• Andrew Starc

Donald Trump's long, bizarre history with the UFC

On 3 November 2019, the President of the United States entered New York’s world-famous Madison Square Garden.

He wasn’t there to deliver a momentous speech, or receive a high honour, as typical of Presidents past.

Taking his seat amongst drunken, blood-lusting fans, President Donald Trump was there for UFC 244 – Masvidal vs Diaz, to see who would be crowned the official ‘Baddest Motherfucker in the Game’.

Not since the glory days of Rome, when Caesar haughtily spectated over gladiatorial battles, has the most powerful man in the world presided over such brutal pageantry.

Trump, no stranger to pro-wrestling theatrics, entered UFC 244 to a chorus of boos and cheers, bearing all the hallmarks of a heel.

CNN, a flagrant purveyor of “fake news” according to the president, harrumphed that he received a negative reception” of “loud, sustained boos and some cheers”.

While the right-leaning New York Post gleefully reported “more cheers than boos.”

Non-partisan ESPN however, reported a “mixed reaction” of “loud boos and cheers.”

Given the crazy times we're in, it’s no surprise the most balanced journalistic voice was an outlet that chiefly reports on rebounds and touchdowns.

Donald Trump – his role in the UFC's rise to prominence

President's have long appeared at sporting events to showcase their "common man" bona fides.

For over 100 years, every president has thrown the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game. All except Trump, despite claiming he was once the "best baseball player in New York."

Trump has similarly bucked tradition by showing his face where no other president has dared – the UFC – where the sight of spilt blood and choke holds may even make the "common man" recoil in wide-eyed horror.

Political purists chafed at the idea of a sitting president attending a UFC event – particularly one billed as a "Bad Motherfucker" title fight.

The indignity to presidential office was only heightened when post-fight, victor Jorge Masvidal bestowed the "bad motherfucker" appellation upon Trump, who heartily embraced it with a retweet.

However for a sport once characterised by 2008 presidential candidate John McCain as "human cockfighting," Trump's presence at UFC 244 was a high-water mark in MMAs long struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Perhaps it took someone like Trump, who’s core voters mostly overlap with MMA fans, to give the UFC the presidential stamp of approval. After all, his is a public image that revels in the same loudly crude, flashy spectacle of self-promotion and shit-talking typical of UFC fighters.

Trump's appearance at UFC 244 wasn't his first. His is a long history with the UFC and the fight game, having played a pivotal role in its battle for mainstream acceptance.

The UFC's early days battling for survival

“In 2001, my partners and I bought the UFC and it was basically considered a blood sport,” boomed Dana White to a frothing maelstrom of Trump supporters at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

“State athletic commissions didn’t support us, arenas around the world refused to host our events. Nobody took us seriously. Nobody, except Donald Trump."

Today, UFC fighters get star treatment – their fights showcased under the glitzy lights of America's most storied venues in New York, Los Angeles, and of course Las Vegas.

However from its inception in 1994 until well into the 2000's, the UFC was a pariah battling not for mainstream acceptance, but simply existence.

Shunned by most of the country, the promotion travelled a well-worn circuit across what's today described as Trump country – the South and Midwest – while coastal, blue-state elites sneered from afar at what seemed like the barbarity of rednecks.

Despite growing mainstream condemnation, the UFC quickly became a pay-per-view hit. In 1994, UFC 1 attracted 86,000 buys. Only a year and a half later, UFC 5 did 250,000, rivalling boxing and pro-wrestling numbers.

As the UFC's popularity surged, mainstream publicity followed. The franchise began to creep into the zeitgeist in the most unexpected ways.

A UFC-themed episode of hit sitcom Friends, in which Monica courts an aspiring UFC fighter, before witnessing his demolition in the Octagon, introduced primetime TV viewers to this intriguing new sport.

UFC fighter Tank Abbot, ring announcer Bruce Buffer and referee 'Big' John McCarthy each made cameos in this bizarre meeting of Hollywood and "bloodsport", as it was perceived back then.

One would assume there's no bigger boon to mainstream acceptance than being wholly embraced by the cast of Friends.

