October 30, 2018

MMA and Inclusion: UFC 229 Put "MMAGA Culture" On Full Display

By Raphael Garcia

The discussion about diversity and inclusion can often be a polarizing one, whether in politics, business, or culture. And although many believe that this subject shouldn't have a place in sports, "shut up and play" isn't a reasonable stance to take. Combat sports in particular have traditionally been a battleground with politics -- identity or otherwise -- at the forefront. This series intends to closely examine the factors at play with regard to MMA and inclusion, and the way these social issues intersect with sport.

There were a lot of talking points coming out of last month's UFC 229 card, as events both inside and outside of the cage shook up the MMA world. While the main event and the brawl that followed it was what many fans and media members focused on -- and rightfully so -- there were two other noteworthy moments that caused some uproar on fight night, yet went unexplored in the event's aftermath. In light of recent events, it's worth reexamining them.

First, there were Nik Lentz's comments which shouted out Brett Kavanaugh. There was also the announcement of the UFC Fight Pass documentary short “Combatant in Chief” as part of the promotion's "UFC 25 Years In Short" series, focusing on President Donald Trump and his relationship with UFC President Dana White. Both instances reflect the seeming commonalities between the mixed martial arts world and devotees of the current administration -- an "MMAGA" culture, if you will. This MMAGA culture has the potential to polarize the sport's fans and keep MMA at the fringes of the mainstream sports world.

For those that have lived under a rock for the past few months, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a US Supreme Court Justice on October 6th, after a highly contentious process which included multiple accusations of sexual assault. For many, the presence of Kavanaugh on the highest court in the land reinforces the notion that the Trump administration is targeting the civil liberties of marginalized people, particularly women and the LGBTQ community. And the fact that so many seemed willing to disregard the accusations against him was particularly galling to advocates for women's rights.

So when Lentz gave a bizarre "shoutout" to Kavanaugh (or "Special K," in Lentz's words) just hours after the controversial Trump nominee was sworn in to the Supreme Court, it raised more than a few eyebrows. His impressive win was overshadowed by speculation as to whether his political stances lined up with Kavanaugh and Trump, and even if his shoutout to his "homie" was merely in jest, for many, the timing made the topic hardly worth joking about.

As the UFC continues to cultivate its women’s divisions (and indeed has women within its ranks who are part of the LGBTQ community), one wonders what Lentz’s peers on the roster think about his comments. The promotion claims to court fans of every demographic, but comments like Lentz's raise questions about the type of fanbase that the sport covets and caters to.

The announcement of the upcoming documentary “Combatant in Chief” was another such incident. The relationship between Trump and White has been well-documented, as Trump has invested in mixed martial arts promotions, including the UFC, and White spoke at the same Republican National Convention where Trump received his party's nomination. Former Interim Welterweight Champion Colby Covington -- a fighter more than willing to embrace the role of "MAGA champion" -- was welcomed with open arms to the Trump White House for photo ops with the belt just a few months ago. Dana White was there as well. These situations were met with a collective eye roll by longtime followers of the sport, but it's worth asking whether embracing Trump and his divisive politics drives away current and potential fans.

Trump has shown a penchant for vehemently attacking athletes and media personalities who speak out against his policies, particularly when they are black and/or women. His tweets and speeches usually include derogatory language, such as “sons of bitches,” or insults to their intelligence, both of which carry racist and misogynistic undertones. LeBron James, Jemele Hill, Colin Kaepernick, NFL players, and the Golden State Warriors basketball team have all felt his ire. The UFC has fighters on the roster who have criticized the President's policies, and who, as members of marginalized communities, could be targets of his vitriol. Given his close relationship with the UFC President, one could easily see the chilling effect it could have on fighters' willingness to speak out, as they have far less protection from retaliatory conduct than NFL players do.

Many past presidents have enjoyed professional sports, but there are few examples of a sports entity firmly aligning itself with a president. Doing so opens the UFC, its leadership, and its fighters to questions about whether they agree with President Trump's tactics and policies. While that may not seem like much, in the current social climate, the sports world isn't immune to political polarization, and there’s a wide group of current and potential UFC fans that are unwilling to financially support any enterprise that openly supports this president. The UFC is no exception.

UFC 229 was a double-whammy for controversy. When a fighter voices his support for a polarizing Supreme Court Justice like Kavanaugh, or a promoter highlights his alignment with a divisive President like Donald Trump, that is bound to open up questions about the UFC's commitment to inclusion. After all, it's no secret that for years, the 18-34 year old white male demographic was a large part of the promotion's target audience, and two decades later, many of the same viewers traded their Tapout shirts for MAGA hats. Just over two months before beginning its new deal with ESPN+, the UFC can ill afford to have its political affiliation thrust into a spotlight, especially as open support and promotion of the Trump Administration becomes harder and harder to defend.

UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor took place October 6, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Click HERE for more UFC 229 Post-Fight Analysis

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