October 11, 2020. A bus pulls up outside of the Tampa Bay Convention Centre in Florida, USA. Of the suited delegates and bodyguards that emerge, one person cuts an unfamiliar figure. UFC star Jorge Masvidal, decked out in a black and gold tracksuit, walks around the side of the bus to stand in front of a large piece of text printed on the side: “Fighters Against Socialism,” it reads. He is joined by a grinning Donald Trump Jr. Jr’s father is a close friend of UFC president Dana White and the first US president to host an MMA champion at the White House; Colby Covington, the former interim welterweight champion known for being the closest thing the UFC has to a professional wrestling ‘heel’, homophobic slurs, and MAGA rants accusing the Black Lives Matter movement of being “terrorists.” Masvidal and Jr enter the convention centre, where, in front of a packed audience, the pair stand atop a stage designed to look like an MMA cage. They speak of the glory of Trump’s reign and the dangers of the left wing. Junior lambasts the “socialist” Democrats and their supposed role in the George Floyd protests, calling demonstrations a “planned and coordinated deal” where “vans of bricks and two by fours magically show up at locations for antifa.” Masvidal heaps praise on the Trump administration for reforging American dominance across the globe, urging the audience to “re-elect Trump and keep America great.” He ends on a comically patriotic note; “God bless America… God bless the greatest country in the fucking world.” The overall message is clear: anything short of a vote for Trump is a downslide into an impoverished, gulag-riddled, socialist hell hole.
MMA has a right-wing problem. From the capitalistic excesses of the big promotions to openly neo-Nazi competitors, as with most aspects of popular society, the right has staked its claim on the martial arts community. It’s nothing new; with their ideological fetishization of physical dominance from the early days of fascism, hand-to-hand combat has been an obsession of right-wing ideologues. In Nazi Germany, despite their home-grown nationalistic pretences, the Japanese martial art of Jujutsu was adopted at a pace unmatched by most Western countries. Reports from 1937 show it included in Nazi leisure centre adverts for “typically German” disciplines such as swimming, horse-riding, and callisthenics. Fast forward to the warmongers of today, and martial arts are still upheld as quintessential right-wing pursuits. Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet dictator known for assassinating journalists and leading anti-gay purges, runs ‘Akhmat Fight Club’, an MMA school with 15 branches across the Chechen republic he lords over. In the UFC’s first show in Moscow in 2018, the warlord was front row royalty. On the other side of the frontlines, until its closure in 2019 over financial issues, the neo-Nazi members of Azov Battalion ran the ‘Reconquista Centre,’ a social club named after the 15th-century expulsion of Muslims from Spain. Pride of place in the centre of the fascist hangout was a bar built around an MMA octagon.
“There’s a few reasons why,” says Peter Irving, head coach at Newcastle Fight Centre. “Firstly, martial arts in general have a militaristic bent. ‘Martial arts’ is a misnomer really, and the term ‘mixed martial arts’ was just a piece of marketing to try to put a respectable sounding tag on to the Brazilian sport of Vale Tudo, or ‘no holds barred.’ Still, Jujutsu is steeped in essentially mythological Samurai origins, and in subtle ways, the implicit values have survived. The whole package of the hierarchical structure, divisions denoted as ‘ranks’ etc, and some inherent classist aspects of its growth in Brazil, along with Brazil’s political history that ran concurrent with the growth of the art, all make it an easy fit for the right wing.” Irving used to train at a Muay Thai gym in Kent, in the town that birthed the National Front. Here he witnessed the unifying power of martial arts, where young white and black men who would otherwise be at each other’s throats came together to bond over a common purpose. Irving dedicated his life to it, and with 50+ professional fights across a range of disciplines, numerous British and European championships, and now a successful coaching career cornering fighters in the UFC, Bellator, and Cage Warriors, he is a legend in the UK MMA scene.
