Over the past few weeks, the UFC has celebrated its 25-year silver anniversary by releasing a 25-part documentary series titled ‘UFC 25 Years in Short’. The short films have featured some of the most significant stories in the promotion’s history, including that of Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock, and how the promotion came up with the idea for the UFC belt. While the majority of the series focuses on the influential fighters and company executives who helped develop the UFC brand, the latest instalment looks at the promotion’s peculiar relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, entitled ‘Combatant In Chief.’
The news was first announced several months ago when UFC President Dana White revealed on UFC Unfiltered that the promotion planned to work with “badass directors” to tell the story of Trump allowing the UFC to host an event at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City: “[Trump] and I went to the residence after that, and he and I both shot for the documentary.”
The UFC’s decision to produce a documentary showcasing its history with Trump highlights the peculiar relationship the promotion has with the sitting U.S. president. It is also a lesson about the influence of sportswashing in political discourse and the mutually beneficial effects it can have on both the promotion and the politician in question.
The UFC’s relationship with Donald Trump dates back to 2001, shortly after ZUFFA purchased the promotion. At the time, the UFC was still striving for legitimacy and had been relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi. Trump allowed the promotion to put on UFC 30 and UFC 31 at his casino, the former of which became the first state-sanctioned UFC event held in New Jersey, while the latter was the first UFC event held under the new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Trump’s decision to do business with the UFC seemingly helped the promotion reestablish legitimacy. By late 2001, the UFC began hosting events in Las Vegas, which would eventually become the promotion’s home base.
Much of this is discussed in detail during the Combatant In Chief documentary. According to a press release announcing the Trump instalment in the documentary series, the “history of UFC and President Donald Trump are intertwined, as President Trump played a pivotal role in legitimizing UFC and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.” It also added that Trump’s willingness to allow the UFC to host its events in his Atlantic City casino “was the start of an unlikely friendship between the current POTUS and UFC president Dana White.” It would take White exactly 15 years to repay the favor.
During the 2016 Republican National Convention, White spoke on behalf of Trump, who was then running to become the 45th president of the United States. In his typical brash style, White told the story about how Trump helped legitimize the UFC by giving the promotion a chance when no one else would, and endorsed him to become the next U.S. president.
“He is a fighter and I know he will fight for this country,” White said at the conclusion of his bombastic speech.
White has since spoken publicly about Trump on several other occasions, using each opportunity to present the business mogul as a loyal friend and genuine human being. He has also defended Trump’s actions since becoming president, which, in turn, can be viewed as an extension of the UFC’s support of the president.
“I don’t agree with everything he says and I think some of the things that he does say isn’t exactly what he means. ‘Let’s build a wall’ and all this stuff – what he’s really saying is all these people coming from different countries need to do it the old school way,” White told UFC Unfiltered in 2016. “You register and you get your paperwork done. He is talking about people that are sneaking into the country. It is like when he gets in front of the camera, he gets a little too hyped up.”
White continued to boast about his relationship with Trump post-election, stating that the president calls him “twice a month.” He also revealed that Trump wanted to be in attendance for UFC 207, the promotion’s big debut in New York City, but was talked out of it by secret service.
“He wanted to come to this thing so bad,” White said. “He called me and said ‘listen, the secret service think it is a really bad idea and they also think I am going to ruin your event if I show up. Secret service is going to have to rip that place apart. They’re going to shut down streets and do all this other stuff.”
The UFC’s relationship with Trump is not limited to a friendship with White. UFC co-owner Ari Emanuel also has a longstanding relationship with Trump that dates back several years. The Hollywood powerbroker once represented Trump when he was a host on The Apprentice, and Trump even referred to him as a “very good friend of mine”. However, when the Hollywood Reporter questioned whether the agency was interested in re-signing him, Emanuel revealed that he is “not contemplating any of that.” WME later acquired the Miss Universe pageant from Trump, where Ari famously said“He wanted to sell it. ‘Great, we want to buy it.’”
While it remains unclear the extent of Emanuel’s present-day relationship with Trump, the Endeavor CEO was one of the first people to get a meeting with Trump shortly following the election.
Given that there are several different variables tying Trump with the UFC, it makes sense that the promotion has maintained a friendly relationship with the U.S. president. Even former UFC fighter Leslie Smith, the founder of Project Spearhead, suggested that the promotion could have used its relationship to Trump to “call in a favor” and get her complaint dropped by the National Labor Relations Board. However, there is also an argument to be made that the UFC’s willingness to produce an entire documentary on Trump — 14 minutes worth of hagiography — coupled with the longstanding support of some of its top executives, helps enhance the president’s image and gives him free promotion on a prominent sports platform.
However, it should be noted that Trump is not the only controversial political figure to maintain ties with the UFC. The promotion’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, posed with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow. UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has also met with several questionable world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, members of the UAE royal family, as well as with Putin and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.
Given the countless examples of UFC fighters associating with authoritarian leaders and other unsavoury figures, the UFC’s affiliation with Donald Trump can be viewed as the pinnacle of that concerning trend. The UFC — arguably one of the most recognizable sports brands in the world — used its platform and existing infrastructure to idolize one of the most controversial presidents in a generation. In short, the UFC has set a new standard for how organization can use sportswashing to enhance a a sitting president’s reputation.