He is the first sitting president to attend an Ultimate Fighting Championship event.
To chants of “U-S-A” from a crowd in Henderson, Nevada, Donald Trump walked onstage to commence his “Great American Comeback” campaign in September. Set to the backdrop of MAGA hats and slogans emblazoned with phrases such as “PEACEFUL PROTESTER” and “PRO-LIFE VOICES,” Trump pandered to the crowd, suggesting that after he wins the election and spends another four years in the White House, he will “ask for another four years” beyond that.
From flag burning to looting to the perils of communism, Trump weaved his way through some of his best-known talking points over the course of the hour-long rally. He even paid homage to a handful of UFC fighters in attendance while promoting some of their upcoming bouts.
“He said he’s going to knock him out,” Trump said of a lightweight scheduled to challenge the undisputed champion at October’s event. “It’s right before the election, but I think I’m going to be watching it, OK? I’ll be watching. You better believe it. It’s going to be an incredible fight.”
Trump went on to introduce each of the fighters—“These are not people you want to pick a fight with,” he explained—to the raucous crowd, which celebrated the athletes as though they were heroes. They even gave the company’s president, Dana White, a standing ovation.
In exchange for the president’s support, the UFC has become a platform for Trump’s political agenda, as well as a willing participant in his re-election campaign.
After the rally, Trump—then 51 days out from the 2020 presidential election—met with White and his fighters backstage. He posed for photos alongside the muscular men clad in ill-fitting suits, and even filmed a video for one of the fighters’ social media channels.
“I’ve seen him a lot and he’s tough. Good luck, champ,” Trump said on-screen while standing beside welterweight fighter Colby Covington, who smiled into the camera in his beige suit and MAGA hat.
While Trump’s decision to dedicate a significant amount of time and attention to cage-fighters may seem surprising, it is a calculated stunt with mutually beneficial outcomes for both himself and the UFC.
It’s not just the affinity that Trump supporters have for the ultraviolent sport. Trump himself was once an MMA promoter and has shown an appreciation for sports entertainment organizations such as the WWE, to which he was inducted in the Hall of Fame. He is also a fan of the UFC and has maintained a well-publicized friendship with the company’s president. In exchange for the president’s support, the UFC has become a platform for Trump’s political agenda, as well as a willing participant in his re-election campaign. Each side benefits from this strange union.
“I’VE KNOWN THIS MAN for 20 years,” Dana White said at a Trump rally at Colorado Springs last February. “We’ve actually become even closer since he’s become the president of the United States.”
And of course, that relationship started at the president’s casinos.
In 2001, Zuffa LLC, an American sports promotion company founded by Las Vegas casino tycoons Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, purchased the UFC. At the time, the mixed martial arts company was an ostracized company relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi and Alabama. 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.
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When the UFC returned to Atlantic City in 2005, White credited Trump as the businessman who gave the UFC its “first shot.”
These events 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, the UFC has gone on to become a dominant force in the mixed martial arts landscape. The company acquired other notable MMA entities such as World Fighting Alliance, World Extreme Cagefighting, Pride FC, Affliction, and Strikeforce, all of which helped the UFC command the market. UFC limited competition, placing fighters in lengthy exclusive contracts, and leveraged its position as the main promoter in the industry.
Nearly 15 years removed from the Atlantic City events, White was still repaying the favor. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, White spoke on behalf of Trump, who was then running for the presidency. “He is a fighter, and I know he will fight for this country,” White said at the conclusion of his bombastic speech.
White is a loyal friend to Trump. In a radio appearance, he amplified Trump’s obsession with building a border wall along Mexico. He also backed Trump’s tirade against former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and claimed he would “never say anything negative” about the sitting president.
White is not the only UFC executive with a pre-existing relationship with the incumbent U.S. president. Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood power broker who purchased the UFC for $4.2 billion in 2016 (through his company Endeavor, previously known as WME-IMG), was Trump’s agent when the businessman starred in The Apprentice. Emanuel’s company later acquired the Miss Universe pageant from Trump. While the extent of Emanuel’s present-day relationship with Trump remains unclear, it is worth noting that he was one of the first people to get a meeting with Trump shortly following the election.
In 2019, leaked vetting documents showed that Trump’s administration had considered Emanuel for a position in the White House. Though the redacted document did not list the specific gig, reports suggested that Emanuel was being considered for a senior White House policy adviser position. Had Emanuel been offered the position, he would have been the second Endeavor executive to join Trump’s administration after WME-IMG Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell.
IN DECEMBER 2014, a half-dozen former UFC fighters filed a $5 billion antitrust lawsuit against UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC. The lawsuit charges Zuffa LLC with illegally acquiring and maintaining a monopoly over the MMA industry. It claims that the UFC used predatory practices and violated the Sherman Antitrust Act through an illegal scheme to eliminate competition, which resulted in fighters being paid “a fraction of what they would earn in a competitive marketplace.”
Now, after more than five years of legal disputes, the suit will “likely” be certified as a class action with more than a thousand claimants.
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The suit could significantly hamper the UFC’s business. Unlike leagues such as the NBA or the NFL, which split half their revenue with the players, UFC fighters reap less than 20 percent of revenue. In 2019, the promotion reported $900 million in revenue, but only 16 percent was paid out to the UFC’s approximately 600 fighters.
