Last week, Republican senator Ted Cruz posted a photo of himself alongside UFC legend Chuck Liddell. The photo, which showed the two men posing with raised fists, was the latest example of a politician using an athlete’s star power, in this case to pander to a younger demographic. It also underscored the American right’s ongoing love affair with the UFC.
Over the past few years, the UFC has become synonymous with rightwing politics due to its well-documented relationship with former president Donald Trump. As previously reported by the Guardian, the organization effectively became the sports arm of the Maga regime and was an ideal platform for Trump to espouse his political agenda.
UFC president Dana White was among Trump’s most boisterous supporters, having campaigned for the former president as far back as 2016. White has since defended Trump’s policies, produced a documentary on him Combatant-in-Chief, and even used his relationship with the former president to defy government mandates at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the 2020 presidential election, Trump deployed several UFC fighters as campaign surrogates, placing them in front of crowds at rallies in swing-states such as Florida in order to secure a key demographic that forms the majority of mixed martial arts’ fanbase: young men .
And though Trump lost the election, Republicans continued to flirt with the UFC in order to benefit from the organization’s popularity.
UFC fighters and executives have become regular guests on conservative shows such as those hosted by Sean Hannity and Candace Owens. Over the past few months, Owens has invited fighters like UFC lightweight Beneil Dariush to discuss the woes of communism while White was brought on to discuss the supposed importance of keeping politics out of sports.
“It’s America,” White told Owens in April 2021 when asked about the UFC’s supposed political apathy. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. And you shouldn’t have to go to work and listen to that shit.”
While White’s assertion is tenuous at best due to his own history with Trump, his comments endeared him to conservative audiences dissatisfied with the rise of social justice narratives in leagues such as the NFL and NBA. By taking saying the UFC does not support so-called “woke politics,” White is essentially positioning the organization as a fitting alternative for the American right. This, in turn, has warmed conservative pundits and politicians to the organization, which they now view as a market for their ideology.
Among the politicians who embraced the UFC over the past year is Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who invited the organization to host UFC 261, a capacity-crowd event in Jacksonville, Florida, in April 2021. DeSantis, who is viewed as a contender for the Republican nomination in 2024, has been criticized for using his state’s limited Covid restrictions to increase his political clout. Hosting a capacity-crowd UFC show during a particularly difficult period during the pandemic was a clear show of defiance.
“This is going to be the first [indoor] full-throttle sports event since Covid hit anywhere in the United States and I think it’s fitting,” DeSantis said to a cheering crowd at the UFC 261 pre-fight press conference. “Welcome to Florida. You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom.”
It is worth noting that UFC 261 was celebrated by the likes of Steve Bannon, as well as user wrote on a QAnon Telegram channel with more than 20,000 subscribers. “Watch UFC.”
UFC fighters have also stepped into the political arena in recent months. December 2021, lightweight contender Michael Chandler spoke at Turning Point USA’s Americafest event alongside conspiracy-monger Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump Jr, and alt-right personality Jack Posobiec.
Chandler first made his political leanings clear when he questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election, tweeting at the time “is Joe Biden really just taking the mic to talk about how ‘patient’ we have to be and how ‘long’ we are going to have to wait AKA we are going to contest these results…hard #wakeupsheep.” The fighter deleted the tweet shortly thereafter.
Other UFC fighters such as Colby Covington, whom the Guardian described as the athletic embodiment of Trump’s politics, continues to strengthen his ties to prominent conservatives such as Trump Jr and Owens. In fact, Owens revealed that it was Covington who helped her become a fan of the UFC and that she plans to attend his upcoming fight against fellow Trump loyalist Jorge Masvidal at UFC 272 next month.
“I will definitely be there [at UFC 272],” Owens said on Full Send podcast. “100% will be there. I love Colby.”
Owens previously called for the UFC to replace the NFL as America’s national pastime, a term that was once reserved for baseball. “[The UFC] is exploding right now and it’s because they do not get involved in politics. They are not woke and they do not bend the knee,” Owens said, adding that the UFC is the “only real sport left.”
It is perhaps no surprise many on the right to identify more with the UFC than the NFL. Although the league is currently being sued for racial discrimination in a high-profile lawsuit, it has at least paid lip service to social justice in recent years, particularly after the police murder of George Floyd. According to a recent survey, approximately one-third of those polled stated that they were less of a fan of the NFL now than they were five years ago. The poll found that those who did not approve of the NFL’s current stance on social justice were disproportionately Republican, and that 45% of those who identified themselves as Republican believed the NFL was doing “too much” to show respect for Black players. Whether this disapproval is actually making a difference to the NFL’s bottom line is debatable. Viewing figures for the 2021 regular season were up 7% on the year before, so some Republicans are clearly still tuning in.
Nevertheless, since the NFL’s policies no longer coincide with Republican ideals, the American right has since shifted much of its attention to the UFC, a hyper-masculine sport that is popular among young men.
As Republicans forge ahead with shaping the GOP’s post-Trump future, they will continue to rely on the UFC as an ideological incubator and a breeding ground for future supporters.