Martial Arts in the Age of Trump

From the UFC to Hollywood, MMA and other ultra-brutal martial arts have gone mainstream — hand in hand with the rise of the far right.

UFC fighters Dustin Stoltzfus and Kyle Daukaus during the UFC 255 event on November 21 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Martial arts have been used in the systematic oppression of people and of nations throughout history. But they’ve also been instrumental in the fight against such oppression — a defensive measure for people who had no other recourse.

Traditional Asian martial arts, such as kung fu, judo, karate, and tae kwon do, were all created as systems of self-defense for the oppressed and were all taught primarily as spiritual disciplines. Although these Asian martial arts dominated in the United States and Europe from the 1950s to the end of the twentieth century, ultra-aggressive combat fighting systems from other parts of the world have recently overpowered them, in and outside of the ring, divesting themselves of any spiritual elements and often aligning themselves with the most reactionary forces in society.

Not coincidentally, some of the most aggressive and repressive states today, such as Russia, Israel, Brazil, and the United States, are also the biggest promoters of combat fighting systems and mixed martial arts tournaments.

The Birth of a Bloodsport

After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union began training both elite Red Army forces and law enforcement officers in sambo, a hand-to-hand combat technique created in the early 1920s by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the ministry in charge of police, labor camps, and prisons.

Sambo was cobbled together from the most effective techniques of other martial arts, including judo and jiujitsu. Sambo is still taught to Russian police, riot squads, border guards, secret police, psychiatric hospital staff, military, and commandos. Vladimir Putin trained in sambo and the president of Mongolia is today a sambo world champion.

The founder of Krav Maga Imi Lichtenfeld. (@onpointkravmaga / Instagram)

Israel’s Krav Maga, one of the newest martial art fighting systems, includes techniques from Aikido, boxing, wrestling, Judo, and Karate, but differs from them in encouraging extreme aggression — aiming for the eyes, neck and throat, genitals or liver, and by using any hard object at hand as a weapon.

It was derived from the street fighting experience of Imi Lichtenfeld, the leader of a group of Jewish boxers and wrestlers who defended their neighborhoods against Nazis in the 1930s. In the 1940s, Lichtenfeld migrated to Palestine and began training elite units of the paramilitary organization Haganah, which later became the special operations of the Israel Defense Forces. For twenty years, Lichtenfeld trained Israeli security forces in this brutal combat style, now the official martial art of the state’s police and military forces.

In late 1910s, a Japanese man named Mitsuyo Maeda achieved modest fame performing Judo in circuses around the world. He eventually worked in an Italian-Argentinian circus in Brazil, in part owned by Brazilian empresario Gastao Gracie, performing as a Vale Tudo fighter — a no holds barred street fighting contest. Gastao’s son Carlos began taking classes with Maeda, later opening Brazil’s first jiujitsu academy with his brothers in 1925 and thus launching the Gracie family jiujitsu dynasty.

When Vale Tudo fights started cleaning up their acts and implementing rules, the Gracies saw an opportunity for a new national sport. They began to organize and promote these new fights, issuing the famous Gracie Challenge, daring anyone who thought they could beat them to enter into the ring and pit their style of martial arts against a new style known as Brazilian or Gracie jiujitsu.

This new martial art dispensed with Judo’s traditional formalities, as well as its Buddhist philosophy, and replaced it with malícia and malandragem — malice and trickery — which gave it a strong advantage in combat. Once it landed in America, it began to dominate all other martial arts.

A Brazilian Family Brings MMA to America

Rorion, the oldest son of Helio Gracie, moved from Brazil to Los Angeles in 1978. He found work as an extra in movies and television, and in 1987 got a job teaching Mel Gibson how to fight for Lethal Weapon. In 1988, Rorion and his brothers Rickson and Royler opened the first Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in California. It was there that Rorion and a business partner first conceived the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The first UFC fight took place in 1993 and was completely dominated by Rorion’s younger brother Royce. Royce was outweighed and out-bodied by the other fighters but exploited their lack of knowledge when it came to ground fighting, defeating four opponents in a single night. His success in the ring led to a huge interest in Brazilian jiujitsu, particularly in the United States and Japan.

In the early years, the UFC was basically an upscale Vale Tudo event, operating without time limits, referees, or weight classes, and with only biting and eye-gouging forbidden, but it has since grown to become one of the most powerful sports organizations in history.

In 1996, however, the UFC came under public scrutiny when Senator John McCain caught a tape of an early fight. McCain, who called it “human cockfighting,” began a campaign to ban the fights and managed to get thirty-six states to enact laws prohibiting “no-holds-barred” fight clubs.

