On September 2, 2017, budding contender Darren Till stepped into the Octagon to face Serbia’s Bojan Veličković at a UFC Fight Night event in Rotterdam. The Liverpool native dominated the fight over the course of three five-minute rounds and eventually won a unanimous decision — a victory that extended his undefeated record to 15-0-1. While Till’s victory was impressive, it was marred by a controversial post-fight endorsement of far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
“I really like politics because of my master [Marcelo Brigadeiro],” Till said during his post-fight interview with Dan Hardy. “Lula in jail and Bolsonaro 2018.”
While Till addressed the crowd in Portuguese, his endorsement quickly circulated and made global headlines. A British national had just thrown his support behind a Brazilian candidate who has expressed racist, sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian sentiments.
Till, who would go on to challenge for the UFC welterweight title a year after his post-fight endorsement, spent almost four years of his life in Brazil. After a near-fatal stabbing at a nightclub in Liverpool, Till relocated to Brazil to focus on his fighting career. During his time in Brazil, Till began to take an interest in politics after numerous discussions with his coach, Marcelo Brigadeiro. According to Till, it was Brigadeiro who influenced his support for Bolsonaro.
“90% of Brazilians support him, and I do, too.” Till said on the MMA Hour a few days after his win against Veličković. “That’s why I left a little message for them.”
Though Till’s assessment that 90 percent of Brazil’s population supports Bolsonaro is inaccurate, his support for the presidential candidate highlights the concerning trend of popular athletes endorsing a far-right politician’s rise to power. This article will explore why high-profile stars are backing Bolsonaro despite the dangers he poses to Brazil’s democracy, and how such support has bolstered the controversial candidate’s campaign.
The Rise of Bolsonaro
Several weeks ago, Jair Bolsonaro came close to an outright victory in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. After 99.9 percent of the votes were tallied, Bolsonaro had secured 46 percent of the votes. He needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff. The vote, which took place on Sunday, October 8, 2018, set the stage for a final round of voting on October 28 between the far-right candidate and the left-leaning former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, who claimed 29 percent of the vote.
Bolsonaro’s significant lead in the election despite his divisive politics and authoritarian tendencies highlights a dramatic shift in the socio-political landscape in Latin America’s largest democracy. The far-right populist candidate and federal deputy representing Rio de Janeiro holds an affinity for military dictatorships, plans to give the police “cart blanche to kill,” and has advocated for a hard-line approach to dealing with criminals, including legalizing mass arrest warrants, loosening gun restrictions, and building more prisons. His law-and-order campaign approach won the support of conservative voters, including Brazil’s white elites and evangelicals.
However, Bolsonaro’s popularity is not unanimous among Brazilians, primarily due to his racist, misogynistic, and pro-dictatorship ideological stances. The 63-year-old lauded infamous authoritarian leaders such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and stated that “ we want a Brazil that is similar to the one we had 40, 50 years ago” — a callback to the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Bolsonaro has also displayed a penchant for homophobia and misogyny. He once informed a female colleague in congress (lawmaker Maria do Rosário) that she was “not worthy” of being raped by him. He also vehemently opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and affirmative action.
Despite the fact that Bolsonaro has alienated large segments of Brazil’s population, including the LGBTQ+ community, women, and Afro-Brazilians, the former Army captain and paratrooper is poised to become the next president of the world’s fourth largest democracy. His rise to power will have been made possible by the political, economic, and social divisions that have divided Brazil over the past few years.
When President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) left office following the end of his second term as the 35th president of Brazil, the country was in the midst of an economic boom. However, within a matter of years, the country once viewed as a blueprint for economic development had fallen into the worst recession in its history. Under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, corruption scandals marred the country’s political and business elite, while unemployment and poverty grew at a worrying pace. In the wake of the now-infamous Petrobras scandal — a petroleum cartel scandal that saw the Supreme Court investigate dozens of politicians for bribery and corruption — Rousseff was impeached and replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer.
The political scandals that characterized the post-Lula era has created political divisions within Brazil. With traditional ruling parties and the country’s elites involved in corruption scandals, many began to reject the Worker’s Party (PT) — the party that Lula, Rousseff, and now Haddad represent — and demanded a change in the status quo. Bolsonaro, rejected by Brazil’s traditional parties, fed off this desire for change and fuelled his campaign on the anger that millions of Brazilians feel towards the political class.
Not only did Bolsonaro harness the anger and discontent that Brazilians felt towards the country’s elite, but he did so on a budget that was a tiny fraction ($235,000) of the $6.3 million that the Haddad campaign has disclosed to date. He has relied heavily on social media to spread his ideology and to kindle the resentment Brazilians felt towards the traditional parties. His name continues to dominate social media in Brazil, and reports show that his name is mentioned three times more frequently than Haddad. However, Bolsonaro has also been accused of benefiting from a campaign of misinformation designed to bombard Brazilian WhatsApp users with fake news. Bolsonaro responded to the accusations by tweeting: “The PT isn’t being harmed by fake news, but by TRUTH.”
