On August 10, 2019, a conference took place in Lisbon, Portugal that brought together several of Europe’s most notorious far-right and neo-Nazi movements.
The event, which was attended by approximately 70 people, included speakers from extremists movements in Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Poland and Bulgaria. Among the most notable far-right speakers were Matthias Deyda, a representative for the German far-right minority party Die Rechte (“The Right”), Yvan Benedetti, a member of the Nationalist Party of France, and Blagovest Asenov, the leader of Bulgaria’s infamous neo-Nazi group known as the National Resistance.
Asenov—an ultranationalist linked to the international neo-Nazi organization Blood and Honour—has used his National Resistance group to target ethnic minorities in Bulgaria, including Turks, Roma, Armenians and the Jewish community. He also pledged to protect Bulgaria from “foreign ideologies” such as parliamentary democracy, moral decay including “strongly propagandized sodomy,” and the “parasitism of minorities,” according to Human Rights Watch. Asenov also described immigrants as “social parasites” at an anti-refugee demonstration in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2017.
Apart from Asenov’s leadership role in Bulgaria’s infamous neo-Nazi organization, he also manages a mixed martial arts fight club in Sofia called “NS Fight Club,” which is reportedly part of a national network of clubs known as “Train, Defend the Motherland.” Over the past few years, the gym has become a haven for Sofia’s neo-Nazi scene and a training ground for newly radicalized youths, many of whom use their sharpened skills to inflict violence on Bulgaria’s ethnic minorities and most vulnerable groups.
“Cleanse the Plague”
Ahead of the Sofia Pride Parade’s 10th anniversary event in June, 2017, word began to spread that ultranationalists from the National Resistance group planned to hold a rival event at the same location entitled “Let’s cleanse Sofia of trash.” The nationalist rally was being held under the guise of a park-cleaning initiative by Monument of the Soviet army, which also happened to be where the Pride march was set to take place.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the pan-European ALDE liberal party expressed concern over the counter-demonstrations and feared potential violence from the nationalists. This fear was amplified when Asenov released a video calling on fellow nationalists to bring “brooms and shovels with wooden handles” in order to “cleanse the plague.”
“I call on the Bulgarian authorities and the Mayor of Sofia to act to safeguard all those planning to participate in the Sofia Pride March scheduled for this weekend. Far-right violence against the LGBTI community has no place in the European Union of 2017,” ALDE’s leader Guy Verhofstadt said in a statement ahead of the event.
While the Sofia Pride Parade went ahead peacefully and with record attendance, the counter-demonstration was a reflection of the hateful rhetoric prominent within Bulgaria’s far-right communities, as well as how it is used to rally support for their extremist cause. For years, the National Resistance has attempted to hold counter-demonstrations during LGBTQ+ celebrations, including an “anti-gay parade” which was held in parallel with the Sofia Pride Parade in 2016.
Outside of using anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to garner support from Bulgaria’s conservative population, Asenov’s National Resistance has attempted to gain political legitimacy since its founding in 2010-11. In its inception, National Resistance was dominated by skinhead youths and nationalist football hooligans. As the group continued to grow, it began to participate in prominent far-right events, including the annual Lukov March—an event commemorating General Hristo Lukov (1887 – 1943), a leader of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions considered among Bulgaria’s most influential fascist figures—as well as rallies targeting Bulgaria’s Roma community.
In 2013, Asenov and National Resistance helped found the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, a far-right nationalist political party that is believed to have carried out multiple attacks on illegal migrants and refugees within Bulgaria. By 2015, National Resistance had grown to become one of the most active far-right entities in Bulgaria, with several factions across the country. One of the strategies it employs to increase membership has been the indoctrination of disenfranchised youths through football hooliganism and MMA fight clubs.
NS Fight Club
During the infamous 2019 neo-Nazi conference that took place in Lisbon, Portugal, Asenov gave a speech where he discussed the importance of combat sports as a tool for recruiting new participants to his National Resistance movement.
