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“Combatant in Chief,” the most recent entry to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “25 Years in Short” documentary series, begins with a series of brief clips of Donald Trump from the 1980s and 1990s. In one, he is confidently striding through one of his casinos, shaking hands with its patrons. In another, he looks wistfully out of a Trump-branded helicopter window. UFC President Dana White is the narrator: “Donald Trump is a visionary. This guy’s a fighter, an entrepreneur … he’s a guy you don’t want to bet against.”
The video then cuts to footage of White -- on a baseball field, in the audience at a UFC event, looking schmick in a tuxedo and magniloquently endorsing Trump for president at the Republican National Convention. The opening montage ends with a sound bite from a Trump rally: “I will fight for you and I will win for you,” bellows the then-candidate. It then launches into a largely aggrandizing account of Trump’s involvement in professional boxing.
With this documentary, the torchbearer for mixed martial arts has explicitly aligned its brand with that of the Commander in Chief. While the film pretends to orient itself around Trump’s early interest in the UFC -- he extended the organization a “lifeline” by agreeing to host UFC 30 in February 2001 and UFC 31 in May 2001 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, after the Frank and Lorenzo Fertita bought the company and White was installed as president -- its central purpose is, quite transparently, to mosh for the man.
In addition to the many -- by now customary -- historical imprecisions scattered within the segment, including omitting altogether the efforts of other MMA pioneers to get the sport legalized in New Jersey before Zuffa and Trump rode in on their white horses, it is replete with gratuitous praise for The Donald. His tales, many of which, like his record in Atlantic City, have been categorically disproven, are repeated throughout with impunity, while footage from his victory speech on the night of the 2016 presidential election is shamelessly interspersed with Octagon highlights.
Was Trump’s early involvement in MMA one of the 25 most important things to happen in the organization’s history? If that’s the case, it’s been a significantly understated aspect of the story until now. Trump’s name, and the centrality of the UFC’s association with his brand to its eventual breakthrough as a legitimate entertainment product, has rarely been mentioned as anything but a footnote until now; and of the hundreds of pieces of ancillary content the UFC produces for Fight Pass, before “Combatant in Chief” his name wasn’t mentioned once.
Even if one does accept the dubious premise that an arm’s-length business transaction to hold a sporting event in a casino doubled as a decisive and magnanimous investment in the sport’s future, it isn’t hard to think of individuals and groups whose contribution to the organization was more deserving of recognition. How about Miletich Fighting Systems, the training ground for champions that straddled the “Dark Ages” of the late 1990s to the post-“Ultimate Fighter” boom era? Or Frank Shamrock, the winningest UFC champion of the 1990s, who with countless others traipsed across America lobbying to get the sport sanctioned before the Zuffa purchase?
Instead, the UFC invests its production dollars in what is little more than a vainglorious celebration of the most powerful man in the world and to a lesser extent to personal relationship he has with White. Such an undertaking -- as far as my research can tell -- has no historical analogy in any other major American sport, and given the traditionally recalcitrant approach MMA fans take towards the intersection of sport and politics, it’s hard to interpret this as anything other than a means of currying favor with the president in anticipation of needing his help down the line.
That isn’t to doubt the authenticity of White and Trump’s friendship -- that aspect of the story checks out -- But the only way Ari Emanuel greenlights this project is if he sees a potential reward that’s worth the risk of alienating the UFC’s fan base. Whether that be in relation to the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, which Trump could feasibly veto if it came across his desk, or in relation to fighter-unionization, with Trump being responsible for appointing members of the National Labor Relations Board, is something we don’t know yet. For that reason, it’s a space worth watching in the future.
Regardless of your political views -- and as an Australian, I completely accept that I’m in no place to take up a pulpit -- there is a need to reflect on what that means for MMA’s continued battle for greater cultural purchase. While the sport is famously cosmopolitan and elevates women to a status seldom matched by other mainstream sports, aligning with a politician, much less one as divisive as Trump, figures to estrange some would-be MMA patrons.
Ultimately, the documentary and everything it says about the banana republic that is the UFC is hardly the most gripping scandal in the sport’s 25-year history. However, it also does little to elevate the sport or combat the perception that the organization is a conduit for a narrow set of values and beliefs that are unrepresentative of the athletes or the MMA community more broadly.
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.