Ultimate Fighting Election: How the UFC gambled and lost in the 2020 presidential election

On Sep. 13, 2020, thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters packed inside a manufacturing plant in Henderson, Nevada despite a state directive limiting indoor…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
Ultimate Fighting Election: How the UFC gambled and lost in the 2020 presidential election
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Sep. 13, 2020, thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters packed inside a manufacturing plant in Henderson, Nevada despite a state directive limiting indoor gatherings to less than 50 people. Brandishing MAGA caps and slogans emblazoned with phrases such as “PEACEFUL PROTESTER” and “PRO-LIFE VOICES,” the crowd gathered to show support for the incumbent president as he commenced his “Great American Comeback” campaign and to listen to a range of speakers, including UFC President Dana White.

Dressed in his characteristic navy blue suit – sans tie – White pandered to the raucous crowd, emphasizing that “we need to re-elect Donald Trump…he put America first and made America strong again.”

“People need to get back to work, our kids need to get back to school, we need to clean up some of these cities, and we need to take care of law enforcement,” White said, reciting several of Trump’s talking points.

White’s bombastic speech is one of countless examples of the UFC’s involvement in Trump’s re-election campaign. White, along with a select group of UFC fighter, spent the last few months advocating for the incumbent president in an attempt to ensure his re-election. From campaign rallies and bus tours, to TV appearances and ad spots, the UFC went to great lengths to campaign for Trump.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Despite their efforts, Trump lost the 2020 presidential elections to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Saturday, Nov. 7, when Pennsylvania was called for the former Vice President, pushing him past the required 270 votes in the electoral college. The longtime Delaware senator won both the popular vote and the electoral college, which made Trump the first president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

While Trump has not conceded the election at this time, all signs point to a shifting White House administration in the coming months. This will likely have significant impact on many of Trump’s policies and will place organizations such as the UFC – an entity facing several key labor disputes over the next few years – in difficult positions.

The Electoral Gambit

On election night, all eyes were on Florida.

As the polls closed that evening, it became clear that Miami had dealt a significant blow to Biden’s campaign. With approximately 93 percent of the in-person and vote-by-mail results counted that night, Biden led Trump in Miami-Dade County by less than 10 percentage points – a smaller lead than Democrats had anticipated in Florida’s largest county.

While a victory in Florida would have all but assured Biden an early victory in the presidential election, a “bloodbath” in Miami-Dade – thanks in part to the city’s Latino voters – meant that Biden’s chances of winning Florida were slim, which in turn meant that the race would be a drawn-out affair.

In the end, Trump won Florida’s 29 electoral votes with 51.2% of the vote. The Trump campaign achieved this victory, in part, by using disinformation and fearmongering strategies aimed at dissuading Latinos and the Hispanic communities from voting for Biden, especially those who hail from repressive socialist regimes in South America. The strategy was simple enough: brand Biden as a harbinger of socialism and Trump as the last bastion of American freedom – a strategy that involved co-opting Latino MMA fighters for anti-socialism events.

Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

One such example is the ‘Fighters Against Socialism’ bus tour orchestrated by Donald Trump Jr.. The four-part event, which took place in October, saw events across the state of Florida, including Tampa, Orlando, Coconut Creek, and Miami, and was headlined by UFC star Jorge Masvidal. The Cuban-American fighter – son of a Cuban immigrant who fled his native land on a tire – was the perfect poster boy for the events.

Masvidal relayed the “horrors” of socialism while imploring attendees not to allow the Democrats to destroy American freedoms.

“Obviously I am not a politician,” Masvidal told the crowd in attendance. “I may not be schooled in a lot of these political issues like some of you, but I do know Latinos. Latinos are not lazy people looking for a handout. Latinos don’t want free stuff, we want freedom.”

Masvidal continued to play an important role in the final days of the campaign. On Sunday, Nov. 1, Trump held a late-night rally at the Miami-Opa Locka Executive airport, where Masvidal was a featured speaker. He recited the same speech he used during the bus tour and reiterated all the same talking points about socialism, communism, and the importance of re-electing the president.

The following morning, Masvidal appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News, where he claimed that a “red wave” was happening in Florida.

