‘Better Dead Than Red’: How political narratives fuel UFC fight promotion

Over the course of the UFC’s 28-year history, fighters have relied on their competitive nature, financial incentives, and—on occasion—personal animosity to draw motivation inside…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
‘Better Dead Than Red’: How political narratives fuel UFC fight promotion
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Over the course of the UFC’s 28-year history, fighters have relied on their competitive nature, financial incentives, and—on occasion—personal animosity to draw motivation inside the Octagon. More recently, however, a handful of fighters have used political narratives as a source of inspiration, including former UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.

Speaking with Lithuanian National Radio and Television earlier this week, Namajunas, who is scheduled to challenge current strawweight champion Zhang Weili—the UFC’s first Chinese champion—at UFC 261 in Florida, revealed that her motivation to defeat Zhang was rooted in her hatred for communism.

“I don’t hate Weili or anything like that,” Namajunas said during the interview. “…but I do feel as though I have a lot to fight for in this fight and what she represents.”

Namajunas—a Lithuanian-American citizen whose parents immigrated from Lithuania after living under the communist regime of the Soviet Union—emphasized the generational trauma that her family has endured while living in a communist state. During the Second World War, Lithuania was first occupied by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany. In 1944, the Soviets reestablished their control of Lithuania, which it maintained until 1990—a year before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union—when Lithuania became the first Baltic state to declare independence.

During the 45-year occupation, Lithuania underwent several uprisings and endured countless war crimes and atrocities from the Soviet regime. Namajunas’ great-grandfather was an Independent Lithuania military officer killed by the Soviets near his house in the temporary capital of Kaunas.

Ahead of her UFC 261 title fight, Namajunas attempted to educate her training partners of the “Lithuanian struggle” by watching the 2012 documentary ‘The Other Dream Team,’ which follows the inspirational story of the 1992 Lithuania national basketball team and their journey to the bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The documentary helped motivate her for the upcoming bout while also reminding her of struggles that her native country endured for decades. Yet while Namajunas’ tragic family history underscores Soviet atrocities committed in the name of communism, she took it a step further when she conflated her family history under Soviet rule with Zhang being a native of China, which is also a communist state.

“After watching [the documentary], it was just a huge reminder of like, yeah, it’s better dead than red, you know?” Rose said during the interview. “And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Weili is red. That’s what she represents.”

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

“Better dead than red” was a popular Cold War slogan that took root in the United States during the late 1950s—a period of time characterized by McCarthyism, heightened political repression, and propaganda campaigns that spread paranoid claims of Soviet espionage within American institutions. Red, in this case, was a reference to communism. Interestingly, it was also used as a propaganda slogan during World War II by Nazi Germany.

While Namajunas insisted that she holds no personal hatred for Zhang, she is fueled by the underlying political narratives surrounding the bout. According to the former champion, she represents freedom and the struggle against oppression, while Zhang represents a communist country. The fact that China’s communist history diverged from that of Soviet rule since the 1950s did not factor into Namajunas’ analysis. Instead, she now finds herself consumed by a nationalist narrative built of family trauma and propaganda slogans.

It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Zhang has endured ridicule for her Chinese heritage. As COVID-19 spread in February 2020, former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk posted an insensitive and xenophobic image of herself wearing a gas mask while standing behind Weili. And while there are plenty of reasons to criticize the Chinese government—from internment camps used to detain Uighurs and people from other Muslim minorities to mass surveillance programs, internet censorship and other human rights abuses—Zhang has never made any public statements showing support for the Chinese government. And yet, this has not stopped fighters such as Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk from engaging in nationalistic fervor and xenophobia, especially since the UFC has made no attempts to reprimand them for their actions.

Dueling political narratives are nothing new when it comes to UFC fight promotion. Last year, Tyron Woodley, a Black Lives Matter advocate from Ferguson, faced Colby Covington, a UFC welterweight who rose to relevance by embodying a MAGA gimmick. The bout was charged with racial tension— Woodley donned a BLM shirt and a red hat that said, “Make the Racists Catch the Fade Again” while Covington answered questions in a red “Keep America Great” hat and used the opportunity to push his pro-Trump talking points. At one point, Covington even promoted the bout as a “fight of good versus evil,” adding that his “side is good.”