As an outspoken anarchist and antifascist, Irving is also well attuned to the pull of MMA for right-wingers. “It’s part of the mentality of a fighter that they are an extraordinary individualist,” he says. “It’s rather part of the problem that in order to gear yourself up to do some GBH on someone, you have to depersonalise them, and recognising someone as being precisely like you gets in the way of that. The notion that there’s not enough to go around, so it’s either them or me is very logical in the situation a prize-fighter finds themselves in. That’s why fighters can’t get behind a players association, which is what all other sports in the USA call the union, presumably to avoid the socialist implications of the word union. It’s why the NBA and NFL get around a 50% revenue split with athletes, and the UFC is under 10%.” Irving also believes that the culture surrounding MMA leads people to the right, with the mainstream conservative figureheads found in the sport often acting as the gateway to radicalisation. “Let’s say you like MMA, YouTube is going to suggest to you Joe Rogan. Because you watched Joe Rogan, you are going to get suggested Jordan Peterson in short order, and ‘badda-bing’, ‘badda-boom,’ you’re three clicks away from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (laughs).” Despite the lack of outright fascism at the highest levels, he says that this gateway effect, its many implied agendas, and the plausible deniability they often come couched in present the real threat, both in MMA and society at large. “To summarise, the whole thing is an easy, ideal fit for the right wing. All the more reason not to let the bastards have it without a fight.”
And a fight there is. Every time the right have sought to control of the streets, trained fighters have stood in their way. In the Battle of Cable Street, the mob of trade unionists, dockworkers and everyday locals that sent Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists packing included a number of Jewish boxers fighting out of the pugilistic heartlands of London’s East End. Local champion Isaac ‘Phil’ Finklestein was one of them, part of a gang known as the ‘Aldgate Boys’ who combatted anti-Semitic activities in Jewish neighbourhoods. Decades later, the bomber-jacketed boneheads of the National Front were smashed off the streets by the ‘squadists’ of Anti-Fascist Action who, known for their fighting prowess, included a number of boxers and a kickboxing champion amongst their ranks.
Yet as valuable as martial arts are for self-defence, in more recent times, another leftist value has found its form in the sweatboxes of MMA gyms. A drive for accessible training has birthed a number of specifically leftist clubs offering martial arts as mutual aid. In mainland Europe, there are a number of well-established collectives, one of the earliest being the Palestra Popolare Antifa Boxe in Turin, Italy. Opened in 2001 in the squatted Askatasuna social centre, the gym is run completely by volunteers, open to all, and doesn’t charge expensive fees. Unlike media portrayals that the space is populated exclusively by street fighting militants, evident in the name “Palestra Popolare” (People’s Gym), the project aims to make martial arts as accessible as possible to marginalised groups excluded from the wider scene by the costly memberships, male domination and conservative attitudes often found in commercial gyms.
This ethos soon made it to the UK, which now hosts a flourishing scene of leftist gyms. London’s Solstar and queer collective Bender Defenders are well-known examples. One of the longest standing, Left Hook, formed in Brighton in 2014. Beginning as workshops held in squatted or rented spaces for hunt saboteurs and antifascist activists to gain the self-defence skills needed in confrontational situations, the gym now offers regular Thai boxing, grappling, running and social sessions. “It’s a very much long-term, grassroots work, but we are aiming at making people more confident with themselves, to open them the door to more mainstream martial arts or sports clubs and change the culture from the inside over time,” say its members. As committed anarchists, their non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian ideals are exercised in practice through their sessions. Community is key here, bridging the gap between the individuality of the sport and the cooperative nature of its training. “Martial arts give people the opportunity to experience mutual aid, each benefiting from the other’s knowledge and rising together. Everyone gets to train in an environment that allows them to be who they really are and feel supported. This is what really matters, building a strong collective through the realization of powerful individualities.”
For other gyms, focus is drawn to the realisation that exclusion comes not only from lack of access, but from the dominance of other groups. Mutiny Athletic, formed in the North in 2021, “begged, borrowed and stole” equipment to run their primarily Muay Thai focused program, with guest instructors teaching grappling and self-defence skills. The gym prioritises marginalised groups for its training sessions, by limiting the ratio of white cisgendered males. “Having trained in fighter gyms elsewhere, the culture can often be perceived as macho and intimidating for new people trying to get involved. Multiply that by a 100 for women, LGBT etc,” they say. “We want our members to feel supported and comfortable and keeping that ratio has made all the difference in keeping consistent attendance and encouraging new ones.” Yet instead of the age-old cliché of leftists living in their own bubble, similar to Left Hook, Mutiny hope to give their members the confidence to take their training to the next level with the professionality of regular gyms. Being a member also continues long after gloves have been hung up, with an in-house foodbank and solidarity fund for other activist projects sharing the benefits of each session beyond the doors of the training room. “Community building and strengthening is huge for us. Our space has brought together people from many different leftist strands and through training with one another we’ve found the intersection where our specific interests and politics meet. Sport breaks down a lot of barriers, there’s solidarity to be found in the salt and sweat of a hard session and from that joyful shared effort, seeds of trust and comradeship are sown.”