While Trump’s strategy did not secure him the presidency, it certainly benefited him with the Cuban population in Florida. While Latinos in Florida voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 59 percent to 38 percent, Cuban Americans in Florida voted for Trump over Biden by 55 percent to 42 percent.

Trump’s focus on the Latino communities did not stop there. The Trump team also enlisted MMA fighters for their Latinos for Trump events in various cities, including former UFC champions Henry Cejudo and Tito Ortiz, a known conspiracy-monger and QAnon follower.

Apart from the influence of Latino UFC fighters, the Trump re-election team enjoyed support from UFC President Dana White, who campaigned for Trump on numerous occasions. In 2020 alone, White spoke at rallies in Nevada and Colorado, gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, and even did an ad spot imploring people to go out and vote for Trump.

Photo by fupp/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

In the wake of Trump’s defeat at the hands of Biden last week, several of the same fighters took to social media to spread misinformation about alleged voter fraud. Several of Ortiz’s Instagram posts have been flagged for misinformation, while Masvidal continued to label Biden a communist and even retweeted a photoshopped picture of Al Gore being proclaimed the winner of the 2000 presidential election. Former UFC champ Eddie Alvarez and Colby Covington, a UFC welterweight who rose to relevance by embodying a MAGA gimmick, posted voter fraud claims while Ultimate Fighter contestant and Proud Boys supporter Tara La Rosa proclaimed a “civil war is coming.”

The widespread support for Trump from MMA fighters is part of the reason why the president embraced the sport during his tenure in office. Much like other authoritarian leaders including Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Jair Bolsonaro, Trump valued the endorsements of masculine athletes and viewed it as an element of his overall brand and leadership style – something he would later hint at during several of his rallies.

“But Sleepy Joe, I don’t think Sleepy Joe would be a good fighter,” Trump said at an event in Bullhead City, Arizona on Oct. 28. “I asked Dana before. One gentle little touch to the face and he’s down. He’s down and he wouldn’t get up very quickly either.”

In the end, Trump’s attempts at machismo and bravado were not enough to ensure his victory in the 2020 presidential elections. As such, the UFC will now have to face an entirely different administration over the next few years – friendlier to labour movements – much to the potential detriment of the promotion.

The UFC under Biden

In Oct. 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden visited the University of Nevada, Reno campus in a campaign-sponsored rally in support of the candidacy of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. In an attempt to persuade young people to vote in the midterm elections, Biden enlisted the help of UFC President Dana White and former champion Chuck Liddell.

The event began with a rally on campus, where tickets and seating was distributed by the Young Democrats. White arrived on stage, flanked by Liddell, and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of voting.

“Many of you know I am not a political person or a politically correct person,” White said. “But I came here today to tell you guys how important it is to go out and vote. We’re blessed in this country that we have the right to actually go out and pick who gets put into office and who represents us.”

White spent the rest of the day meeting with university students and convincing them to go out and vote. At one point, the UFC President was surrounded by a group of UFC fans and discussed the upcoming fight between Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. One student even held up a sign that read “Iceman 4 VP 2012.”

MMA Journalist Ariel Helwani later asked White about his experience meeting Biden, which the UFC President described as “cool.”

“He was a very nice guy. He was fun to hang out with and I had a good time. I was honored.”

Much has changed in the decade since that interview in October 2010.

In the wake of the 2020 presidential elections, White was asked to share his thoughts on Biden potentially becoming president and whether he believed it would have an impact on his business: “I don’t think Biden even knows who I am,” White told MMA Junkie at the “Contender Series” post-fight press conference. “I don’t think Biden knows who Biden is (laughs). I had to do it. I don’t think so, who knows? I don’t know.”

Jim Lo Scalzo via USA TODAY NETW

Despite White’s not-so-subtle jab at Biden, the UFC will likely attempt to maintain a friendly relationship with the incoming administration, if only in the hope that they are not in the crossfires of a government that will be more welcoming to workers than employers.

There are many examples of how the Trump administration benefited the UFC, including reports that the promotion used its relationship to the president to sway the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) following a complaint from former UFC fighter Leslie Smith.

Smith filed the complaint in May 2018, claiming the UFC violated the National Labor Relations Act by retaliating against her by buying her out of her UFC contract because of her attempts to organize a labor movement called Project Spearhead. Smith hoped her complaint would force the NLRB to determine whether UFC fighters are employees or independent contractors. However, the NLRB determined the UFC did not retaliate against Smith when it let her go after a canceled fight in April 2018, and as a result it was not required to determine whether the fighters were employees or independent contractors.

