Magazine article The Spectator

The Mixed Martial Arts President

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mixed Martial Arts President

Article excerpt

How Donald Trump ushered a brutal new sport into the mainstream

Last month a rich, boastful alpha male savoured the greatest victory of his life in New York City. Almost no one thought he could do it, but he made it look easy. In the build-up he ridiculed his opponent mercilessly and feuded with enemies on Twitter. 'I'd like to take this chance to apologise,' he said straight after his win, 'to absolutely nobody!'

This wasn't Trump Tower, but Madison Square Garden. Conor McGregor had just become the first two-weight champion in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) history. Thanks to the Irishman, who combines the athletic talent of Muhammad Ali with the comic ferocity of Bill Hicks, the event broke the arena's ticket revenue record. Yet his sport of mixed martial arts was only legalised in New York State this year. The UFC had finally elbowed its way into America's sporting mainstream.

Luke Coppen and Joel Snape discuss the relationship between Trump and UFC

Donald Trump had wanted to be there that night to celebrate his own unlikely triumph in the US elections. Secret Service agents reportedly persuaded him to stay at home. Why was the next President of the United States so eager to attend an event that would have probably horrified his predecessors? Simple: he loves a sport that is, in essence, a battle for physical dominance. 'It's sort of like, you just -- somebody dies!' he once said. 'I've never seen anything like it... It's not like, "Oh, how are the judges voting?" It's like, you know, somebody just succumbs.'

The UFC's first show was in Denver in 1993. It aimed to settle an age-old question: what is the world's most effective martial art? The organisers wanted to separate true martial artists from practitioners of 'Bullshido': self-proclaimed masters boasting of their 'secret death punch'. They did this by throwing them into a cage and seeing who prevailed. The bouts were nasty, brutish and short. In the first, a French kickboxer struck a sumo wrestler so hard in the face that two teeth were later found embedded in his foot. The tournament winner was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert, Royce Gracie, who beat a hapless one-gloved boxer, a wrestler and the kickboxer en route to victory.

This blood-spattered new sport -- described by fight commentator Joe Rogan as 'short-attention-span theatre' -- quickly gained a cult following. It also inspired moral panic. Senator John McCain called it 'human cockfighting', tried to keep it off cable television and pushed for a nationwide ban.

In 2001, Las Vegas casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the UFC for $2 million. Thanks to the backlash, the firm had been reduced to untelevised tournaments in dingy civic centres. Then the Donald stepped in. He hosted two UFC shows at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, a gesture that arguably saved the company from oblivion. That's why Dana White, the Fertitta brothers' bald-domed frontman, endorsed Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. 'State athletic commissions didn't support us,' White recalled. 'Arenas around the world refused to host our events. Nobody took us seriously. Nobody except Donald Trump. Donald was the first guy that recognised the potential that we saw in the UFC and encouraged us to build our business.'

White, a potty-mouthed former aerobics instructor, is an intriguing figurehead for the sport. …

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