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How the UFC learned to fight for the right
No other sports league has invested as much time and effort as the UFC has in promoting Donald Trump.
After starting his Saturday by chastising Joe Biden at a campaign stop at a church in Las Vegas, accusing the incumbent U.S. president of being “compromised by China and Ukraine,” Donald Trump joined former political advisor Roger Stone and actor Mel Gibson to take in a different type of show: a Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event.
Flanked by UFC President Dana White and a swarm of secret service agents, the former U.S. president arrived at the T-Mobile Arena just before 10 p.m. and drew a raucous reaction from the crowd in attendance. He chatted with UFC commentator and podcast host Joe Rogan and high-fived supporters while walking along the cage, basking in the spotlight and seizing the opportunity to showcase his unwavering support base. Even South African UFC fighter Dricus Du Plessis seized the opportunity to leap over the Octagon to shake hands with Trump after his second-round technical knockout victory.
The event proved to be the perfect stage for Trump’s comeback campaign. Furthermore, it exemplified Trump’s adeptness at leveraging the sport's unapologetic bravado and counter-culture roots as a conduit for his political aspirations.
Though Trump has enjoyed the support of UFC fighters and executives since his initial presidential campaign in 2016, his history with the UFC dates back to 2001, when Zuffa LLC, an American sports promotion company founded by Las Vegas casino tycoons Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, first purchased the UFC.
At the time, the mixed martial arts organization was an ostracized company relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi and Alabama. The late Sen. John McCain referred to MMA as “human cockfighting,” a comment that had tarnished the UFC’s reputation and its ability to promote events across the country. Thirty-six states enacted laws banning “no holds barred” fighting, while the large cable pay-per-view platforms refused to air UFC events. But Trump took a chance on the UFC and allowed the promotion to put on two consecutive events in 2001 at his Atlantic City casino.
These events are now the stuff of UFC marketing lore and went a long way in helping the UFC gain a foothold in various other states. Soon, the UFC started hosting large-scale events in its home base of Las Vegas. When the UFC returned to Atlantic City in 2005, White credited Trump as the businessman who gave the UFC its “first shot.”
Since then, White has enthusiastically promoted Trump and his politics from his perch atop the UFC. He defended the president’s controversial policies, including the wall on the United States’ southern border, during UFC programming. He visited Trump at the White House in 2018 with former interim welterweight champion and rightwing media personality Colby Covington, where they posed for pictures in the Oval Office.
The UFC even produced a documentary showcasing the league’s history with Trump and his role in promoting mixed-martial arts on a national stage. The short film—titled Combatant in Chief—was a shameless example of how freely the UFC has exploited its infrastructure to urge its audience to embrace one of the most controversial presidents in US history—a case study in how sports organizations can moonlight as platforms for political propaganda.
White continued to deploy the various arms of his billion-dollar empire when it came time to support Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The UFC president spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention – his second time speaking at the event – as well as at several rallies along the campaign trail. During his bombastic appearances, White expressed many of the Trump campaign’s talking points.
“President Trump built the greatest economy in our nation’s history and created opportunities for all Americans like no one before him,” White, who also donated $1 million to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, said during a pre-taped speech in August 2020. “Financial markets hit all time highs; unemployment hit all-time lows, and we weren’t facing the lawless destruction that now is occurring in a few of our great cities.”
Several prominent UFC fighters also took part in Trump’s campaign events. Recently retired UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal headlined a “Fighters Against Socialism” tour across Florida alongside Donald Trump Jr. while former UFC interim welterweight champion Colby Covington hosted a “MAGA boat parade” in Miami alongside Eric Trump while former UFC champion Henry Cejudo spoke at a Latinos for Trump event in September 2020. Then, in the wake of Trump’s electoral defeat, several of the same fighters took to social media to spread misinformation about alleged voter fraud. One former Ultimate Fighter competitor even proclaimed that a “civil war is coming.”
Beyond the UFC’s direct role in Trump’s campaign events, the promotion has also been involved in some of the Trump administration’s key political strategies, including the “Opening Up American Again” plan in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. When the UFC finally held UFC 249 – its first pay-per-view event in the wake of the pandemic – it came as no surprise when Trump appeared on the ESPN broadcast and congratulated the UFC’s efforts to get back to business.
While Trump is no longer president, the UFC continues to maintain a close relationship with the controversial figure. Most recently, Trump attended UFC 287 in April 2023, where he sat next to heavyweight boxing legend Mike Tyson. That night also saw another UFC fighter jump over the cage to speak with the former president. Even amidst a loss in the co-main event, Masvidal utilized his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan as an opportunity to extol the virtues of the 2024 presidential hopeful.
“Greatest president in the history of the world sitting right there, I love that guy,” Masvidal said, pointing at Trump.
In the face of an extraordinary 71 criminal indictments, Trump continues to garner favorable receptions at UFC events, defying expectations in states like Nevada, where his legacy remains complex. Notably, Trump suffered consecutive defeats in Nevada during his presidential campaigns. During his campaign stop on Saturday, he called Nevada a “hard state” and hinted at the challenges facing him in the coming months.
“We have a big job to do. This has been a hard state. I really believe it’s a Republican state,” Trump said. “This is the most important election in the history of our country.”
At the moment, Trump maintains a stranglehold over the Republican primary, with more than 50% of the Republican voters favoring him as the presidential nominee. As the former president gears up for his potential White House return, he is likely to rely on the UFC’s support his campaign and launder his reputation. Brace yourself for Trump’s presence across UFC’s multimedia programming, spanning podcasts to documentaries. Expect prominent UFC fighters and champions to join him on the campaign tour and for executives to donate to super PACs supporting his presidency. Above all, prepare for Trump's increased presence at UFC events, where he can revel in the adulation of a fervent right-wing crowd eager to champion their chosen savior.
In truth, no other American sports league has invested as much time and effort as the UFC has in promoting Trump. Its willingness to spread Trump’s propaganda while gloating about its ties to the former president reaffirms its role as the sports-arm of Trump’s presidency.
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