Smith’s legal advisor, Lucas Middlebrook, later revealed that the UFC likely called in a favor from Trump, who himself appointed the NLRB’s current director Peter B. Robb.

While Smith is optimistic about potentially rehashing her NLRB complaint to different results, she was also excited about how a Biden administration could impact MMA overall.

“I am excited about the potential for a more worker friendly NLRB under the Biden administration,” Smith told Bloody Elbow. “I look forward to seeing who he appoints and how the first few issues are dealt with to get a better sense of what to expect over the next four years. I am also excited about the possibilities of Andrew Yang holding a position, Politico released a list of potential Biden Administration Officials that lists Andrew Yang as a potential Chief Technology Officer. I believe Yang will continue to advocate for MMA fighters and pro wrestlers from any position he lands it.”

“Over the next couple of years I hope to see the major gig companies be held accountable for their employees’ welfare. Uber, Lyft, the UFC and the WWE have all taken liberties and adopted levels of control over their workers that make them employees but the companies have been allowed to keep them classified as independent contractors. I hope that changes,” Smith added.

Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 elections, rose to prominence for his advocacy for Universal Basic Income. He was also an MMA fan who wants to work with Congress to extend the Muhammad Ali Boxing Act to MMA organizations, have the National Labor Relations Board treat MMA fighters as employees rather than independent contractors, and help them organize into an association or union. He argued that MMA “doesn’t have a strong private sector organization” to establish ethical standards or business practices.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

“You have a major sport with billions of dollars of value, where the athletes often can’t afford to fight full-time, and it is only because the UFC systematically squashed any effort for fighters to be treated the same way athletes are in other sport.,” Yang said during an interview with Bloody Elbow.

Yang also advocated for Smith and later invited Smith to speak at one of his rallies in San Francisco during the height of his presidential campaign. “I think Leslie Smith is a great American role model and I don’t think her [labour] fight got enough attention. The fact that she supported my campaign is something that I am proud of and honoured by,” Yang added

Beyond the NLRB claim, the UFC is currently facing a $5 billion antitrust lawsuit that, if certified as class action, could signal a fundamental change in the way the promotion operates overall.

The suit, which was filed in 2014, claims that the UFC used predatory and anti-competitive practices to illegally acquire and maintain a monopoly over the MMA landscape, which in turn was used to keep wages down. And while legal proceedings have been taking place for the last five years, U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware, who’s presiding over the case, recently said he is “likely” to certify the suit as class action, which would group more than 1000 fighters together to sue the UFC.

Faced with a significant threat to their business, the UFC was relying on Trump’s administration to influence the outcome. One of the ways it could have achieved this was through Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.

Prior to becoming Trump’s appointee to lead the Antitrust Division, Delrahim worked for law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and had a roster of clients that included Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbied both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the UFC regarding ‘Piracy of copyrighted programming’ and against ‘H.R 5365 – Muhammad Ali Expansion Act’.

Delrahim, a former lobbyist, revealed in a 2017 interview with the New York Times that “antitrust is intended to support free markets and that the government should intervene only when necessary.” He also added that a “monopoly is perfectly legal until it abuses its monopoly power.”

Under Biden, the White House would appoint another official to head the Antitrust Division, which means that Delrahim’s views on monopolies, and his conflict of interest with the UFC may not matter if the judge certifies the antitrust case against the promotion.

While the UFC will likely be faced with several obstacles under the new administration, the promotion is not entirely without friends. Hollywood super-agent and UFC co-owner Ari Emanuel is a registered Democrat who donated to Kamala Harris in 2015 and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 (it is not clear whether he donated to Biden’s campaign in 2020). His brother, Rahm Emanuel, was former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff during his first term in office, while a third brother, oncologist Ezekiel Emanuel, was just announced as part of the Biden-Harris transition COVID-19 advisory board.

Much like White’s previous interactions with the Obama administration in 2010, expect the UFC brass to take any opportunity to build a relationship with the Biden administration, if only to soften the blow of the looming labor-related legal battles it faces in the coming years.

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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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