The photograph looks like any typically awkward celebrity-fan encounter. A stocky, crew-cut man, his face locked in an obliging grin, plays along for the camera, flanked by two smiling admirers. Each has an arm draped around the man’s back, the other fist raised in the classic boxer’s pose.
You’d be forgiven if you don’t recognize the man in the middle: He’s not a pro-athlete, a movie star, or a musician. To most people, he’s virtually unknown. But for the two young Californians pictured on either side of him, who proudly posted the photo to their social media, there’s no question they’re in the presence of an idol: Denis Nikitin.
Nikitin is a feared Russian neo-Nazi, hooligan, MMA fighter, entrepreneur, and the kingpin of Europe’s extreme-right MMA scene, which analysts say is one of the most dangerous currents in the continent’s rising right-wing movement. And that’s precisely why the young men from California had flown across the Atlantic to meet him. They were on a pilgrimage to mix it up with some of the continent’s key far-right networks, with Nikitin as their guide.
“He seems to be connected in almost every European country through his fighting and hooligan activities,” Robert Claus, a far-right researcher based in Hannover, Germany, who has followed Nikitin’s rise closely, told VICE News.
The young Americans’ travels, documented extensively on social media, took them to a neo-Nazi mixed martial arts tournament in Germany; to a far-right fight club in Ukraine (its motto: “One of you is worth more than any number of them”); and in Rome, the headquarters of the far-right CasaPound movement, an organization that sees itself as the modern descendant of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists.
The trip, with its intimate look inside Europe’s far-right underground, was a highlight for the young Americans, but for Nikitin it was business as usual.
“He seems to be connected in almost every European country through his fighting and hooligan activities.”
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of mixed martial arts and its appeal to the far-right hooligan scene, Nikitin has steadily built a white nationalist MMA empire across Europe, with connections spanning from Russia to Britain. Nikitin’s network keeps expanding, analysts told VICE News, thanks in no small part to his shrewd use of social media and the appeal of his branded streetwear line, known as White Rex. In his rare interviews, Nikitin has outlined his ambitious vision for White Rex as an all-encompassing lifestyle brand — a sort of Nike for Nazis — that promotes his old, ugly ideology as something strong, healthy, and aspirational.
“His narrative is very violent, very explicitly neo-Nazi. He’s talking about the return of the white man, the ‘reconquista’ of the living space of the white man from refugees and immigrants,” Pavel Klymenko, a London-based researcher of far-right movements in the football scene, told VICE News.
The movement, say analysts who have monitored the 34-year-old’s rise, is turning racist hooligans into hardened fighters inculcated in a kind of race war ideology that transcends Europe’s borders and political movements. Klymenko said the underground, transnational nature of Nikitin’s violence-oriented network gave it the makings of something “almost like a terrorist cell.”
Key to Nikitin's success is the work he's done outside the ring through White Rex, the banner under which he promotes both his MMA events and his white nationalist clothing and “lifestyle” label.
The twin branches of his business have grown symbiotically since he launched the brand in Russia 10 years ago, gradually establishing White Rex as a preferred label in Europe’s white nationalist combat sport and football hooligan scene. In recent years, the White Rex logo — a helmeted warrior encircled by the “black sun,” an occult symbol that’s been adopted by neo-Nazis — has become an increasingly common sight in European gyms, fight clubs, and football terraces.
The brand’s ethos, spelled out in the slogans splashed across its clothing and in its online presence, champions the need for the return of an aggressive European masculinity — the “warrior spirit” — to rescue the West from what Nikitin sees as inferior immigrant cultures and the degenerate values of the Left. White Rex rejects modern society — its relativism, consumerism, hedonism — in favor of militantly reviving its vision of traditional masculinity: conservative, straight-edge, and unapologetically racist.
“He’s got a strong social media presence, and it’s selling not just his clothing but a bigger story behind it,” said far-right researcher Klymenko. White Rex’s Tumblr features graphics depicting the consonants in White Rex as standing for “White Heterosexual Reactionary Xenophobe”; another shows a key-ring incorporating a barely-disguised swastika design. On his personal Instagram, Nikitin recently posted a portrait of Adolf Hitler on the tyrant’s birthday, while White Rex’s Facebook page has expressed support for the so-called “14 words” — the white supremacist slogan about “securing the future of the white race.”