However the UFC soon became the target of media outrage.

Footage of low blows and brutal KOs, like that of Gerard Gordeau famously kicking Teila Tuli's teeth out at UFC 1, were salaciously broadcast to wide-eyed viewers across the country.

Media and political condemnation followed the UFC wherever it went. John McCain went on a personal crusade to outlaw MMA, and in most states, the sport was soon banned or denied approval by athletic commissions.

New York, which hosted one of the first UFC events in Buffalo, passed law to ban MMA in 1997. It wasn't repealed until 2016.

"There was huge political backlash, and what they did was they basically cut [the UFC's] life-line, they took them off pay-per-view," said White in the 2018 UFC documentary Combatant in Chief.

Denied pay-per-view airtime by cable broadcasters and legality in most states, the UFC faced ruin.

The franchise realised reform was in order, introducing a new manual of policies, procedures, codes of conduct and rules. Going on the offensive, the UFC lobbied state athletic commissions tirelessly in the hopes of receiving sanction.

In 2000, they were handed a lifeline when California and New Jersey signed off on the new rules. However finding a venue for UFC events, amidst a media-fuelled moral panic over MMA's brutality, wasn't easy.

Donald Trump hosts the UFC at Trump Taj Mahal

Enter, Donald Trump.

In September 2000, he embraced MMA before any other mainstream venue dared, by hosting UFC 28 at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

When Dana White and the Fertitta borthers acquired the UFC in January 2001, Trump welcomed the promotion with open arms.

"When we first bought this company, no venue wanted the UFC. At that time, Trump reached out and asked us to come to the Taj Mahal, and that's were we ended up doing our first two events," said White in Combatant in Chief.

"A lot of people want to jump in after and everybody tries to throw money at it [now], but this guy saw it before anybody did.”

"For our first ever event to be in Atlantic City at the Trump Taj Mahal, we were on our way to get [the UFC] sanctioned in every state."

On 23 February, 2001, UFC 30 – Battle on the Boardwalk took place before a capacity crowd of 6,000 at Trump Taj Mahal.

In the main event, Tito Ortiz knocked out Evan Tanner with a body slam, before famously mime-digging a grave for his unconscious opponent – a gesture that unlikely quelled hysteria over the sport's perceived barbarity.

Trump was there, Octagon-side, to witness it all.

"It was a great couple of fights, two of them were incredible. I was there," he said in Combatant in Chief.

So close was Trump to the action that he was splattered with blood, according to former CEO of Trump Entertainment, Mark Brown.

"We're sitting there and all of a sudden the guy's right on the cage...bang the guy hits him and there's a splat," Brown recalls breathlessly in Combatant in Chief.

"I have a blood splatter that hits my knee from the cage. Donald looks at me, I look down and I'm like 'Is that blood on my leg? Holy shit, this is awesome!'"

The event was such a success that Trump quickly hosted another.

On 4 May, 2001, UFC 31 – Locked and Loaded took place at Trump Taj Mahal.

The event was a coming out party for Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who went on to become the franchise's biggest stars. BJ Penn also made his professional debut on the prelims.

The highlight of the card, however, was a stunning back-fist KO of future welterweight champion Matt Serra by Shonie Carter.

The UFC, now achieving success in it's New Jersey refuge, continued on an upward trajectory.

Trump brokered a deal to bring UFC 32Showdown in the Meadowlands to the 13,000 seat Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The UFC was now stamping hallowed ground where the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi had famously played.

"Donald Trump showed up in the Meadowlands. He had no financial interest in that fight, the man is obviously a fan," beamed White in Combatant in Chief.

Donald Trump's relationship with Dana White

Given their history together, Dana White and Donald Trump have taken turns offering glowing public testimonials of each other.

Trump, who generally perceives people through the binary lens of "winner" or "loser", graciously anointed White as the former in Combatant in Chief.

"I got to know Dana and he's a winner. You see what he's done with the UFC. I like it, I love watching it, what he's pulled off is pretty unprecedented in sports, in business generally.

While White has repeatedly expressed loyalty to Trump for his role as saviour in the UFC's early struggle for survival.

