Revisionist History: How Dana White is rewriting the UFC’s political legacy

Dana White would like you to believe that the UFC is an apolitical organization. Appearing on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show Monday night,…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
Revisionist History: How Dana White is rewriting the UFC’s political legacy
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Dana White would like you to believe that the UFC is an apolitical organization.

Appearing on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show Monday night, White claimed that the UFC’s success during the COVID-19 pandemic was due, in part, to the promotion’s supposed political apathy.

“One of the things that I really tried to do through this whole thing is stay out of politics,” White told Hannity. “When people tune in to watch sports, they don’t want to hear that crap. They don’t want to hear what your opinions are, or who you’re voting for, or what you’re doing. They want to get away from everything in their life, and they want to focus on [for] two, three, four hours, however long the sport is … throughout this pandemic, when you turned on the UFC, we never talked about Covid. We never talked about politics.”

White, who embarked on a series of conservative talk shows appearances over the past week, was reiterating a statement he made on conservative firebrand Candace Owens’ show last Friday. Aware of the audience he was tapping into, White pandered to the “stick to sports” crowd, insisting that his company would never follow in the footsteps of “woke” sports leagues such as the NBA and NFL, which prefer to address socio-political topics during live broadcasts. When Hannity asked White whether he saw a “direct correlation” between the “precipitous decline in a lot of other sports because of woke politics culture” and the “growth of the UFC,” White replied that “it would be hard to say no, that they don’t go hand-in-hand.”

While such statements about the UFC’s distaste for politics boosted White’s popularity within the conservative media landscape, it could not be further from the truth.

White, a loyal friend to Donald Trump since 2001, has spent the better part of the last four years strengthening the UFC’s ties to the former president. In 2016, White stood in front of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and praised Trump in a bombastic speech before endorsing his run for president. Over the course of four minutes, White spoke of Trump as a “fighter and I know he will fight for this country.” He spoke again at the 2020 RNC, where he spouted many of Trump’s campaign talking points.

“President Trump built the greatest economy in our nation’s history and created opportunities for all Americans like no one before him,” White said during a pre-taped speech for the 2020 RNC in August. “Financial markets hit all-time highs; unemployment hit all-time lows, and we weren’t facing the lawless destruction that now is occurring in a few of our great cities.”

White repeatedly campaigned for Trump during the 2020 presidential campaign. On one occasion, the UFC president invited several fighters, including former flyweight champ Henry Cejudo, Colby Covington, manager Ali Abdelaziz, and Justin Gaethje. These fighters would later be special guests at a Trump reception hosted by Keystone Corp, where tickets went for $2800 per person.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Beyond the UFC’s direct role in Trump’s campaign events, the promotion has also been involved in some of the Trump administration’s key political strategies, including the “Opening Up American Again” plan in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. When the UFC finally held UFC 249 – its first pay-per-view event in the wake of the pandemic – it came as no surprise when 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 in the pre-taped clip.

Despite White’s claims that the UFC is an apolitical entity, there are countless examples to the contrary. His attempts to dismiss the organization’s role as the sports arm of Trump’s presidency and his effort to rewrite the narrative surrounding the UFC’s overt politics is a clear case of revisionist history.

During his appearances on Hannity and Owens’ shows, White claimed that the UFC does not involve “politics” in its programming. And while the hosts lauded the UFC president’s efforts, they failed to mention the countless examples where the UFC allowed political narratives to dominate their programming. In 2016, White appeared on the UFC Unfiltered podcast—a podcast operated by the UFC—and defended Trump’s policies, including his effort to build a wall.

“[Trump] is one of those guys that if he was sitting in this room and we were hanging out, he would completely change your opinion about him. 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 said at the time.

The UFC also produced a political propaganda documentary about Trump’s relationship with the UFC titled “Combatant in Chief.” For 14 minutes of the film, fight promoters, former politicians, and UFC officials laud the incumbent president’s business savvy. Trump event made an appearance at UFC 244 in New York, where he was repeatedly shown on camera throughout the broadcast. All these are examples contradict White’s claims that the UFC does not include politics in its programming.

White and the UFC’s political actions are not limited to the Trump administration. In October 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden enlisted the help of UFC President Dana White and former champion Chuck Liddell to promote the candidacy of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. White spoke at the University of Nevada campus about the importance of voting and spent the rest of the day meeting with students and convincing them to vote.

White most recently welcomed Gov. Ron DeSantis at the pre-fight press conference ahead of the capacity-crowd UFC 261 event in Jacksonville, Florida last week. During the presser, DeSantis gave a defiant speech, where he took several jabs at the media, celebrated White’s handling of the UFC throughout the pandemic, and touted Florida as an “oasis of freedom.”

That same week, White bemoaned cancel culture and how holding unpopular political opinions can damage careers. “It’s like we live in this world right now where nobody’s allowed to have their own opinion,” White told Candace Owens in an exclusive interview airing Friday night on Candace. “These are all grown men and women that fight for us. They all have their own beliefs, their own politics or whatever it is.”

White’s statement was likely in reference to UFC fighters such as Colby Covington, the part-troll, part conservative mouthpiece who promoted himself as the athletic embodiment of Trump’s politics. Covington came under scrutiny for referring to Black Lives Matter activists as “terrorists” and using MAGA talking points to promote his fight with Tyron Woodley. And yet, Covington did not fall victim to the “stick to sports’ mobs that targeted athletes who stood against racial injustice, including Lebron James. While White’s statements makes it seem that his fighters are constantly being muzzled by the court of public opinion, the truth is that the conservative “stick to sports” crowd largely ignores narratives that match their own.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

In fact, 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. As for White, his reference to cancel culture, woke sports, and the “stick to sports” narrative is little more than an attempt to pander to conservative TV hosts and their respective audiences.

Another example of White’s hypocrisy lies in his claim that the UFC doesn’t “put a muzzle on anyone” and doesn’t “tell people what they can and cannot talk about.” While the UFC has made no attempts to limit political speech, the promotion has a long history of aggression towards fighters who pushed for unionization. Former UFC fighter Leslie 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’s legal advisor, Lucas Middlebrook, later revealed that the UFC likely called in a favor from Trump, who had appointed the NLRB director at the time.

White and the UFC have also been known to intimidate reporters, using access as a tool to maintain control. To date, there are a number of reporters who remain blacklisted by the promotion, including Hunt, Sherdog editor (and Guardian contributor) Josh Gross, Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Snowden, the entire staff of Bloody Elbow.

In December 2020, White released an incendiary video targeting journalists who criticized his decision to hold fights during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The video, which has since been removed by the UFC, was a montage of journalists’ faces, out-of-context headlines, and orchestral music—a propaganda showpiece aimed at undermining journalists.

White’s attempt to present the UFC as a politically apathetic sports entity is little more than revisionist history. By claiming that the company is apolitical, White is ignoring the UFC’s longstanding affiliation with the Trump administration as well as the countless examples of political content on its programming, and is instead pandering to the same conservative fan base that, ironically, was drawn to the UFC due to its partiality towards Trump.

And yet, in defiance of these facts, White continues to argue that politics have no place in sports.

“It’s America,” White told Owens. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. And you shouldn’t have to go to work and listen to that s**t.”

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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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