The suit is a significant threat for the UFC, and the promotion will likely rely on Trump to influence the potential outcome.
As UFC in 2006 concentrated control of the industry, it gained leverage when negotiating with fighters, most of whom no longer had options for alternative employment. As a result, fighter pay decreased, and most of the athletes were pressured into long-term contracts with noncompete clauses.
The suit is a significant threat for the UFC, and the promotion will likely rely on Trump to influence the potential outcome. One of the ways the U.S. president can do so is through Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.
Delrahim, who was active in Trump’s presidential transition and has served in this role since March 2017, has emphasized that a monopoly is legal under U.S. law as long as it does not abuse monopoly power. Prior to becoming Trump’s pick for the Antitrust Division, Delrahim worked for law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. His clients included Google, Apple, and Zuffa LLC, the UFC’s parent company. Despite the clear conflict of interest, Delrahim remains in a position where he could potentially influence the antitrust lawsuit against the UFC.
One of the ways Delrahim can do so is by filing an amicus curiae brief, which is a legal document filed in appeals courts by “non-litigants with a strong interest in the subject matter,” usually an intervenor who produces legal submissions that offer an alternative perspective regarding the disputed topic.
“Delrahim is considered corrupt” by antitrust experts, said John Nash, a journalist for Vox Media’s Bloody Elbow MMA website. “He has written [amicus] briefs on behalf of people who used to be clients of his. He has a label of being corrupt—there are several articles relating to this—and he used to lobby for Zuffa LLC.”
Delrahim has prioritized amicus briefs during his tenure at the agency. By October 2019, he had filed 32 briefs. Of the 19 resolved, the Justice Department’s views were adopted in eight, which emphasizes the influence Delrahim wields in antitrust decision. Given Delrahim’s views on monopolies, coupled with his past relationship with the UFC, it is possible that he will file another amicus brief if the UFC antitrust lawsuit gets class certification in the coming months, which could hinder the entire lawsuit if the Justice Department adopts Delrahim’s (hypothetical) perspective on the case.
Beyond the ongoing antitrust lawsuit, there have been reports that the UFC used its relationship with Trump to sway the National Labor Relations Board following a complaint from former UFC fighter Leslie Smith.
Smith filed the complaint in May 2018, claiming the UFC violated the National Labor Relations Act by retaliating against her by buying her out of her UFC contract because of her attempts to organize a labor movement called Project Spearhead. Smith hoped her complaint would force the NLRB to determine whether UFC fighters are employees or independent contractors.
However, the NLRB determined the UFC did not retaliate against Smith when it let her go after a canceled fight in April 2018, and as a result it was not required to determine whether the fighters were employees or independent contractors.
According to Smith’s legal adviser, Lucas Middlebrook, the UFC’s relationship with Trump, who appointed the NLRB’s current director, Peter B. Robb, played a key role in the dismissal. This is yet another example of how White’s friendship with the U.S. president has helped him protect his business practices.
“DONALD TRUMP IS A VISIONARY,” Dana White says in Combatant in Chief, a UFC-produced documentary. “This guy is a fighter, an entrepreneur. If he sees something and he gets it, he’s not going to be afraid of what anyone else thinks.” For 14 minutes of the film, fight promoters, former politicians, and UFC officials laud the incumbent president’s business savvy. One New Jersey State Athletic Control Board commissioner says Trump “set the pace” for the UFC’s eventual success.
Much of the filming took place several months earlier when White visited the Oval Office with then-interim welterweight champion Colby Covington for a photo op with the president. Covington’s social media is littered with MAGA talking points, and he has also been vocal about his disdain for NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
While Covington’s antics have won him the president’s support, they have also caused him to be labeled as a racist, particularly following his statements hinting that Black Lives Matter is a domestic terrorist group. This has only made him more popular with the president, who personally called Covington to congratulate him after his most recent victory, and even appeared backstage with the UFC fighter following a recent rally.
Apart from platforming Trump’s propaganda, UFC has also played the role of guinea pigs for Trump’s COVID-19 policies, including his push for “Opening Up America Again.”
In early April 2020, Trump took part in a conference call with the commissioners of the country’s major sports leagues, including White and others like WWE’s Vince McMahon, and reportedly informed them that he hopes to have fans back in venues by the fall. He later enlisted numerous sports executives, including White, for an advisory group. When the UFC finally hosted its return event in May 2020, the promotion broadcast a taped message from the U.S. president where he congratulated White for helping to reopen the country.
While the UFC-Trump relationship has reaped rewards for the U.S. president, who gets to promote his political ideology on a platform brimming with right-wing support, it is also beneficial to the UFC—a promotion that is facing several key labor disputes that could have a permanent effect on the future of the organization.
With an antitrust lawsuit and other labor-related threats looming, the UFC is banking on Trump’s re-election to help stem the tide menacing its business. The promotion has gone to great lengths to platform the incumbent president and campaign for his re-election. And while White will continue to claim it is a matter of loyalty, it is clear that the Trump-UFC relationship is a matter of self-interest and the UFC’s bottom line.