POL­I­TICS IN MMA

It’s won the fight for le­git­i­macy but does mixed mar­tial arts have a much tougher strug­gle on its hands? Joel Snape weighs in

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Is the sport be­com­ing too em­broiled in global pol­i­tics?

There’s an art to a great post-match speech. For most sports­men, a mix of en­dor­phins and ex­haus­tion makes any­thing more elab­o­rate than squeez­ing out a hand­ful of plat­i­tudes tricky, which is why the good ones – the Any­thing Is Pos­si­bles – stand out. True pros, of course, re­hearse: and when Joe Ro­gan put a mic in new in­terim UFC wel­ter­weight cham­pion Colby Cov­ing­ton’s face af­ter a tough five-round fight, he knew ex­actly what he wanted to say. “I’m go­ing to do what a real cham­pion should do,” hooted Cov­ing­ton, to a cho­rus of boos. “I’m bring­ing this belt to The White House, and I’m putting it on Don­ald Trump’s desk.”

The fact that Cov­ing­ton ap­peared, a cou­ple of weeks later, grin­ning in a Make Amer­ica Great Again hat next to a belt-tot­ing Trump, only con­firmed what most ca­sual fans al­ready know: the days of the UFC strug­gling to be recog­nised as a le­git­i­mate sport are over. In its early days, the pro­mo­tion had fright­en­ingly few rules, pit­ted sumo wrestlers against bar brawlers, and was mem­o­rably dubbed “hu­man cock­fight­ing” by Repub­li­can sen­a­tor John McCain. Progress was slow, then ex­plo­sive; af­ter tee­ter­ing on the brink of bankruptcy and be­ing bought by the casino-own­ing Fer­titta brothers, the sport im­ple­mented dozens of rules, and saw its biggest turn­around af­ter re­al­ity show The Ul­ti­mate Fighter in­tro­duced thou­sands of new fans to the fast-paced, al­mostany­thing-goes sport with a fi­nale that fea­tured one of the con­sen­sus best fights ever.

In 2004, when The Ul­ti­mate Fighter de­buted, the UFC had only $14.3m (AED53.6m) in rev­enue. In 2016, it sold to en­ter­tain­ment group Wil­liam Mor­ris En­deavor for $4bn (AED14.69bn), and went on to take a slice of the McGre­gor vs May­weather bout, which took more than $600m (AED2.2bn). Pay-per-view might have seemed health­i­est in the glory days of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGre­gor, but McGre­gor’s re­turn fight – against un­de­feated light­weight cham­pion Khabib Nur­magome­dov in Oc­to­ber – was the biggest in UFC his­tory, for both pay-per-view num­bers and gate rev­enue.

At the same time, the sport has be­come re­spectable. Once upon a time, fight­ers wore Con­dom De­pot lo­gos on their shorts – now, ev­ery­one wears cus­tom Ree­bok gear. There are dozens of fran­chised UFC gyms dot­ted across the US, and some here in Dubai. Demi Lo­vato used to date UFC mid­dleweight champ Luke Rock­hold and still reg­u­larly at­tends events. When the artist be­hind Sorry Not Sorry is talk­ing about how she wants to com­pete in your sport, that’s a water­shed mo­ment.

And yet, to some fans at least, there’s some­thing a bit off-putting about MMA. It ap­peals, af­ter all, to the sorts of peo­ple who claim to hate snowflakes and par­tic­i­pa­tion tro­phies, while ap­plaud­ing up-by-your­boot­straps self-re­liance. It has a top con­tender in McGre­gor, who hung out with Vladimir Putin at this year’s World Cup, not long af­ter smash­ing a bus win­dow and in­jur­ing at least two of his peers. It has light­weight champ Nur­magome­dov, who ea­gle-dove out of the cage to at­tack one of McGre­gor’s team­mates af­ter pum­melling the ex-champ, pro­voked in­part by McGre­gor call­ing him a “back­wards” for re­fus­ing to drink on re­li­gious grounds. It still has ring girls, while they’re be­ing phased out of ev­ery­thing from F1 to darts. It has strong ties with the mil­i­tary. It’s vi­o­lent. And it some­times at­tracts a bad crowd.

THE RIGHT STUFF

“We can’t es­cape the fact that MMA was once the com­bat sport of choice for skin­head, tat­tooed white guys, and there have been – and still are – right-wing brands

that have been as­so­ci­ated with the UFC and MMA in gen­eral,” says Brad Whar­ton, play-by-play com­men­ta­tor for Cage War­riors. “You have cur­rent UFC spon­sor Grunt Style, which is pro-gun, pro-Repub­li­can, etc. If you look to Rus­sia and some of the Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, there have been white na­tion­al­ist brands and or­gan­i­sa­tions closely in­volved with MMA.”

Joe Ro­gan, pop­u­lar long­time colour com­men­ta­tor for the UFC, de­scribes him­self as “pretty lib­eral” – es­pe­cially on is­sues such as uni­ver­sal health­care – but he’s also hosted right-wing thinkers in­clud­ing Ben Shapiro, Gavin McInnes and Ste­fan Molyneux on his wildly pop­u­lar (and non-UFC af­fil­i­ated) pod­cast. With cham­pi­onship-level fight­ers also reg­u­larly pop­ping in, the Ro­gan pod­cast is a way for im­pres­sion­able fight fans to find ex­po­sure to some­times-trou­bling ideas: come for the fight bants, stay for the gen­der war­fare.

