Like @POTUS @realDonaldTrump always says: Promises made. Promises kept. Pleasure to finally meet you Mr. President. Thank you for always putting America first! #maga #GreatAmericanWinningMachine pic.twitter.com/yYZWkdd5wS— Colby Covington (@ColbyCovMMA) August 2, 2018
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The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 245 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
This is a unique period for MMA, as politics have entered into the sport to a degree never remotely seen in the past. Donald Trump became the first United States President to attend an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in November, receiving a loud mixed reaction and setting off a frenzied partisan argument about what fans at Madison Square Garden were trying to say about him. UFC on ESPN 7 came to the nation’s capital on Saturday, and Bryce Mitchell celebrated the second twister submission in UFC history by offering to beat up Trump’s political opponents. Trump proudly highlighted Mitchell’s remarks on his Twitter feed.
Things were even more partisan at the other major MMA event, as Combate Americas seemingly built its first pay-per-view event around political conflict. Tito Ortiz wore Trump 2020 on the front of his tights and wore a celebratory Trump T-shirt after winning, while Alberto Rodriguez devoted his post-fight remarks to pointedly telling Trump in Spanish that Mexicans aren’t thieves and criminals. As politics have become increasingly difficult to avoid in all facets of American life, MMA wasn’t exempt.
Remarkably, things may get even more political moving forward. UFC 245 this Saturday is a deep card complete with three championship fights, as well as a pair of compelling bantamweight bouts pitting Marlon Moraes against Jose Aldo and Petr Yan against Urijah Faber. However, much of the build has been centered on Colby Covington’s MAGA shtick and Kamaru Usman’s dislike of it. It’s hard to imagine Covington doesn’t have big plans to attract attention, and there’s a good chance that will overshadow everything else on the card for most fans.
The invasion of politics is relatively new in MMA, but it’s nothing new in the world of sports, generally speaking. The NFL and NBA in particular have been awash in political discussion in recent years, with the NBA’s handling of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s remarks about Hong Kong and the NFL’s handling of Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem taking center stage. What’s unique about MMA is that athletes’ political commentary in other sports has largely been liberal while in MMA it has largely been conservative.
Given that athlete commentary has been so closely associated with liberal politics, the perspective calling for politics to be kept out of sports has been largely framed as a conservative one. Sportswriters, generally sympathetic to athletes’ progressive stands, have often attacked those calling for a separation between sports and politics. This perspective has been framed as trying to silence people of color and prioritizing the views of the powerful over those of the vulnerable.
If there’s anything positive to be gained from the infusion of politics into MMA, it’s that it at least allows for a more even-handed discussion about whether that political content is good or bad across the board. Too often recently that discussion is assumed to be a proxy for whether we want to hear a particular point of view. It’s an entirely fair perspective that it’s good for athletes to fly the banner for their political beliefs, just like it is fair to say sports is better off as an escape from our unpleasant, polarized political reality. However, there should be consistency.
The reason conservative NFL fans just want to enjoy rooting for their team without thinking about how their quarterback wears socks that depict police officers as pigs is the same as why liberal MMA fans just want to watch a fighter pull off a unique and exciting submission without being reminded he’s an enthusiastic supporter of a politician whose actions the fan finds abhorrent. There’s nothing wrong with wanting sports to be an escape, and it is less fun for many when it feels like a political parable.
The argument for keeping politics out of sports becomes most apparent when a winning athlete is openly celebrating for a cause with which you disagree. It makes it easier to understand why someone would get upset when an athlete makes a political comment with which you happen to agree. It’s a bummer watching someone whose performance you admire using that stage to try to advance a cause you think is wrong. That’s particularly true as politics have become more frayed and hostile.
It remains to be seen whether this recent trend is the beginning of a longer-term move or whether it’s a short-term blip driven largely by Covington’s efforts to bring attention to himself. Even if it is driven primarily by Covington, if he wins the UFC welterweight title, politics could become even more prominent in MMA than they are now. If and when the trend finally ends and we go back to watching fights for months on end without giving a passing thought to who the most prominent fighters are voting for, it’s hard to imagine many will fondly look back on this moment when politics were front and center in the sport.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.