If the UFC was going to survive, it had to be more than a bloody spectacle — it had to become a sport. So in an attempt to clean up its act, the UFC outlawed hairpulling, fish hooking (jamming fingers into an opponent’s mouth or nose and yanking), small joint manipulation, kicks to the head when an opponent is on the ground, strikes to the back of the head, headbutting, and groin strikes.

Trump Takes the UFC to the Big Time

Still, even after instituting basic rules and regulations, the UFC had a hard time finding major venues to hold its events. Making matters even worse, major media outlets refused to cover the fights.

That is, until Donald Trump gave it the boost it desperately needed.

In 2001, Trump hosted a UFC tournament dubbed “Battle on the Boardwalk” in his Atlantic City Taj Mahal casino. That single act gave the sport legitimacy and finally brought it media coverage. Since then, Dana White, president of UFC, has been a loyal Trump backer, supporting his presidential bid, speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and recently contributing a million dollars to Trump’s reelection campaign.

In many ways, the UFC has been the perfect sports stage for Trump to promote his political platform. The support of the UFC helps bolster his “tough-guy” image amongst sports fans, giving his MAGA message the kind of bare-knuckle reputation he craves. Trump once tweeted: “Walking into Madison Square Garden last night with @danawhite for the big @UFC Championship fight was a little bit like walking into a Trump Rally. Plenty of MAGA & KAG present.”

As the majority of UFC fighters come from the United States, Russia, and Brazil, the organization has long cultivated its ties to these countries’ leaders — a boon to the global hard right. Helio Gracie, one of the founders of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, was said to be a member of the Brazilian fascist movement known as Integralism. And that family tie to the far-right continues to this day. In 2018, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro was given an honorary black belt in Gracie Jiu Jitsu. In turn, Bolsonaro recently appointed Renzo Gracie to public office as an ambassador for tourism in Brazil.

Renzo Gracie also has close ties with Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic, who’s been accused of widespread human rights violations and of promoting an anti-gay purge with over a hundred victims in 2017. Ramzan is a well-known patron of MMA and even owns his own fight club, run by the commander of Chechnya’s special police forces and Ramzan’s personal security.

The aggressiveness encouraged in UFC often spills over outside of the ring. Renzo, like others in the Gracie family, is also openly homophobic, misogynistic, and xenophobic. He’s even quoted German Nazi leaders on his Twitter account, and has often praised police violence in Brazil and anti-BLM violence in the United States.

In 2000, Roger Gracie, along with three jiujitsu teammates, was arrested for shooting rubber bullets and paint balls at transvestites, a tactic adopted by the caravans of Trump followers during the George Floyd protests. He and many others in the Gracie clan are famous for starting bar and club fights in Brazil and New York City, and for attacking and seeking revenge on fighters who have beaten them. Rarely have any of them spent any time in prison for these crimes.

The Gracie family’s aggressiveness, however, isn’t simply a matter of too much testosterone and steroids. It stems from both a feverish social intolerance and the sense of entitlement that comes with mastering hand-to-hand combat. Gracie Jiu Jitsu, which welcomed malícia and malandragem into martial arts, is a perfect metaphor for Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin’s style of no-holds-barred, Vale Tudo politics.

Mixed Martial Arts Go Hollywood

Unlike Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li, today’s most beloved silver screen combatants no longer fight within a single, recognizable martial art. Many are normal Hollywood actors, not lifelong practitioners, who’ve simply undergone enough rigorous training to transform from movie stars into larger-than-life superheroes.

Actors such as Daniel Craig (James Bond), Tom Cruise (Collateral), Keanu Reeves (John Wick) and Liam Neeson (Taken) all received training in Krav Maga for their films, which inevitably include large body counts and extrajudicial killings. Like the blockbuster superheroes Batman and Daredevil, these characters are vigilantes who, armed with the latest combat fighting techniques and advanced weaponry, work outside of the law to fight evil, restore order and justice, and defend the honor of the country against anarchists and foreigners.

Blockbuster action movies also star real MMA fighters. Proficient in a variety of twentieth-century martial arts, these new screen heroes depend on hyperaggressive, preemptive attacks that are crucial for giving these action heroes an edge against their enemies. For audiences, a costumed hero delivering a punch or roundhouse kick has now been replaced with a brutal takedown, wrist twist, or choke hold.