“I stand up for the blue,” Covington said at the time. “I support first responders. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. … I’m excited to stand up for what’s right and fight for my people.”

Covington doubled down on his comments during a post-fight interview, adding that BLM activists are “criminals” and “terrorists.”

“You know the Black Lives Matter is a complete sham,” Covington said during his post-fight speech. “It is a joke. They are taking these people. They are complete terrorists. They are taking these people that are criminals. You know, these aren’t people that are hardworking Americans. Blue collar Americans. These are bad people. They are criminals, you know, and they shouldn’t be attacking police. You know if you are breaking the law and you are threatening the cops with weapons. You know, you deserve to get what you get.”

Despite Covington’s tirade drawing criticism from fans and pundits alike, the UFC did not take any action against the fighter. Instead, White defended Covington’s decision to voice his beliefs.

“These guys all have their own causes, things, their own beliefs,” White said at the time. “We don’t muzzle anybody here. We let everybody speak their mind. I don’t know what he said that was racist. I don’t know if I heard anything racist that he said.”

The UFC’s role in profiting from tense political narratives should not be understated. White has talked openly about using geopolitical conflict and tension as promotional tactics, adding that it would be useful as the UFC expands into the Middle East and North Africa.

“When I have a guy from Jordan, a guy from Abu Dhabi, a guy from Saudi Arabia and all these other places—when they start coming up the rankings and start fighting each other—there is rivalry in this region that has been going on for thousands of years,” White told UFC Arabia in January. “I am telling you right now, when we get the right guy from the right place at the right time, we will put on a fight in [the UAE] that will blow the doors off anything that’s ever been seen from the Middle East…and the world will be watching.”

The MENA region has undergone several modern geopolitical transformations, starting with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the fall of the European colonial order after World War II, and the current spread of political chaos in the form of war, humanitarian crises, and dueling religious narratives. The fact that Dana White views the MENA region’s geopolitical strife as a profitmaking opportunity for his business emphasizes the UFC’s dehumanizing approach to fight promotion.

Beyond the current UFC dynamics, there are countless examples of political narratives being utilized within combat sports to express nationalistic propaganda, whether by authoritarian regimes, democratic nations, or even athletes themselves. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party promoted legendary German boxer Max Schmeling as proof of German superiority in their racially-charged propaganda, especially following his victory over African-American boxing star Joe Louis in their first fight. Interestingly, Schmeling was not a member of the Nazi Party and repeatedly denied his government’s claims of racial superiority: “I am a fighter, not a politician. I am no superman in any way,” he once said.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite Schmeling’s distaste for Nazi politics, he continued to be exploited by the regime. Schmeling’s wife and mother were kept from traveling with him to avoid the chances of defection, while a Nazi publicist followed Schmeling around to ensure his compliance. Ahead of Schmeling’s second fight against Louis, Hitler lifted the nationwide 3:00 a.m. curfew so that cafés and bars could carry the broadcast for their patrons, thus emphasizing the significance of the bout for his propaganda campaign.

While Schmeling was an unwilling representative of Nazi politics, the fight itself have racial and political undertones that extended beyond him. Louis was viewed as the representative for Black Americans, and many hinged their hopes and expectations on his success. Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou recalled the emotion of the second fight, which Louis won, as well as Louis’ status as the first true African American national hero.

“Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world,” Angelou wrote. “People drank Coca-Cola like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.”

It is one thing to have political narratives thrust upon you by authoritarian regimes or even struggling minority groups seeking dignity and change, and another to manipulate political strife for profit. The UFC appears to have mastered the art of political manipulation, whether by allowing its fighters to spread political and nationalist propaganda, or by simply engaging in geopolitics in the pursuit for profit.

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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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