Fascist fight clubs: how white nationalists use MMA as a recruiting tool

This was one of the slogans chanted during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on the night of 11 August 2017. Approximately 100 young white men – most of whom brandished tiki torches to intimidate watchers and light up their path – marched through the streets in scenes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan rallies that once blighted the southern Unites States. By 10pm that evening, the group of white supremacists — now chanting “Jews will not replace us” along with the Nazi phrase “blood and soil” – had reached the University of Virginia campus, where counter-protesters awaited them with banners and slogans of their own. By the end of the weekend one of the counter-protestors would be killed, struck by a car.

While some may have been under the impression that the rally was a random gathering of racists, it was actually the conjoining of several distinctive and dangerous groups of white supremacists, including Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, League of the South, and The Daily Stormer. One of the most prominent groups present that night were the Rise Above Movement (RAM) — a white supremacist group that refers to itself as the “premier MMA (mixed martial arts) club of the Alt-Right.”

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Based in southern California, RAM boasts over 50 members and fashions itself as a fight club. Its members train in various combat sports such as MMA and boxing, which they later apply during street fights and protests. The group has been spotted in Santa Monica, where RAM members tried to disrupt a Committee for Racial Justice meeting, and in San Bernardino, where they took part in an “anti-Sharia law” protest with signs such as “RAPEFUGEES stay away NOT WELCOME.” They engaged in physical violence during protests in Huntington Beach, Berkeley and Charlottesville.

Under the leadership of boxer Robert Rundo and Benjamin Daley, whom ProPublica identified as the owner of a southern California tree-trimming business, RAM members infiltrate protests and disrupt proceedings by fighting with those opposing their ultra-nationalist ideology. They conceal their identities using skull masks and goggles, while wrapping their hands with tape in preparation for physical altercations. They then glorify their antics in propaganda videos posted on social media. RAM also appear to have their own gym, though the location remains a secret.

So why are white supremacist groups forming fight clubs and MMA promotions? The answer lies in the violent nature of the sport and their ability to thrive within it. Over the years, fighters with links to the far-right have been involved in some of the world’s most recognizable promotions, including the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Strikeforce. UFC fighter Donald Cerrone and former fighter Joe Brammer were sponsored by Hoelzer Reich, a far-right brand known for propagating extremist symbols. The brand was banned by the UFC in 2009. Four years later, welterweight Benjamin Brinsa was accused by German media of maintaining ties to extremist groups in his native country, while his gym was accused of sheltering neo-Nazi fighters. He was later released by the UFC before making his official debut but did not struggle to find professional fights in Russia.