"Everything I ever did in my career, Trump was the first guy to pick up the phone and reach out to me. From getting back on pay-per-view, getting our first TV deal, the guy always reached out to me," White gushed at the UFC 244 post-fight press conference.

So loyal is White that when Trump asked him to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he jumped at the chance.

"Donald was the first guy that recognised the potential that we saw in the UFC and encouraged us to build our business," White bellowed to Trump supporters at the RNC.

"Donald Trump has been a very loyal friend to me, I'm happy for all of his success. I always appreciated what he did for us in the early days and I still do today."

Donald Trump's relationship with Colby Covington

Welterweight title contender Colby Covington is perhaps Donald Trump's biggest fan – not only amongst UFC fighters, but in history.

Perhaps a "useful idiot" whom Trump avails for his own ego boosting ends, no one supports the president with more flamboyant zeal than Covington, who bills himself as "Donald Trump's favorite fighter."

Covington, who's entire schtick revolves around his worship of Trump, was the first UFC fighter to visit the White House.

He visited again in 2020, along with Henry Cejudo, Justin Gaethje, and rival manager Ali Abdelaziz – who has similarly entered into Trump fandom.

So notorious is Covington's support for the president that he's courted media outrage as the "athletic embodiment of Trump's politics," and the sinister implications therein.

In 2020, this loyalty culminated into a bizarre fever pitch when Trump called to congratulate Covington for his victory over Tyron Woodley – live on ESPN.

Weeks later, Covington was a guest of honour at the first 2020 presidential debate, where he was heard screaming his support for Trump.

Donald Trump and Jorge Masvidal

Fellow welterweight contender Jorge Masvidal has also, somewhat surprisingly, come out as a vocal Trump supporter.

“No matter what your views are on Trump as a president, guy’s a bad motherfucker, man,” Masvidal said leading up to his bout with Diaz.

“The money that he’s made, the obstacles that he’s conquered, he’s a bad motherfucker in his own way, you know, no matter what your political views are.”

After emerging the victor against Diaz, he responded to Trump's congratulatory tweet with "Very humbling moment. Real recognise real.”

He's since reaffirmed his support for Trump with public displays of admiration.

Arriving at Fight Island in July 2020 to face Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title, Masvidal was seen wearing a Versace robe and Trump mask.

In September 2020, Masvidal attended a "Latinos For Trump" event, where the president heaped praise on the Cuban-American for his 5-second knockout of Ben Askren.

"We have some real champions here. And one I heard, in particular, I saw a very fast knockout not so long ago. Where’s Jorge? Where is Jorge? I don’t want to fight with him. Where he is? Where is he? Stand up, Jorge. Stand up. There he is,” said Trump.

“That’s the fastest knockout. He was fighting this young superstar, right? They were telling me how great he is. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but he was supposed to be the future of the UFC but he had to go through this guy right here, but it didn’t work out too well. Did it, Jorge? What a champion you are!”

“That was the fastest, was it? About a second? Two seconds? You ran across the ring and the guy was gone and that was the end of it. Did they have to pay you for that evening or not? Because one second, that’s a good return.”

A few minutes later, Trump again praised Masvidal's ability to beat people up as an exemplar of Hispanic America.

“(Hispanic Americans) champion our shared values and embody the American dream. That’s what it is. This guy was a fighter on the street. He used to beat up people."

"He used to beat up people and somebody said, ‘Come on (into) the gym. Let’s see if you’re so good.’ Then he goes into the gym and guys who are fighting for a long time, he beat the hell out of him. They said, ‘I think he’s going to be a good fighter,’ and they were right."

Masvidal could soon knock Colby Covington from his perch as "Donald Trump's Favorite Fighter." With the 2020 presidential race nearing its crescendo, the Cuban-American was on the tarmac to welcome Trump as he stepped off Air Force One, ready to court the Hispanic vote in Miami,Florida.

Masvidal even stepped onto the hustings as part of Trump's "Fighters Against Socialism" campaign, where he railed against the evils of socialism to a sympathetic Cuban-American crowd.

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