The American MMA fighter who became a Russian wartime propagandist

Last month, the All-Russia People’s Front—a political coalition started by Russian President Vladimir Putin—posted several videos featuring American MMA fighter Jeff Monson. Entitled “Top…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
The American MMA fighter who became a Russian wartime propagandist
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Last month, the All-Russia People’s Front—a political coalition started by Russian President Vladimir Putin—posted several videos featuring American MMA fighter Jeff Monson.

Entitled “Top Truth: Donbass,” the videos saw Monson regurgitate Kremlin disinformation regarding Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Dressed in a simple brown v-neck shirt, the former UFC title challenger claimed that Russia was not interested in occupying Ukraine and that its only intention is to rid the country of fascism.

“I have friends in Europe who think Russia is the bad guy or Russia is the aggressor that is trying to attack Ukraine, take over Ukraine, occupy Ukraine, which is absolute nonsense,” Monson said on the video, which was published on the coalition’s Telegram channel. “Russia doesn’t have the desire nor the economic or military capacity to hold a country that doesn’t want to be held. They are trying to help the people of Donbas and are trying to rid Ukraine of Nazis and fascism.”

While some Ukrainian military units such as the Azov regiment maintain connections to neo-Nazism, their role in Ukraine has been greatly exaggerated by Russian state media to support the war, as well as to back up Russian president Vladimir Putin’s goal of “denazification” in Ukraine. It is a statement rooted in Kremlin wartime propaganda aimed to justify the ongoing conflict.

Monson, 51, went on to blame NATO, the United States, and other Western nations for the ongoing conflict, stating that they “crossed a red line that can’t be crossed.”

Though Monson’s metamorphosis from a journeyman fighter to Russian political sideshow and wartime propagandist may be surprising to combat sports fans who remember him as a former UFC title contender and ADCC champion, his transformation has been years in the making.

“Ya Russkiy”

Monson’s career as a combat sports athlete took off in 1999 when he defeated four high-ranked Brazilian grapplers to win gold at the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Submission Wrestling World Championship.

Though limited in his experience as a jiu-jitsu practitioner at the time, Monson quickly established himself as one of the world’s top submission grapplers. He gave up on his career as a child psychologist and decided to dedicate himself to combat sports, eventually signing with the UFC in 2000 after compiling a 5-2 professional record in mixed martial arts.

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

Though Monson won his promotional debut at UFC 27, he later suffered losses to UFC legend Chuck Liddell and former champion Ricco Rodriguez and parted ways with the organization. He returned to the regional scene, where he compiled 13 consecutive victories between 2003-2005, claiming heavyweight titles for CWFC, XFC, and SportFight. He carried that momentum back to the UFC in 2006, where he compiled an impressive 3-0 run that earned him a title shot against Tim Sylvia.

Monson lasted all five rounds with the heavyweight champion but ended up losing a unanimous decision. The loss marked the last time that Monson would compete for the UFC.

Over the course of the next 10 years—a time period that encompassed the remainder of his MMA career—Monson competed for approximately 40 different promotions. His fights took him around the world, including countries such as France, South Korea, Ukraine, England, Switzerland, Israel, and finally, Russia. This strange career trajectory brought Monson face-to-face with notable opposition such as current UFC champion Daniel Cormier, Roy Nelson, Pedro Rizzo, and Josh Barnett.

In 2011, Monson headlined an M-1 Global event in Moscow against heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko. Despite suffering a broken leg during the fight, Monson survived the entire duration of the bout, losing by unanimous decision. His gutsy performance earned the respect and admiration of Russian fight fans, and helped make him one of the most popular American fighters in Russia. He was even congratulated by Putin himself, who was in attendance that night.

Vladimir Putin congratulates Fedor Emelianenko after his victory over Jeff Monson.
Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

Monson’s loss to Emelianenko was arguably one of the more pivotal moments in the fighter’s career. He popularity soared as he continued to fight more regularly in Russia. He was recognized on a regular basis and was routinely stopped for autographs on the streets. Though his performance against Emelianenko earned him the respect of the Russian people, it was his outspoken criticism of the United States and his public support for Russia that cemented him as one of the country’s most popular fighters.

