Conservative Cagefighting: How the UFC became fashionable among the American right

Last week, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White spoke at the Republican National Convention (RNC), where he bellowed his support for U.S. President…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
Conservative Cagefighting: How the UFC became fashionable among the American right
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Last week, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White spoke at the Republican National Convention (RNC), where he bellowed his support for U.S. President Donald Trump over the course of a five-minute pre-recorded clip.

White’s RNC appearance — his second speech for Trump in 2020 — was filled with vociferous endorsements, right-wing talking points, blatant lies, and an endless stream of Trump campaign propaganda. His bombastic speech was a necessary reminder that White — and by extension, the UFC — has become a thinly veiled platform to reelect the sitting president.

While the vast majority of mainstream sports leagues have stepped beyond their athletic endeavours for social justice stances such as Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, and gender equality — stances that have since angered right-wing mobs and politicians and led to boycotts — the UFC has instead chosen to ignore these crucial societal concerns in exchange for talking points that pander to Trump’s base of right-wing supporters, many of whom now champion the UFC as the last bastion of American sports institutions.

So how exactly did the UFC become a haven for right-wing Americans, especially when its was conservative politicians who dealt a near-fatal blow to the organization in the late 1990s? How exactly did the UFC — an organization with more international athletes than the NBA and the NFL — end up prioritizing patriotic propaganda over racial diversity?

The answer lies in the promotion’s longstanding relationship with the Trump administration.

The Electoral Octagon

“Many of you know who I am, what I do, and that I am friends with the president. I spoke at this convention four years ago, and I’m back because I believe we need President Trump’s leadership now more than ever,” White said to open his pre-taped speech at the RNC last week.

White stated that it is “critically important to reelect President Trump” before lavishing praise on president’s controversial performance during his four-year term in office, which included false claims regarding unemployment rates, economic vitality, his coronavirus pandemic response, and his loyalty as an individual. “I have said it before, and I will say it again, he is one of the most loyal human beings I have ever met. The man was unstoppable energy, no one, I mean no one is going to outwork this guy.” White declared.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The UFC’s relationship with Donald Trump dates back to 2001, shortly after ZUFFA purchased the promotion. At the time, the UFC was still striving for legitimacy and had been relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi. Trump 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. Trump’s decision to do business with the UFC seemingly helped the promotion reestablish legitimacy. By late 2001, the UFC began hosting events in Las Vegas, which would eventually become the promotion’s home base.

White has since spoken publicly about Trump on several other occasions, using each opportunity to present the business mogul 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.

The UFC’s relationship with Trump is not limited to a friendship with White. UFC co-owner Ari Emanuel also has a longstanding relationship with Trump that dates back several years. The Hollywood powerbroker once represented Trump when he was a host on The Apprentice, and Trump even referred to him as a “very good friend of mine”. However, when the Hollywood Reporter questioned whether the agency was interested in re-signing him, Emanuel revealed that he is “not contemplating any of that.” WME later acquired the Miss Universe pageant from Trump, where Ari famously said“He wanted to sell it. ‘Great, we want to buy it.’”

The UFC’s relationship with Trump and his administration have reportedly had positive ramifications for the promotion. When Project Spearhead founder Leslie Smith filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) arguing that the UFC’s decision not to re-sign her was retaliation for her organizing effort, the case was dismissed. Attorney Lucas Middlebrook, who has been advising Project Spearhead accused the UFC of pulling “political strings” to get the case dismissed — a statement that former democratic candidate Andrew Yang also believed to have been the case.

While there are a variety of examples of the friendly relationship between the UFC and the Trump administration, none emphasize the political extent of that relationship more than the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic in March, White used his relationship with Trump to defy government mandates and solider on with his UFC shows. When first asked about his decision to move forward with the UFC show in Brasilia during the outbreak in March, White referenced a conversation he had with Trump in which the president told him to “be cautious, be careful, but live your life and stop panicking.”

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

In his quest to reopen the American economy, Trump enlisted numerous sports executives for an advisory group, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Vince McMahon, and Dana White. “In sports — we want to get our sports back, so importantly,” Trump said during a White House press briefing on April 14 when asked about the advisory group.