The suc­cess of the UFC is also ir­re­vo­ca­bly in­ter­twined with two of the most prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans in re­cent his­tory. John McCain, the orig­i­na­tor of the hu­man cock­fight­ing tag, spent years cam­paign­ing against MMA but might have been the man who saved it, forc­ing the re­forms that turned it into a sport in­stead of a brawl. “I con­sider John McCain the guy who started the UFC,” said UFC pres­i­dent Dana White in 2008. As the sport evolved, McCain shifted his opin­ions on it too, telling a re­porter in 2014 that he would “ab­so­lutely” have tried mixed mar­tial arts had it been a thing in his youth.

Trump, mean­while, has his own his­tory with its pro­mo­tion. In 2001, when the Fer­tit­tas had just taken over the event but the sport was still ef­fec­tively blacked-out in the US, Trump al­lowed sev­eral shows to take place at the Trump Taj Ma­hal in At­lantic City. The favour wasn’t for­got­ten; at the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, White gave a speech in sup­port of then-nom­i­nee Trump’s pres­i­den­tial bid, call­ing him a man with “great busi­ness in­stincts” and “a fighter”. The UFC pres­i­dent even­tu­ally vis­ited The White House for din­ner, and when Trump later attacked NFL player Colin Kaeper­nick’s de­ci­sion to kneel dur­ing The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner, White said that he be­lieves in “stand­ing for the na­tional an­them”. This month, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s long re­la­tion­ship with Trump be­came the sub­ject of one of 25 minidoc­u­men­taries it re­leased to cel­e­brate 25 years in the busi­ness. And, maybe more im­por­tantly, then-own­ers the Fer­tit­tas do­nated mil­lions to Repub­li­can ef­forts dur­ing 2016’s elec­tion cam­paign.

How much of this is pol­i­tics and how much is just good busi­ness? It’s tough to say. “[Trump] pretty much sin­gle­hand­edly paved the way for the Fer­tit­tas to take the brand to Ve­gas, so I think this is more of a favour be­ing re­paid,” says Whar­ton. “Ari Emanuel, the CEO of the UFC’s par­ent com­pany, is Trump’s for­mer agent and long-term friend. Emanuel’s com­pany bought the Miss Uni­verse pageant off him when he ran for of­fice, and Trump do­nated to Ari’s brother Rahm’s po­lit­i­cal cam­paign. But Ari fi­nan­cially backed Clin­ton in the 2016 elec­tions and his brother is also a Demo­crat, so there’s a re­la­tion­ship there that ex­ists in spite of pol­i­tics, rather than be­cause of pol­i­tics.”

CRACK­ING DOWN

The UFC has also shown zero-tol­er­ance on more ex­treme right-lean­ing brands in the past. “The sport in gen­eral has been fairly good at os­tracis­ing peo­ple with re­ally ex­treme right views,” says Whar­ton. “There have been a num­ber of fight­ers black­listed from var­i­ous shows due to far-right af­fil­i­a­tions – the UFC no­tably cut ties with wel­ter­weight Ben­jamin Brinsa when he was linked with far-right hooli­gan groups.” And it’s not as if the UFC won’t tol­er­ate dis­sent: when heavy­weight ti­tle con­tender Fran­cis Ngan­nou de­clared Trump “a shame for Amer­ica”, White de­fended his right to speak his mind, say­ing, “The beau­ti­ful thing about this coun­try is any­one can have an opin­ion.”

Mean­while, the UFC con­tin­ues to push a pro­gres­sive agenda in other ways, busi­ness­minded or oth­er­wise. In the wake of Rousey’s suc­cess, it pushes its women’s divi­sion – in im­por­tance, and some­times in pay-grade – to an ex­tent that shames most other sports. It cel­e­brates its fe­male su­per­stars such as Amanda Nunes and Cris Cy­borg. The UFC tends to re­act swiftly when play­ers stray into racism and other ugly ar­eas, ar­guably bet­ter than foot­ball man­ages. And there are dozens of pro­gres­sive-think­ing fight­ers, oc­cu­py­ing ev­ery po­si­tion on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

“It’s a niche sport that hap­pens to be pretty vi­o­lent on the face of things,” says

Whar­ton. “But what I find beau­ti­ful about MMA is that when you’re on the mats or in the cage, it tran­scends pol­i­tics, race and re­li­gion. It’s in­cred­i­bly in­clu­sive for both com­peti­tors and fans.” It is, af­ter all, just two peo­ple, locked in an Oc­tagon, hav­ing a fight. And most fans will be tun­ing in to watch Cov­ing­ton get knocked out.

“WE CAN’T ES­CAPE THE FACT THAT MMA WAS ONCE THE COM­BAT SPORT OF CHOICE FOR SKINHEADS”

DANA WHITE SPEAKS AT THE REPUB­LI­CAN NA­TIONAL CON­VEN­TION

CONOR MCGRE­GOR’S EX­PLO­SIVE DE­FEAT TO KHABIB NUR­MAGOME­DOV

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