Neo-Nazi MMA fight clubs are spreading hate across the U.S.

It was Wednesday evening when Larry Boone, the CEO of the Black-owned AM Deli in South Philadelphia, noticed some strange markings painted on an…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
Neo-Nazi MMA fight clubs are spreading hate across the U.S.
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

It was Wednesday evening when Larry Boone, the CEO of the Black-owned AM Deli in South Philadelphia, noticed some strange markings painted on an ATM outside his shop on Fourth and Wharton Street.

The lightning-bolt graffiti advertised an “Active Club,” a collection of neo-Nazi MMA & fitness fight clubs. The outfit was founded by Robert Rundo, one of the leaders of the infamous Rise Above Movement white supremacist organization, known for encouraging fellow extremists to engage in martial arts training.

“It’s kind of shocking,” Boone told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s really unfamiliar for this neighborhood. Even though we grew up in this neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s, still it’s a little different than something we’re used to.”

Other Active Club propaganda has appeared elsewhere in Pennsylvania over the past few months. According to LancasterOnline, another local Active Club known as the Keystone Nationalist Active Club claimed responsibility for white supremacist and antisemitic stickers found at Millersville University and Franklin & Marshall College in December 2021.

The group has since been involved in dozens of propaganda campaigns across Pennsylvania, spreading stickers and posters emblazoned with the Active Club logo or statements claiming pushing the antisemitic myth of a global Jewish conspiracy, as well stickers demonizing Black people.

One of the stickers found at Millersville University read, “They hate you for being white.”

Various videos and photos posted by the various Active Club groups on alternative social media platforms like Telegram show how common this form of publicity stunt has become in small-town USA: Seymour, Indiana; Coeur d’Alene Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyoming—or even across cities like Denver and, more recently, Philadelphia. This new influx of white supremacist propaganda is due to the persistent effort of infamous white nationalists like Rundo, who spent years sowing the seeds of hate while building a global following for his neo-Nazi fight-club initiatives.

The past few years have seen countless examples of the far right taking advantage of combat sports spaces in order to radicalize and unite disenfranchised youth. Russian neo-Nazi MMA organization White Rex was among the first entities to utilize the violent sport, later expanding to include a clothing line emblazoned with fascist symbolism. Other fascist fight clubs began appearing in places like Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, all of whom utilized combat sports as a tool for radicalization.

Among those who emerged from this trend was Robert Rundo’s Rise Above Movement (RAM), which touted itself as the “premier MMA club of the Alt-Right representing the United States.” Inspired by the identitarian movements in Europe, RAM rose to prominence in 2017 when they began attending political rallies and targeting anti-fascist activists. They infiltrated protests and disrupted proceedings by fighting with those opposing their ultra-nationalist ideology. They concealed their identities using skull face masks and goggles, and went into rallies with their hands wrapped in tape in preparation for physical altercations.

However, a string of arrests in 2018 led to the group’s eventual disintegration. However, Rundo had his charges dismissed in 2019 and left the U.S. shortly thereafter. He has since spent the last few years in Eastern Europe trying to further his white nationalist agenda and rebuild the fighting community that had been diminished by federal prosecution.

Rundo launched his Active Club outfit in 2020, shortly after completing a propaganda campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with (and later acquitted of) the fatal shooting of two protesters during an anti-racism demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He encouraged his followers to form their own local clubs, which he defined as a “small group of comrades who share our values of identity.” The aim of such groups is to “focus on physical fitness” and “create displays of defiance that show your community that our culture will not be erased.”

Robert Rundo

“Clubs and crews are forming all over, promoting the active lifestyle and even reaching places on the other side of the world like New Zealand and Australia,” Rundo wrote in a December 2020 blog post titled ‘The Idea Behind Active Club.’ “Each of these active club-style organizations is setting up fitness groups and doing local activism. This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the Active Club’s effectiveness and shows how a smaller club can have a much broader effect than anyone realizes.”

By keeping the Active Clubs small and local, Rundo believes it will be more difficult for the media and law enforcement to shut down the entire operation. “The system and media will waste tons of energy and resources to put out one small fire as another catches a spark elsewhere,” Rundo continued in his blog post.

Rundo’s guidelines suggest he has learned from his mistakes with RAM. Initially, the white nationalist group, the first prominent example of an active club in North America, had 50 members and was active on mainstream social media, which made it easy for researchers to identify its members. The modern iteration of the active club, which Rundo sometimes refers to as “white nationalism 3.0,” is different. The groups are local, self-contained, and are careful about the images they publish online. They take part in fitness activities together and focus on local activism—spreading stickers, posters, and banner drops—instead of taking part in rallies and demonstrations where they may be identified.

To date, Rundo’s active clubs have formed across the United States, including in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Active clubs have even launched in several Canadian provinces.

Rundo has also launched Media2Rise, a media entity that would allow white supremacists to propagate their own narratives and push their hateful ideologies without facing consequences such as censorship or legal action. The propaganda outfit also employs a violent member of Montana’s white power movement as its on-air broadcaster.

Media2Rise has since created short documentaries on white supremacist groups such as Patriot Front and the National Justice Party.

While Media2Rise is operated by Rundo, Active Clubs are locally run and vary across the board. For example, one of the Active Clubs in Canada temporarily changed its name to “Action 14,” a reference to the 14-word neo-Nazi slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The rebranding leaves no doubt that the group is more than a fitness club for like-minded individuals but rather a white nationalist propaganda outfit that indoctrinates white men into the nationalist cause.

An Indiana Active Club branch helped plan a White Lives Matter protest in downtown Jeffersonville, posting flyers on their Telegram channel that read, “It’s time to take a stand.” The group is planning a second event at an undisclosed location in April.

By using combat sports as a medium to recruit, radicalize, and discipline white nationalists disenfranchised by mainstream conservative politics, Rundo is able to create physical and digital spaces where extreme right political ideologies can flourish.

While Rundo would have once had to rely on physical gyms to achieve his goal, he is now able to reach new audiences through chat rooms, alternative social media platforms, livestreamed fights, combat sports festivals, and publicity stunts like graffitiing Black-owned businesses. By focusing on a wealth of new platforms, Rundo has successfully merged his extremist ideology with modern-day prizefighting culture.

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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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