“We all know that young people are the most vulnerable and can easily succumb to the ‘weaknesses of our age’ if they do not have a role model, and personal discipline—sport builds just that,” Asenov said at the time. “Thanks to our [NS Fight Club] coaches, our youth are trained in kickboxing, boxing, and MMA. Our athletes participate in various national and international tournaments, and since last year we have held a big annual nationalist tournament called ‘Sport Against Vice,’ as well as other smaller charities.”
“In addition to building discipline, training helps acquire knowledge and skills with which you can protect, if necessary, your life, your faith, your family, your colleagues, your people and your homeland,” Asenov added. “And in these troubled times, when the government does not care about the people; where lawlessness rules and the tyranny of minorities over the majority is tolerated, then the personal protection of you and your loved ones becomes your responsibility and obligation! The psychology of a Bulgarian nationalist is that he must necessarily dominate his enemies.”
Asenov’s speech emphasized the pivotal role that MMA plays in his organization. He uses the sport as a form of radicalization, as well as a tool for street fights and protests to “defend” their homeland from supposed enemies. While the fight club’s social media pages have been removed, the photos that remain accessible show Asenov and his associates standing in a makeshift gym peppered with Nazi-themed imagery such as 14/88 (14 is shorthand for the “14 Words” slogan, which is “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” while 88 stands for “Heil Hitler.”) There are also posters in Bulgarian that translate to “Racial Purity,” and “Yes to Racism.” Asenov has also been pictured wearing a t-shirt with the SS Bolts, which is a neo-Nazi hate symbol derived from Schutzstaffel (SS) of Nazi Germany.
Asenov’s fight club has also established ties with other notorious neo-Nazi fight clubs across Europe, including Kampf der Nibelungen, one of the most prominent far-right combat sports promotions in the region (BloodyElbow reported extensively on KdN’s activities here and here).
The NS fight club has also been promoted by other far-right fight clubs on social media platforms such as Telegram, including the Rise Above Movement (RAM), and extremist MMA clothing brands such as Ouest Casual.
It is worth noting that the National Resistance’s fight club is far from the only extremist sports club in Bulgaria. Several Bulgarian hooligan groups have ties to the extreme right MMA scene. Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s “Lauta Army” ultras operate a boxing club, CSKA Sofia group “Animals” is affiliated to the far-right German MMA scene in Leipzeg. Sofia West boasts several members and supporters who are professional fighters, including Daniel Iliev and former Bellator signee Georgi Valentinov.
Valentinov’s affiliation to Sofia West extends beyond a handful of pictures and friendly relations with the extremist Sofia West group. The fighter was also pictured at the infamous England vs. Bulgaria game in October 2019, where he was seated alongside Sofia West hooligans and allegedly participating in the racist chants and salutes. Faced with media reports citing his presence at the match, Valentinov denied any racism and instead claimed that the gestures were misinterpreted.
According to studies conducted by the Center for the Study of Democracy, the leaders of hooligan and ultras factions in football clubs are often members of radical right associations such as Blood and Honour or National Resistance, which underscores NS’s influence on the young men in particular. The studies later asserted that racism, intolerance and violence against people because of their race or ethnicity is “widespread among ultras and hooligans.” These targets include Roma, refugees, migrants, and members of the Jewish community. The study also linked the extreme right hooligan factions in Bulgarian football with fight clubs as NS, claiming that many factions have either joined or formed fight clubs where they “hire sports facilities and their members receive combat training.”
MMA provides a unique platform for white supremacists to promote their ideology and recruit new members. It allows far-right extremists to draw parallels between their training regimens and the appropriation of faux-culture and history to suit their racist aims. Many such groups, including White Rex (Russia),RAM (United States), Generation Identity (France) and KdN (Germany) view their MMA gyms as training grounds for upcoming race wars. They romanticize their nationalist fervour, while brainwashing youth into “defending” their homeland against a common threat.
NS Fight Club’s mission is no different: establish a network of well-trained neo-Nazis capable of imposing fear and defending their hate-fueled narratives. The fact that the club, along with its neo-Nazi parent company, are able to operate without fear of arrest is a matter that Bulgarian authorities will seemingly be forced to reckon with.