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You won’t hear a bad word about President Trump come out of Dana White’s mouth. That has been the consistent response from the Ultimate Fighting Championship boss when asked about the reality-star-turned-commander-in-chief since Trump announced he was running for the Republication nomination in 2015. In an interview with the Boston Herald last week, White doubled down on that sentiment, going on to express “disgust” at those protesting against the current White House and revealing that he had spoken to Trump up to 20 times since he won the election.
The friendship between Trump and White and the corresponding proximity of the UFC to the halls of power has perhaps been an under-scrutinized aspect of the contemporary mixed martial arts landscape. Whereas the NBA and the NFL have been engulfed by highly politicized storylines involving the president -- the former personified by Trump’s Twitter spats with LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the latter by the #TakeaKnee movement, where Trump repeatedly condemned hundreds of players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality -- MMA has had no such incitation. In fact, members of the MMA media who do offer political insights are routinely met by a torrent of comments demanding that they “stick to sports.” This kind of cognitive isolationism was on display in all quarters of the Internet after MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani asked Cameroonian Francis Ngannou about his thoughts on Trump’s alleged “s---hole” comments regarding African countries.
Despite the evident reluctance of fans to engage in any political discourse involving MMA, it remains the case -- in White’s words -- that the “very strong relationship” between the UFC president and the leader of the “free world” affects our sport and is therefore is worthy of examination; and at the risk of provoking a firestorm of vitriolic comments or losing some of my very few Twitter followers, that examination forms the basis of this article. It is appropriate first to analyze the origins and history of their association and then assess its potential implications for the UFC and MMA.
As White has repeatedly narrated, including in his speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016, the relationship between the two men goes all the way back to 2001, when the first two Zuffa-operated UFC shows took place at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Back then, MMA was still reeling from Sen. John McCain’s political campaign to delegitimize and outlaw the sport, so being able to put on an event at such a high-profile venue was a significant win for the promotion’s new proprietors. In White’s retelling, Trump was the first person to recognize the UFC’s potential and even “showed up in the first row” for the event, thereafter becoming a “loyal and supportive friend” to White and sending him regular congratulatory notes to mark the company’s various milestones.
Apart from this personal history, the glaring similarities between the two men would also explicate their apparent fondness for one another. Both are notorious for eschewing political and business norms, speaking in unscripted, emotional and often profane terms that earn them praise and condemnation in equal measure; both projected themselves into the mainstream via remarkably similar reality television franchises, Trump with “The Apprentice,” which launched in 2004, and White with “The Ultimate Fighter” a year later; and both possess a veritable contempt for critical media coverage.
On top of all that, both are big combat sports fans. Trump dabbled in boxing in the 1990s, working with Don King to promote Mike Tyson; and in 2008, he made his foray into MMA, announcing he was partnering with the Affliction promotion and launching a 15-episode reality television show called “Fighting Fedor.” Ultimately, the promotion folded after only two events and the TV series never came to fruition. Even while Affliction appeared to threaten the UFC’s market share, White spoke in positive terms about his old friend, and to this day, Trump is revered as an MMA pioneer. He was even inducted into the New Jersey MMA Hall of Fame.
That brings us to the next issue, namely how White’s proverbial “bromance” with Trump could affect the UFC’s business interests and the MMA ecosystem more broadly.
Most obviously, the nexus between the promotion and the embattled White House administration could bear fruit for the UFC in relation to the Muhammad Ali Expansion Bill, which was introduced in Congress in 2016. If passed, the legislation would likely upend the UFC’s business model by decoupling MMA promotions from their titles and rankings systems, nullifying lengthy and coercive contracts and imposing financial transparency obligations on organizations and athletic commissions. The UFC has thus far spent over $600,000 lobbying against the bill, but with 58 congressmen sponsoring the legislation from both sides of the aisle, it’s a battle the company may be losing.
If insights into his cabinet and past life as a real estate mogul are to be believed, there’s nothing that Trump values and sporadically rewards more than loyalty. It’s therefore conceivable that White’s continued defense of the Trump administration and Trump’s history with Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel could induce the president to exercise his veto power to railroad the bill if it makes it to his desk. Republican congressman Markwayne Mullin introduced the bill, but if there’s one thing Trump has proven since announcing his candidacy some 30 months ago, it’s that the conventional rules of politics don’t apply to him.
Beyond or in addition to a disruptive move such as that one, the closeness of White and Trump could also have wider cultural implications for MMA. During one of the aforementioned phone calls between the two men, White said Trump is entertaining the possibility of bringing UFC champions to the White House in an apparent response to the Golden State Warriors, the 2017 NBA champions who broke the tradition of visiting the president last year. If Trump does follow through with this plan, professional MMA fighters would be symbolically equivocated with their counterparts in traditional stick-and-ball sports like basketball, baseball and football -- theoretically a win in the sport’s continued battle to gain mainstream currency.
However, given the divisive nature of this presidency, with Trump coming under fire for insulting members of the Latin American and Muslim communities, emboldening white hate groups and allegedly calling African countries “s---holes,” there is the potential for MMA to be pulled into one of the very controversies it has so far managed to avoid. Imagine if one of the fighters asked to attend the White House -- let’s say Khabib Nurmagomedov, a devout Muslim, or Cain Velasquez, a proud Mexican-American -- refused to meet with the president. Would the UFC attempt to invoke fighters’ amorphous promotional obligations to force them to attend or reprimand them for jeopardizing the UFC brand? How would that be interpreted and presented to the world outside the MMA bubble?
Barring impeachment, these and other storylines are all potentially in MMA’s future, and it is incumbent upon media to report and analyze what occurs, no matter how energetically fans ignore or protest the intersections between sports and politics. No matter how you spin it, the friendship between Trump and White impacts MMA, and 2018 could be the year that becomes indisputable.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.