Keanu Reeves trained in jiu-jitsu and judo with the Machado Brothers for the John Wick films. (@grappleisle / Instagram)

Scott Adkin, perhaps the most successful twenty-first-century martial artist to star in movies, is skilled in nearly a dozen different combat systems, including Krav Maga and Sambo. Although he’s kicked ass in The Bourne Ultimatum and Ip Man, he’s best known for his leading roles in the Undisputed series, where he plays the Russian fighter Boyka, forced to compete in MMA underground prison matches. These movies not only solidified his acting career but also serve as global promotion for underground MMA, especially in Russia where no-holds-barred fights are particularly popular and bloody.

These days, many martial artists now gain recognition through their success in UFC matches and use those skills to become action film actors. Oleg Nikolaevich Taktarov, a Russian-American actor who has competed and won in UFC (and was also a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the KGB), has shown off his fighting skills in Bad Boys 2, Air Force One, Den of Thieves, and We Own the Night, helping solidify the increasingly intimate relationship between UFC and Hollywood.

The kind of corporate crossover dream that exists between martial arts and entertainment platforms is no coincidence. Endeavor Group Holdings, one of the largest talent and entertainment agencies in the United States, owns over 50 percent of UFC as well as the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA beauty pageants, all acquired from Donald Trump in 2015 who remains close to the company.

They also count Conor McGregor among their clients, easily the UFC’s biggest star. Through Endeavor, UFC got twenty-three celebrities, including the actors Ben Affleck, Sylvester Stallone, and Mark Wahlberg to come in as investors of their fight club, thus insuring an even greater presence of UFC within big-budget movie productions.

UFC and the Armed Forces

Besides Hollywood, UFC has long cultivated close ties with the US armed forces. Up until 2012, the US Marines was one of the biggest sponsors of UFC events, paying up to $2 million a year for commercials aired during fights and for a joint UFC-Marines website promoting elite combat training videos. The ads ended when the US Army decided not to sponsor certain professional sports, but also because of complaints about homophobic and misogynist comments from UFC fighters and management.

Even so, the US armed forces continue to use the UFC as a recruiting tool, sponsoring several UFC fights on military bases (UFC: Fight for the Troops) and working together on promotional campaigns involving UFC fighters and elite soldiers as part of what they call a “total force recruiting enterprise.” Dozens of UFC fighters are ex-Marines and Special Forces, and a few fighters, such as Tim Kennedy, a Special Forces sniper, fought in the UFC while still on active duty.

Rear Chokeholds and the Police

In the age of an increasingly militarized American police force, it should surprise no one that combat-oriented martial arts have also found a natural home among our boys in blue.

In 1994, according to Rorion Gracie, a small group of high-ranking military personnel from the most elite unit in the US Army Special Ops Forces contacted him and asked him to develop a hand-to-hand combat course based on Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The result was the Gracie Combatives course, taught to US Special Operations Forces, conventional US military units, the CIA, as well as a similar program that has been adopted by virtually all US law enforcement.

Whether you’re in the black favelas of Rio, the Occupied Territories of Palestine or in the streets of a major American city, chances are that a police officer trained in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Krav Maga, Russian Sambo, or all three is only a single APB away.

The influence of these twentieth-century martial arts in the United States can be measured by the increasingly frequent use of choke holds by American law enforcement. Also known as strangleholds or carotid sleepers, choke holds are the ultimate grappling technique in MMA fights. Blood chokes, triangle chokes, or gi chokes, are commonly used as submission holds in Krav Maga, Sambo, and especially in Vale Tudo Gracie-style jiujitsu, and they are the most common way to force an opponent to submit. In the ring, they have also led to multiple deaths around the world.

Following a series of fatalities, the Los Angeles Police Department banned choke holds in 1980, followed by police departments nationwide banning the lethal technique in the early 1990s. Yet with more civilian videos of the police in action in recent years, deaths at the hands of police using choke holds on suspects, especially black men, have led to increasing public outrage.

In Minneapolis, where they had been permitted until this year, police used choke holds on hundreds of people in the last year, rendering dozens of them unconscious and killing George Floyd, the spark that ignited the Black Lives Matter and anti–police violence protests across the country.

As twentieth-century ultra-aggressive combat centers spread across the country and around the world, more and more people are prepared for and even eager to engage in aggressive forms of street violence. The crossover between MMA and the military and police, the increased arming of right-wing citizens in the United States, and the increased calls for citizens to fight domestic terrorism, all point toward a post-election climate of all-out, no-holds-barred combat.

As in the 1960s and ’70s, marginalized communities are becoming more radicalized with each new police killing and racist attack. Yet, instead of training in tae kwon do, arming themselves, or taking the struggle to the street, as the Black Panthers did in their time, voters disgusted with Trump have turned out in record numbers at the ballot box to enact change. Whether this will be enough to fight back the ultra-aggressive reactionary segments of society is yet to be seen.