Bolsonaro’s dependence on social media to promote his message also helps explain why the frontrunner has relied on celebrities and athletes to promote his ideology. When some of Brazil’s most popular athletes use their platforms to endorse a presidential candidate, they have a direct impact on their fanbase’s perception of the candidate. Aware of this promotional tactic, Bolsonaro has taken advantage of his popularity among celebrities and used it to help change the course of Brazil’s history.
MMA fighters endorse Brazil’s Far-Right
In the lead-up to the Brazil’s presidential election, Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign rally in Minas Gerais and suffered life-threatening wounds. The incident, which occurred on September 6, 2018, left Bolsonaro hospitalized for several weeks, and was a dramatic twist to one of the most divisive election campaigns in Brazil’s history.
The attack also fuelled Bolsonaro’s support base. The frontrunner’s son, Flavio Bolsonaro, addressed the attacks by saying it has only helped secure his father’s inevitable victory: “I just want to send a message to the thugs who tried to ruin the life of a family man, a guy who is the hope for millions of Brazilians: You just elected him president. He will win in the first round.”
The sentiment was repeated by others, including UFC standout Paulo Costa. The undefeated middleweight, who holds victories over the likes of Johny Hendricks and Uriah Hall, is an outspoken Bolsonaro supporter. He even visited the candidate in hospital during his recovery, and posted a picture of himself posing alongside Bolsonaro in his hospital attire with the caption: “It was God who raised this man to change our country and when God chooses someone no one can change it! The captain is back and now stronger than ever! Let’s change Brazil.”
Costa is by no means an exception when it comes to his public support for Bolsonaro. Dozens of MMA fighters, including (but not limited to) Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Rafael dos Anjos, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Warlley Alves, Bigfoot Silva, Thiago Tavares, Fabio Maldonado, Jacare Souza, and Darren Till, have all expressed support for Bolsonaro. Several are former UFC champions and legendary figures within the MMA community.
Former PRIDE FC champion Wanderlei Silva championed Bolsonaro’s ideology for several years. His tweets include comments such as “Bolsonaro is the one who defends more severe penalties against rape! Left lives in the world of lies! But do not fool us any more! For you, it’s over.” Bolsonaro has since invited Silva to campaign rallies and has complimented him in social media posts.
Jair Messias Bolsonaro convida Wanderlei Silva Vocês que acreditam no Silva, vamos juntos nessa corrente pela mudança de nosso país! Bolsonaro 17 Wanderlei Silva 5525 #ToComWandPosted by Wanderlei Silva on Saturday, October 6, 2018
Former UFC middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva has also received attention Bolsonaro, and was even visited by Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, at his gym in the United States.
Bolsonaro continues to receive endorsements from MMA fighters around the world. After Englishman Darren Till endorsed him during his post-fight interview at UFC Rotterdam — a feat that Bolsonaro boasted about on his social media account — Fabio Maldonado shared similar sentiments during his own post-fight victory speech at a Fight Nights event in Russia. Following his victory against Kurban Omarov, he shouted “Bolsonaro 2018.”
Endorsements from some of the most popular athletes in Brazil has done wonders for Bolsonaro’s campaign, as well as his popularity. Support from respected UFC champions and football players such as Rivaldo and Ronaldinho has helped sportswash Bolsonaro’s controversial beliefs and helped present him as a solution to Brazil’s ongoing economic and social issues. Aware of the impact athlete support has on his campaign, Bolsonaro plays up the associations on his social media accounts, posing for pictures with athletes and attending their events.
- UFC: Paulo Henrique Borrachinha é nosso!Posted by Jair Messias Bolsonaro on Saturday, June 3, 2017
Bolsonaro’s twitter account is riddled with videos of athletes endorsing him as the next president of Brazil. One of the more recent examples in Jose Aldo, who showed his support for the frontrunner in a recent video where he proclaimed”This is José Aldo and I want to say to you that in this final stretch it is very important to support our captain Jair Bolsonaro. We are together, captain!”
Bolsonaro’s reliance on athletes and celebrities will likely have a direct impact on his success in the upcoming runoff election. Over the past few months — years in cases like Wanderlei Silva— athletes have promoted his political ideology, bolstered his reputation, and enhanced his popularity. They used their own platforms to convince the average citizen to vote for a far-right candidate who many believe will bring irreparable damage to one of the largest democracies in the world. Bolsonaro’s rise is yet another example of how politicians manipulate sports for personal gain.