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‘Bernie Sanders You Bastards’: the MMA fighters who endorsed Sanders for president

Karim Zidan looks back on the list of MMA fighters who endorsed Bernie Sanders during the course of his presidential campaigns. 

On Wednesday, April 8, Bernie Sanders announced he is suspending his presidential campaign during a livestream to supporters, paving the way for former vice-president Joe Biden to win the Democratic nomination.

“I wish I could give you better news, but I think you know the truth,” the Vermont senator told viewers. “I have concluded that this battle for the Democratic nomination will not be successful, and so today I am announcing the suspension of my campaign.”

The 78-year-old Sanders reshaped American politics through a youth-led movement that demanded sweeping social and socio-economic changes, including a single-payer proposal that would have guaranteed health care coverage for every U.S. citizen. He rose to prominence as a champion of the working class and became the face of American left wing politics with his ideas, while his revolutionary proposals made him arguably the most impactful Democratic candidate in the last four years.

During the course of two presidential campaigns, Sanders’s anti-establishment position and defiance towards the status quo made him a popular candidate among progressive celebrities and athletes, including a handful of MMA fighters and notable figures in the sport such as former champion Ronda Rousey, Joe Rogan, and Kevin Lee.

In November 2015, former UFC fighters Wanderlei Silva and Jon Fitch met with Sanders to discuss extending to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to MMA. The legislation would help limit the exploitation of fighters and reduce corruption by prohibiting certain conflicts of interest.

“We are professional athletes but we are laborers too,” Fitch told MSNBC. “The Muhammad Ali Act to MMA is necessary to balance the scales between promoter and mixed martial artist and to restore integrity to the sport.”

Silva later released a video of himself attending a Sanders rally in Las Vegas, as well as footage of himself and Fitch meeting the senator thereafter. The former champion even went so far as to endorse Sanders for president.

“We are here because Bernie defends all worker’s rights,” Silva told the camera. “He will help fighters include MMA into the Muhammad Ali Act. We are here to fight for worker’s rights. We the fighters are also workers. We also deserve our rights. So I am calling on all the fighters to help Bernie to become the next President of the United States.”

While the lobbying effort for the Ali Act has since been stalled, Sanders continued to garner endorsements from MMA fighters.

In an interview with Maxim magazine, former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey revealed her disenchantment with the two-party system and endorsed Sen. Sanders in an interview in Maxim magazine.

”I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, because he doesn’t take any corporate money,” Rousey told Maxim in the week leading up to her now infamous title bout against Holly Holm. “I don’t think politicians should be allowed to take money for their campaigns from outside interests.

”If he doesn’t win against Hillary, then I’ll probably vote for a third party again. To be honest, in 2012 I was against both candidates and so I just picked any third party because I thought if more people voted for third parties then they’d have to take third parties seriously.”

While Sanders eventually lost the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, he would once again kickstart his campaign on February 19, 2019, announcing on Vermont Public Radio that he would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States in the 2020 election. By August, Sanders had been invited on the Joe Rogan Experience to share his views with Rogan’s substantial audience. The YouTube stream alone was viewed nearly 12.5 million times.

Sanders’s appearance on Rogan’s show left quite an impression on the comedian and UFC commentator. By January 2020, Rogan revealed on his show that he would “probably” vote for Sanders in the upcoming election.

”I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie. Him as a human being when I was hanging out with him, I believe in him. I like him, I like him a lot,”, Rogan said before dismissing the recent controversy between Sanders and fellow candidate Elizabeth Warren. “Look, you could dig up dirt on every single human being that’s ever existed if you catch them in their worst moment. That said, you can’t find very many with Bernie. He’s been insanely consistent his entire life. He’s basically been saying the same thing, been for the same thing his whole life. And that in and of itself is a very powerful structure to operate from.”

While there was much for the Sanders campaign to gain from Rogan’s endorsement, it has also created a schism between the senator’s supporters, especially among those who do not approve of Rogan’s world view or approach to his podcast. Rogan has been guilty of transphobic comments over the past few years and has also given a platform to controversial guests such as Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, Roseanne Barr and Jordan Peterson.

In response to the criticism surrounding Rogan’s pseudo-endorsement, Sanders spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray released a statement saying that “the goal of our campaign is to build a multi-racial, multi-generational movement that is large enough to defeat Donald Trump and the powerful special interests whose greed and corruption is the root cause of the outrageous inequality in America. Sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs, while always making clear that we will never compromise our values.”

In November 2019, Sanders received an emphatic endorsement from UFC lightweight Kevin Lee, who took to social media following a devastating knockout win against Gregor Gillespie with a picture of him standing victorious with the caption, “BERNIE SANDERS YOU BASTARDS.”

By December, Lee accepted an offer to speak at as rally in Nevada for Sanders.

“A couple weeks ago I got to come to a town meeting here in Las Vegas, got to meet Bernie and right away as soon as I could see into his eyes, I could see that man was a real fighter,” Lee told the Nevada crowd. “I don’t know how many people saw the fight last week. President Trump’s boy [Colby Covington] getting knocked out in the title fight. We all gonna take our lumps but this man ran out the back door of T-Mobile Arena and I’m not ashamed to stand up here and say that I fought in that same arena in 2017 for my first world title and I lost it. I’m not ashamed to say that.”

Lee’s unwavering support for Sanders is a rarity amongst UFC fighters during the 2020 campaign. He believes other fighters have leaned towards Trump did so in order to earn brownie points with the UFC.

“I think some of them kind of try to get into the good graces of the UFC,” Lee told MMAFighting when asked about some other fighters supporting Trump. “Okay, I’ll just believe what you’re going to believe maybe. I feel like as fighters we are a little bit too selfish. We don’t really see the greater good, especially with something like a union.

“I’m trying to do the best fights possible and part of me as a person is the things that I believe in, the things I’m going to support. If I’m feeling Bernie, I’m going for it and I feel like that kind of goes through with the fights. You can really feel it.”

While Sanders will not be the presidential nominee for the Democratic party, his legacy as an advocate for social democratic and progressive policies, labor rights and single payer healthcare will not be forgotten anytime soon. Despite his unsuccessful presidential campaigns, Sanders helped clear the path for an entirely new generation of progressive and revolutionary politicians to take his place.

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