White Rex T-shirts — sold for about $30 at Nikitin’s MMA events and at specialist online stores that feature white nationalist merchandise — carry slogans like “Ultraviolence,” “Warrior spirit,” “Tomorrow belongs to us.” One design, featuring the text “The only friends you have,” depicts a boy walking alongside an anthropomorphized cartoon knuckle-duster and knife. Until it was shut down last week, White Rex merch was directly sold off the brand's official Facebook page, which had almost 13,000 followers.
White Rex’s product lines extend beyond clothing to include branded tomahawks and iPhone stickers; the brand even has a hiking division, the Vandals, for outdoorsy types that want to trumpet their white nationalism from the mountaintops.
Nikitin refused VICE News’ requests for an interview, saying via email he had “decided to stop any type of cooperation with journalists” as he was “sick and tired of your biased reports, bullshit, and lack of professionalism.” But in his few previous interviews, he has outlined his vision for the brand.
“I have a global remit and I need to cover all the elements of modern living,” Nikitin said in an interview with the Ukrainian hooligan website Troublemakers last year. “This is an alternative attitude to life that I want to achieve 100 percent, with clothes, tournaments, sports nutrition, fitness studios.”
Later in the same interview, in response to a question about the brand’s appeal, he went deeper: “Why are guys getting ‘White Rex’ tattoos and no other brand?’ You can’t get ‘Nike’ or ‘Adidas’ tattoos, unless you're an idiot,” he said. “But if you associate a certain philosophy with the brand — such as camaraderie, respect, strength, solidarity, honor, heroism — then we could use our videos and events to bring people closer to our ideas.”
The brand’s power is most evident in the popularity of his MMA tournaments.
“It’s appealing to neo-Nazis because they can learn their violence there — techniques, athleticism, how to train, what nutrition they need.”
Starting out small with events held in backwater Russian cities — Voronezh, Lipetsk, and Novorossiysk — and fighters, he says, drawn from the ranks “of football hooligans, or patriotic guys who wanted to gauge their powers,” Nikitin honed his formula before taking his product to the major centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2012, White Rex ran its first tournament outside Russia, in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, and from there, steadily expanded westward, sponsoring tournaments in countries including Italy, Hungary, France, Germany, and Greece since 2013.
The tournaments are often held in affiliation with far-right political parties (the neo-Nazi NPD in Germany, CasaPound in Italy) and white nationalist gangs such as the Hammerskins, connecting the violent far-right hooligan and combat fighting scenes with extremist political movements and criminal elements. From their dingy beginnings, the events have become increasingly polished — with giant video screens, scantily clad “ring girls” and dancers, and rock bands. They’re promoted with slick videos on YouTube, providing a shiny focal point for a growing far-right MMA scene that is attracting violence-prone racists who want to become better fighters.
“It’s appealing to neo-Nazis because they can learn their violence there — techniques, athleticism, how to train, what nutrition they need,” said Claus.
The underlying goal behind the tournaments, Nikitin told the Ukrainian website, has been “to increase the awareness of my brand to take the fight to a new level.”
“Why did I actually launch the tournaments? So that the athletes who act more in the background can dive into our world, the world of our ideas,” he said. “For some, it's just a ring; for others, it's new people, new contacts, new ideas, and so on. People get involved with ideas and move on to another level of development.”
Nikitin is not just about selling MMA tournaments, T-shirts, and far-right ideology to his followers — he’s also training them to fight. In recent years, he’s given combat training to British right-wing extremists at paramilitary-style boot camps in Wales; in 2016, he trained members of PNOS, the hard-line Swiss Nationalist Party which has been previously classified by the country’s federal police as an extremist group, ostensibly so they could defend themselves against asylum seekers. Nikitin has also given seminars in knife fighting — a discipline he considers to be “a vital skill for all of us — young and proud, who (are) willing to defend our streets,” according to White Rex’s website.