In 2016, Monson penned an op-ed for Newsweek titled Why I Became a Russian Citizen, which delved into the reasons why Monson viewed himself as a man with a “Russian soul” and why he had applied for Russian citizenship. He concluded the op-ed with the statement: “So when people ask me why I sought Russian citizenship, it’s hard to give a concise answer. I guess it’s because I just feel Russian. Why did I accept Russian citizenship? It’s because “Ya russkiy (I’m Russian.).”

Later that same year, Monson would officially enter the political fray in Russia, joining the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) as a special representative of the party’s sports club. His role included traveling to the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), a pro-Russian occupied state in Eastern Ukraine, to develop a new sports program for children. Several months following his initial visit to Luhansk, Monson announced that he had accepted LPR citizenship, effectively becoming the first American to do so.

Monson posing with a rifle in LPR

Monson’s involvement in the occupied LPR became a useful propaganda tool for the Kremlin when thousands of Russians took part in widespread protests in March 2017.

The protests were part of an anti-corruption campaign against prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was accused of corruption and bribery to amass enormous wealth and a property portfolio during his time in office.

However, as hundreds of citizens were being arrested for participating in the protests, Russian state television opted to distract viewers from potential dissent by shifting the focus to a combat sports gym in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Monson hosted an MMA masterclass to a group of small children while also spouting Kremlin talking points about how the people of Luhansk were the “victims of the government of Ukraine.”

Five years later, Monson would once again be called upon to spread Kremlin disinformation about Ukraine.

A Wartime Propagandist

In 2018, Monson became the latest in a series of Western celebrities to be granted Russian citizenship by Putin, following in the footsteps of U.S. boxing legend Roy Jones Jr and D-list actor Steven Seagal.

“He’s a fairly famous person in the sporting world and is famous in his discipline across the world,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked why Putin had awarded Monson Russian citizenship.

Armed with his newly bestowed nationality, Monson announced his intention to become a politician. His achieved that stated goal on Sep. 9, 2018, when the fighter was elected as a parliamentary representative in Krasnogorsk, a city on the outskirts of Moscow. Monson won the mandate as a candidate of the ruling party “United Russia.”

While Monson continues to serve as an elected official, he has also emerged as a prominent voice in support of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, having been routinely cited in Russian state-controlled media.

The 51-year-old fighter, who is usually referenced as a former American citizen-turned-Russian-politician, repeated Kremlin disinformation about the war while shouldering the blame for the conflict on Ukraine and its leadership.

“The war will end when Zelenskyy finally says: ‘You know, I will not sacrifice people anymore. I agree that Ukraine will be neutral, we will not have NATO here, we will not join the United States. We will have neutrality, democracy and freedom. And may the people of eastern Ukraine, in Luhansk and Donetsk, have the independence they desire. No need to fight with them,’” Monson told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid newspaper that serves as a propaganda mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

Monson also declared his distrust of Western media, claiming that their reporting on the Russia-Ukraine war is “completely false.”

“When I watch Russia Today (RT), I don’t feel like I’m being lied to,” Monson told Business Gazeta in March. “With Western media, this feeling never leaves me. They do not provide any alternative point of view.”

Photo by Nikita Shvetsov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Monson was also complimentary of Putin, whom he referred to as a man who “loves Russia and is doing everything to make Russia better, based on his vision.”

In recent interviews, the longtime fighter has also claimed that the U.S. and Europe are currently supporting fascism in Ukraine, and that Ukrainian Nazis are attempting to “rewrite history.”

Monson’s continued popularity in Russia’s political scene lies in the allure of his transformation from American citizen to Russian mascot. His criticism of U.S. culture and politics coupled with his undying affinity for Russia makes him a perfect vessel for Russian politicians and state-sponsored media.

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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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