Opinion: The UFC’s Hard Right Pivot

By Jacob Debets Sep 11, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White two weeks ago spoke at the Republic National Convention in support of President Donald Trump, who, on Nov. 3, will either be punted from office or re-elected in another paradigm-shifting upset.

It was the second time that MMA’s most recognizable executive was featured at the RNC. His first appearance, in 2016, saw an obviously nervous White speak in equal parts fawning and bombastic terms of Trump’s early support for the fledgling UFC circa 2000-01, his business instincts and work ethic and his loyalty and friendship. On this second occasion, White offered a full-throated endorsement of the Trump administration’s record, punctuated by outrageous falsehoods and humble-brags about the UFC’s ability to continue putting on events despite the COVID-19 crisis.

“Before the pandemic, President Trump built the greatest economy in our nation’s history and created opportunities for all Americans like no one before him,” White bellowed to begin the five-minute pre-recorded speech. “Financial markets hit all-time highs, unemployment was at an all-time low, and we weren’t facing the lawless destruction that now is occurring in a few of our great cities.

“He did it once and I’m telling you right now, he will do it again,” White added later, “and remember, President Trump may be the only president in modern times who has actually done everything he said he would do during his campaign.”

White’s speech has been the source of both bemusement and controversy inside and outside the sports world. In addition to the many glaring inaccuracies peppered throughout and White’s unmistakably shouty style of performative masculinity, the UFC front man has been accused of continuing to facilitate Trump’s efforts to “sports-wash” his administration and prop up the Commander and Chief’s personal brand.

Evidence of this sports-washing effort since Trump won office four years ago is not difficult to find and has been studiously catalogued and deconstructed on this site and others. White has variously overstated Trump’s impact on the UFC’s trajectory circa 2001, when the UFC held consecutive events at the Trump Taj Mahal. He also posed for photos alongside Trump in the Oval Office with then-interim welterweight champion Colby Covington in tow, released a full-blown propaganda documentary on UFC Fight Pass titled “Combatant in Chief” and integrated presidential appearances into both UFC 244, which Trump attended in person, and UFC 249, where a video of Trump was included in the pay-per-view broadcast.

However, White’s second RNC speech went beyond the bounds of simply propping up Trump’s credentials as a combat sports aficionado, business man and leader. Rather, his latest appearance represented a total co-signing of the Trump administration’s record over the past four years and Trump’s all-caps positioning of himself as a law-and-order candidate.

While that distinction may seem unimportant—Trump’s 2016 campaign was after all largely built upon anti-immigrant rhetoric, and one of his first actions as president was to sign Executive Order 13769 (known colloquially as the “Muslim ban”), which had serious implications for the UFC’s international roster—it’s important to remember that White has historically presented himself as a friend and supporter of the President, rather than a surrogate for his agenda. This pivot to specifically calling out and amplifying Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric and the absurd suggestion that the Black Lives Matter organization has fire departments in its crosshairs, is something altogether more odious.

White feigned confusion in June when asked whether the UFC would follow the lead of other sports leagues and put out a statement in support of the George Floyd-BLM protests taking place across America and abroad, implying it was not the UFC’s position to take a stance on social issues. Not only was that statement disingenuous in light of White’s vocal support for the president, who has repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism, but it also stands in opposition to MMA’s historically progressive record in promoting women and people of color.

Indeed, White and the UFC have rightfully celebrated the platform that the company has given female athletes, which is an altogether rare example of an even playing field in sports, and MMA itself as nothing but a melting pot of different peoples and cultures. Angela Hill on Saturday will become the first black female headliner of a UFC event when she faces off against Asian-American Michelle Waterson at UFC Fight Night 177. The surrounding weeks are anchored by Brazilians, Europeans and Nigerian-born-Kiwis rubbing shoulders, with only one white American in the headlining spot in the month of September. All of this should make the historically inclusive architecture of MMA uniquely ill-suited to promote Trump’s White Grievance politics, and indeed many of its most prominent voices have spoken out in support of the BLM movement.

White, whose name is both synonymous with the UFC brand and conspicuously splashed across numerous UFC properties, may have taken a gamble on Trump in 2016—a move many interpreted as I’ll-scratch-my-back-if-you-scratch-mine pragmatism. However, there’s a fundamental difference between currying favor for the sake of favorable treatment—say, in relation to the trust-busting Ali Expansion Bill or the enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act—and the wholesale integration of and amplification of a right-wing demagogue’s worldview.

In this latest move, White has taken the UFC to a place from which it will not be easy to come back.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. 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.
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