“What’s so dangerous about him is he’s offering this very special mix of fascist combat training, along with an event culture for hooligans who want to do combat sport,” says Claus. “A European network of trained National Socialist hooligans, with Nikitin giving seminars on weapon usage, is a very dangerous network.”
For Nikitin, violence has never been something that just takes place in the ring. He is a 12-year veteran of Europe’s ultraviolent football hooligan scene, whose members travel from match to match, seeking out street fights, arranged or spontaneous, with their rivals. Analysts say he is a member of leading hooligan groups both in Germany, where his family moved in his youth, and in Moscow, where his family returned in the late 2000s.
According to some reports, Nikitin may have been a ringleader in one of the most infamous recent episodes of hooligan violence on the international stage, when coordinated groups of Russian supporters laid waste to a much larger contingent of English fans in the French city of Marseille, leaving two Englishmen in a coma and another with slashed Achilles tendons.
In his interview with the Ukrainian website, Nikitin admitted taking part in the ferocious clashes, which broke out during the European Championship tournament in June 2016, saying his squad of hooligans had “proven to be the most energetic and powerful group” in the skirmishes.
Klymenko, who works as Eastern Europe development officer for Fare, a network of groups set up to combat discrimination in football, said he believed Nikitin was in charge of one of the groups behind the Marseille clashes; he recognized him as the masked man, identified as one of the leaders behind the violence, interviewed in a 2017 BBC documentary.
“I hit a guy in the head. If you can imagine a penalty kick, I shot a good penalty,” boasted the man, who was identified in the documentary as “Denis,” a Russian hooligan and semi-pro MMA fighter, and who wore a White Rex T-shirt.
In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Nikitin also admitted to having routinely carried out violent attacks on minorities with his fellow hooligans.
“I would often say to the guys, ‘OK, who wants to go kick some immigrants?’” he told the British newspaper.
To observers, Nikitin’s high status in the hooligan world makes him uniquely positioned to act as a bridge between the Russian scene — widely viewed as the world’s most hard-core, in terms of its violence and the extremism of its far-right politics — and those further west on the continent. Previous efforts at collaboration in this area have faltered, ironically, due to the racism of Western Europe’s far-right toward their Slavic neighbors.
“Nikitin seems to be able to overcome that, because of his history and his action-seeking combat sport,” said Claus.
Fluent in Russian, German and English, Nikitin’s standing sees him regularly deliver speeches at tournaments and other events on the far-right calendar. In 2014, he spoke at the Iona London Forum in the British capital, and last July he delivered a speech at a neo-Nazi festival attended by 6,000 people in the German town of Themar.
“My biggest worry is his explicit neo-Nazi views, and that the people who are accumulating around him might be responsible for attacks on ethnic minorities.”
“He’s like an ambassador: He comes and promotes his ideas,” said Marvin, a 31-year-old amateur MMA fighter from the German state of Brandenburg, who is a member of the German activist group “Down from the mat,” formed in response to the growing influence of neo-Nazis in the sport. (He doesn’t want his last name used due to the risks he faces in monitoring and challenging right-wing extremists.)
“He gathers the fighters around himself and says, ‘It’s hard times; we need to look beyond borders, we need to stand together and defend ourselves, our heritage, our women.’ What’s very important is this pan-European ideal.”
Klymenko considers Nikitin to be one of the most dangerous figures on the resurgent European far-right, whose interconnected movements, united in their opposition to immigration and Islam, have dramatically reshaped the continent’s politics in recent years.
One of the most successful of these has been the Identitarians, a youth-focused movement that’s often described as Europe’s version of the alt-right. Like Nikitin’s network, the Identitarians – widely referred to as the hipster far-right – have sought to rebrand their ideology as something “trendy,” Klymenko said.
“The second worry is that he is putting together an international neo-Nazi network, widely developed across Europe, almost like a terrorist cell.”
But they differ in significant respects, he said. Where the Identitarians have generally attempted to mask the ugliness of their ideology with rhetoric about defending European identity, Nikitin offers an unvarnished xenophobia. His work, in which he essentially act as “a coach for being an urban guerrilla,” has been carried out “underground, rarely visible to the public eye.”
