In mainstream sporting culture, MMA is synonymous with the UFC. The promotion sits not just as the premier promotion in the United States, but the world as a whole.
For more keen fans and mixed martial arts enthusiasts, second-tier organizations like Bellator, PFL, ONE Championship, and KSW sit as some of the more notable banners in the sport. But at a deeper point, it’s filled with an abundance of promotions and events.
In America right now, more and more are being hosted by neo-Nazis.
The connection between far-right beliefs and MMA is nothing new. That’s even prevalent on the biggest stage, with a number of prominent US fighters lending support to Donald Trump and a host of Brazilians publicly backing recently ousted Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro. Deiveson Figueiredo, for instance, went as far as to support the Brasília riots and call for the military to reinstate the controversial politician just days before co-headlining the UFC’s first pay-per-view event of 2023.
But further from the surface of MMA, a more troubling picture is painted — one that has long been prominent on the European scene.
Perhaps most notable is Russia’s White Rex, branded by German author Robert Claus as the “big player of the far-right combat sports scene.” Launched 15 years ago by Denis Nikitin, a Russian neo-Nazi soccer hooligan, the group grew from one that simply sold merchandise with far-right slogans to one that hosts “whites-only” MMA events. The creation derived from a desire to combat the diverse nature of combat sports success in Russia, which has seen those from areas of the North Caucasus like Dagestan largely dominate.
Nikitin marks one of many controversial far-fight figures who’ve utilized MMA to grow his brand and spread a racist rhetoric. One White Rex event was even titled, “The Birth of a Nation,” a reference to a racist film created by D.W. Griffith’s in 1915.
While White Rex marks the most prominent far-fight extremist group running mixed martial events, it’s far from the only of its kind in Europe. That includes in Germany, where a number of homes were raided last year in connection to far-right extremist groups conducting unlawful fight clubs.
Last April, Germany conducted its biggest crackdown on extremism in the nation, making several arrests across 11 different states. Members of the extremist MMA factions Knockout 51, Combat 18, and Atomwaffen Division, a US-based neo-Nazi network, were among the targets of the investigation. Combat 18 higher-ups are reported to be closely connected with neo-Nazi fight promotion Kampf der Nibelungen (KdN), which is an integral part of the far-right combat sports scene.
But although the arrests were seen as an important breakthrough in halting extremism and its increasing relationship with combat sports in Europe, where the issue long existed, the troublesome practice is rapidly finding a home across the Atlantic.
US MMA Scene Sees Worrisome Rise In Neo-Nazi Activity
Unsurprisingly, the growth and popularity achieved in right-wing circles by White Rex inspired others to follow suit. That includes in North America, where US white supremacist Robert Rundo co-created alt-right MMA fight club, Rise Above Movement.
While Rundo and other members of the group were arrested and charged after attacking anti-Trump demonstrators at a rally, eventually leaving Rundo fleeing to Europe after the first planned event was scrapped, the far-right MMA scene hasn’t halted or ceased to exist.
In fact, it’s growing.
In a recent report, VICE highlighted the growing presence of fascists in the sport. Among the groups are the SoCal Active Club and the Patriotic Front, both of whom participated in the “Birth of a New Frontier” event in 2022.
Beyond a thirst for violence, these events are said to be designed as a means for white nationalists to attract new members to their groups and expand their reach. That sentiment was shared in the aftermath of last year’s California-held event.
One member of Media2Rise, a publication known to provide coverage and propaganda for white nationalist events, reacted to the movement’s use of MMA in a telegram post, describing it as “awakening the warrior spirit” and doing battle through shared ambition.
“Not only are we awakening the warrior spirit, but we are demonstrating that we can organize on our own, outside of the mainstream structure. We are creating a counterculture of resistance,” the post read. “This was no ordinary event. As for the first time, a roster of fighters from across the spectrum stepped inside a ring to do battle for brotherhood and our shared goals.
“The venue was modest, the event was private, and the invites were limited in number. However, this model will serve as the foundation for what we are building and launch us towards a future of continuous expansion and reaching new heights.”
They signed off the message by firmly outlining the goal: “White youth in revolt – this is the birth of a new frontier!”
In the video that covered the event, for which Rundo was credited as director, fighters can be seen displaying Nazi salutes. In one interview, a victorious athlete who’d just competed addressed the ideological aspect of the event, noting that it helps “prove that our ideology is superior and ideologically sound.”
The message from another attendee was simple. Having noted that such an organized event likely wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, they insisted that they are getting “stronger” and “bolder.”
Elsewhere, a publicly owned events center in Pasco, Washington, recently witnessed firsthand the rise in neo-Nazi events. While the facility was approached about hosting a show by what appeared to be a normal combat sports promoter, it became clear that the event wasn’t a run-of-the-mill MMA card — far from it.
When fighters showed up to the HAPO Center last December, it became apparent that the gathering of skinheads was in order to commemorate the death of prominent white supremacist Robert Mathews.
Per Daily Kos, one of the participants at the neo-Nazi event was Daniel Brett Rowe, a leader in the Hakenkreuz Skinheads who was jailed in 2016 for stabbing an interracial couple after seeing them kiss.
More than just the commemoration of a death and some fights, events such as this, titled “Martyrs Day Rumble,” serve a deeper purpose — the spreading of far-right propaganda through leaflets and other means.
The dangers of these events and its hosts are widely noted, with groups training for the purpose of political violence under the guise of mixed martial arts.
In a 2021 interview with VICE, Pavel Klymenko, the Head of Policy – Global Monitoring and Human rights at the Fare Network, described the natural progression neo-Nazi MMA fighters make from developing fighter to potential perpetrator of a terror attack.
The term ‘sportswashing’ has been largely used to describe how Ramzan Kadyrov has approached his dictatorship, with the Chechen leader becoming a prominent figure in the sport through ties to Khamzat Chimaev and Khabib Nurmagomedov, visit from stars like Kamaru Usman and Justin Gaethje, and the creation of his own MMA promotion.
But the practice of using sport to push a far-right political agenda is no longer something to be viewed at in other continents from afar. It’s very much close to home in American mixed martial arts.
Want to suggest a correction or provide other feedback? Contact the editor at [email protected]!