversial presidents in US history — a case study in how sports organizations can moonlight as platforms for political propaganda.

By late 2019, the UFC announced that Trump would be in attendance for UFC 244 in New York City. The president arrived at Madison Square Garden in time for the main card and stayed for the remainder of the show. White even claimed that it was the “most electrifying entrance” he had seen. It was also the first time that a former or sitting US President attended a mixed martial arts fight in person.

There have since been reports that the UFC has used its relationship to Trump to call in political favours. Former UFC fighter Leslie Smith, the founder of Project Spearhead, suggested that the promotion could have used its relationship to Trump to get her complaint dropped by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB). Smith’s complaint claimed that the UFC violated the National Labour Relations Act by firing because of her attempts to organize a UFC labour movement through Project Spearhead. Smith also hoped her complaint would force the NLRB to determine whether FUC fighters are employees or independent contractors.

However, the NLRB determined the UFC did not retaliate against Smith when it bought her out of her contract and released her after a canceled fight in April 2018. And because the NLRB ruled in favour of the UFC, it was not required to distinguish whether the fighters were employees or independent contractors.

Smith reiterated her position in a series of tweets following White’s appearance at a Trump rally in Colorado.

“My charges against the UFC for retaliation and misclassification were found to have merit, Smith tweeted. “That mean the NLRB agreed that we seemed enough like statutory employees to pursue the case. But a few hours later that decision was pulled back and the Division of Advice (Trump’s appointees) commandeered my case & a few months later dismissed it without examining our status as statutory employees- they said I had not been retaliated against even though I had a 3 fight win streak in my weight class when I was cut in unusual circumstances.”

Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Smith’s cause was also taken up by presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who claimed that “Donald Trump has decided to keep UFC fighters from having a chance to organize and keep Leslie out of work…My plan is to get Leslie her job back. We’re going to help her show Donald Trump that he messed with the wrong woman.”

While White’s speech at the Trump rally in Colorado lasted approximately 90 seconds, its potential influence as sports-related soft power extends far beyond that timeframe. It is yet another example of how White, and the UFC by extension, plan to use the resources available to them to help shape the coming election.

“He’s a fighter,” White concluded. “He loves this country. He’s doing great things for this country, and we’ve got to win this election again ladies and gentleman.”

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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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