Given that the UFC boasts warm ties to the current White House administration, it comes as no surprise that the promotion followed Trump’s plan for sports to “get back soon.” When the promotion finally held its UFC 249 Pay-Per-View show, Trump appeared on the ESPN broadcast and congratulated the UFC’s efforts to get back to business. “We need sports. We want our sports back,” Trump said during the pre-taped clip.

It was later reported that White got a cage-side phone call from Trump during the UFC 249 broadcast. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you did it. I knew you were the guy. I knew you’d get it done,’” White told The Athletic.

While the UFC’s decision to align itself the Trump administration and double down on his policies has been beneficial to a promotion that would have been in financial straits without its scheduled events, it is also beneficial to Trump, who used the UFC as a blueprint to validate his blundered coronavirus pandemic response. Trump has also been able to rely on his loyal friend Dana White to rehash the president’s talking points and pander to his base. This was evident during White’s RNC speech, where — instead of elevating the Black voices on his roster — took veiled shots at the protests taking place in the United States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May.

Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images

“Before the pandemic … we weren’t facing the lawless destruction that now is occurring in a few of our great cities,” White said. “It blows my mind how quickly some of the leadership in this country has forgotten the critical role first responders play in our society. Police departments, and other law enforcement, and even some fire departments, have faced opposition from many in this country. But they are always the people who are asked to step up when things are at their worst and put themselves at risk. That has certainly been the case during this ongoing pandemic.

“C’mon, America: Defunding these vital positions is not the answer. The first responders have always taken care of us. And now, more than ever, we need to take care of them.”

“Stick to Sports” (Unless it is Pro-Trump)

In November 2018, the UFC released Combatant-in-Chief, a propaganda documentary about the promotion’s peculiar relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. The documentary — 14 minutes worth of hagiography that waxes poetic about Trump’s loyalty and his apparently unmatched business acumen — helped enhance the president’s image and gives him free promotion on a prominent sports platform.

This evident case of sportswashing — a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record — is far from the only time that the UFC has gone out of its way to both promote the sitting president, and to cement its ties to his administration.

Earlier that year, White visited the Oval Office with then interim welterweight champion Colby Covington, a fighter who promotes himself as the athletic embodiment of Trump’s politics. Part troll, part conservative mouthpiece, Covington walks around dressed in a Make America Great Again hat while making racist and xenophobic statements. Given that Covington is the personification of Trump’s ideology and fanbase, it came as little surprise when Covington posed alongside Trump, who wore the champion’s belt on his shoulder, in the Oval Office.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Covington’s run as a MAGA representative continued into 2019 when Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump attended a UFC event where Covington defeated former champion Robbie Lawler.

“Let’s give it up for the Trumps. They’re keeping America great,” Covington said during his post-fight interview.

Despite Covington’s obvious political statements and his decision to publicize his ideological stance, he did not fall victim to the “stick to sports’ mobs that targeted athletes who stood against racial injustice. Even when Trump finally attended a UFC event in 2019 — the first time a sitting U.S. President attends a mixed martial arts event — the usual suspects did not bemoan the promotion’s decision to politicize their event. This is also true for White’s Oval Office appearance, his RNC speeches, or the UFC’s propaganda documentary about Trump.

Starting to see a trend?

The “stick to sports” mantra is nothing more than a myth propagated by conservatives who lack empathy regarding real world concerns and attempt to bully and pressure media/organizations to limit free speech that does not match their narrative. By harkening back to (non-existent) good ol’ days when sports were apolitical, these trolls (some of whom are politicians and news broadcasters) are reframing the narrative as one that challenges the sanctity of their sports organizations instead of addressing the flaws within its societal institutions.

The UFC, which has amassed a new right-wing following since cementing its stance as pro-Trump, is the perfect example of this hypocrisy. Even the promotion’s ratings have witnessed a noticeable bump despite mediocre fight cards over the past few weeks, while the NBA has seen a significant drop in ratings since the recent wave of player protests.

And yet, the UFC is also political. In many ways, it is the perfect sports stage for Trump to promote his political platform with minimal resistance, especially during campaign season. The promotion has proven that it is willing to polarize a large segment of its roster and sacrifice a portion of its fanbase in exchange for the benefits that come from an alliance with a president who has treated the United States as though it were his own personal golf resort.

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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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