“My biggest worry is his explicit neo-Nazi views, and that the people who are accumulating around him might be responsible for attacks on ethnic minorities,” said Klymenko.
“The second worry is that he is putting together an international neo-Nazi network, widely developed across Europe, almost like a terrorist cell. You can’t really guess what they’re up to — you just know that events are taking place, people are getting together. There’s no open agenda. You don’t know about his true ambitions… but the threat is there.”
That threat, it seems, now extends across the Atlantic.
Nikitin has boasted that his message of militant white nationalism is drawing admirers from beyond Europe. In the United States, where Nikitin has expanded his reach through his use of social media, his movement appears to have spawned imitators.
“There’s a clear mimicking of, or reverence for, White Rex,” Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told VICE News.
She’s talking about the Rise Above Movement (RAM) — a violent white supremacist group of dedicated mixed martial arts enthusiasts that is training to “secure the future” of the white race in the U.S., according to the Anti-Defamation League. Since the California-based group’s emergence last year, its members have been involved in attacks on political opponents at rallies across America, from Berkeley to the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Mendelson told VICE News that since its inception, the group’s rhetoric has closely mirrored the more established White Rex’s, to the extent that “to begin with, I thought, ‘This is the same group’.”
The growing links between Nikitin’s European network and his American imitators were on display in the East German village of Ostritz in April, where more than 1,000 neo-Nazis gathered for a festival to celebrate the ideology of Adolf Hitler on his 129th birthday.
The event featured a White Rex-sponsored MMA tournament. Far-right monitoring groups say that, along with Nikitin, about 20 fighters attended from countries including Germany, Switzerland, France, Austria, Czech Republic — and for the first time, the United States, in the form of a small delegation from RAM.
Over email, a member of RAM, who gave his name only as Rob, told VICE News that their presence in Ostritz had been a “big step” — a major milestone in the group’s stated objective “to bridge the gap between the two nationalist scenes” and further its relationship with Nikitin’s network.
“These events are not about winning or losing. This is about showing that one has the warrior spirit, like that of our ancestors before us,” he wrote.
“As for White Rex and all the great things that organization has done, like pushing youth to be more than just mindless consumers and addicts like the rest of mainstream society… I cannot say much more than they have our full support,” he said. “Dennis [sic] is a solid guy; I find no faults with him.”
The “Rob” who replied to VICE News would not elaborate much more about their trip, or whether he was Robert Rundo or Robert Smithson, the two RAM members who attended the tournament in Ostritz. (He claimed VICE was “hostile” to whites, citing an ad for the former VICELAND show “Desus and Mero” that featured the slogan “Reduce White Guilt Today.” “What kind of message is that to white kids?” he asked. “Maybe the high number of ODs and suicides correlates with the increasing disenfranchisement of them.”)
But RAM’s social media record of their trip, which featured numerous appearances by Nikitin, painted a clear picture of the deepening ties forged on their European pilgrimage. One picture appeared to show Rundo with a White Rex logo tattooed on his shin. The group tweeted, alongside a picture of Nikitin, that “hopefully one day in America we can have something even close to the events and tournaments that White Rex puts on.” And Nikitin returned the admiration, Instagramming a picture of Michael Miselis, a 29-year-old aerospace engineer from California who was fired from defense contractor Northrup Grumman after being outed as a RAM member earlier this month, becoming a cause célèbre for the group. “When we say BROTHERHOOD, we do mean it!” read Nikitin’s caption.
These deepening connections, says Mendelson, have likely made RAM even more of a threat. Already this year, she says, the group has evolved further in White Rex’s image. In a sign of their growing boldness, the group’s members have come out from behind the masks they once wore to disguise their identities on the Internet; the group has also launched its own far-right streetwear brand and online shop — selling White Rex, naturally, along with other leading European far-right labels.
“We know the real-world exchange of hateful ideologies emboldens and energizes these groups,” she said. “It helps to strengthen their ideology.”