As committed as these gyms are to inclusivity and fellowship, no short thrift is given to the risks of this kind of organising. All of the gyms mentioned hide the identity of their members and the location of their training sessions, all too aware of the pressures facing antifascist activism from the state and far-right. This need has been recognised by a London-based collective who have asked for their interview to be anonymous. Formed in 2021 after taking inspiration from a session at Mutiny, a group of mates training at regular gyms decided to borrow some lesson plans and start training together. Hoping to get more on the left interested in combat sports both as spectators and participants, the foundation of the gym remains antifascism. “Anti-fascism goes in stops and starts, so we wanted something consistent that would allow us to continue to build a network during periods of inactivity, rather than having to do so from scratch the next time a far-right demonstration is planned in our city,” say members of the collective. This is antifascism as unity and community, forming a collective ethos around shared passions and a common cause. “What we’ve found in gyms has been a camaraderie and a willingness to mutually support and develop each other. Anti-fascism, like combat sports, is open to everyone.”
MMA may present an easy fit for the right wing. Stereotypes that it is overly macho and brutal are rife, and serve as fertile breeding grounds for the kind of hateful, domineering ideologies that the right embody. Yet despite the camaraderie, multiculturalism and respect that form the broad reality of the martial arts community, there’s only so far these assumptions can be avoided. At the end of the day, MMA is the study and perfection of violence. It’s also an inherently political sport; it would be very difficult to defend a community from attack using the tactics of a game of football, yet martial arts form the basis for any self-defence program. With community resistance at the core of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought, and in fact a necessary practical tool to prevent these ideologies collapsing in on themselves, in reality there’s not a lot of mental gymnastics involved in justifying martial arts for left-wingers. This might be the fundamental principle behind the leftist MMA scene – gender, class, disability, age, and other factors often prevent people from developing the necessary skills to defend themselves. These gyms break down the barriers, allowing their members to gain the confidence, resilience and strength needed to live their beliefs into reality.
“I firmly believe that anarchists and anti-capitalists are obliged to project an image of strength, and indeed be physically and mentally strong,” says Irving. “Leftists have an image problem – the cuck soy-boy, the indolent scrounger, the humourless and hyper-sensitive woke snowflake ‘offended’ by everything etc. The far-right has always played this up to attract vulnerable young men in particular, with the promise of being a ‘tough guy’ by joining their ranks; having some sense of being powerful by being a physically powerful individual amongst others of the same ilk.” Instead of allowing the right to fashion themselves in this image, Irving believes the left must instead possess their own kind of strength. “Make yourself physically courageous and hard to kill. It will spill over into other aspects of self-defence. A critical part of left ideology is simply that you must survive, and survive with your hope for a better future and tenderness intact in spite of it all. If you fail to harden on the outside you are more vulnerable to hardening on the inside.” Irving derides Noam Chomsky’s statement, made following the 2017 clashes between anti-fascists and white supremacists in Charlottesville, USA, that the far right always wins in a physical confrontation. “Speak for yourself. If even the icons of leftism give this ground over willingly then you relegate leftism to an academic exercise for intellectuals, with no practical real-world application. So fuck Chomsky, go get yourself some boxing gloves and lift some weights.”
Saturday, 23rd of July. The O2 Arena, London. The socialist Liverpudlian Molly McCann has just scored a devastating spinning elbow knockout in the first round of her 9th UFC fight. What sounds like half of her home city cheer on from the stands. After a short celebration, with one hand raised in the air by the referee, a deadly calm comes over McCann. She thanks the British public for getting so passionately behind a female fighter, and vows not to let down the working classes who support her. After a short interview, McCann addresses the audience. “Can I just all get you to sing one thing. I’m not going to swear” she urges, bringing the microphone closer to her mouth. “Duh duh duh duh, ‘F’ the Tories. Duh duh duh duh, ‘F’ the Tories.” The crowd fills in the blanks. Leftist politics are thriving at the grassroots of combat sports. Soon, they might thrive at the top.
Murray Biagini Kemp