MMA’s mix of larger-than-life personalities and ultraviolence has made it an entertainment juggernaut, widely claimed to be the fastest growing sport in the world.
But there’s a dark undercurrent to this 21st century bloodsport, in the form of its small but dangerous far-right fringe.
Over the past decade, right-wing extremists have carved out their own pockets within mixed martial arts, seeking to harness the sport’s appeal to draw people into their ideology, while training right-wing radicals with fighting skills they can put to use on the streets.
What’s particularly concerning about these groups, says far-right researcher Pavel Klymenko, is that they’re “consciously using MMA training… in order to prepare themselves for political violence.”
In Europe, especially, white supremacist MMA networks – built around explicitly white power brands, tournaments and gyms – have become an entrenched presence on the right-wing extremist scene, with their tournaments a regular fixture at major far-right gatherings. Meanwhile, the scene has spawned a new model of far-right activism that’s proven highly influential, inspiring imitators from the US to Australia.
“There is a significant amount of far-right influence and neo-Nazi organisations and fascist fight clubs that are taking advantage and weaponising the sport, and we see this on an international scale,” said Karim Zidan, a journalist who writes for MMA blog Bloody Elbow.
The key player in the world of far-right MMA is White Rex. Founded in 2008 as a far-right clothing label by the Russian neo-Nazi hooligan Denis Kapustin, widely known by his pseudonym Denis Nikitin, White Rex began organising white-only MMA tournaments in 2011. Starting out in Russia, Nikitin soon began holding these elsewhere in Europe, building networks with extremists across the Continent and cementing his status as a key figure in the militant radical right.
Meanwhile, using a slick social media presence and high production values, Nikitin grew White Rex into an all-encompassing far-right lifestyle brand. It sold not just activewear but also an ideology, championing a form of traditional and explicitly racist hypermasculinity, and urging its supporters to revive a so-called “warrior spirit” – a phrase featured on its merchandise.
White nationalist politics was central to the brand’s identity, with graphics depicting the consonants in White Rex as standing for “White Heterosexual Reactionary Xenophobe”, while its social media pages expressed support for the so-called “14 words” — the white supremacist slogan about “securing the future of the white race.”
In an interview with the Ukrainian hooligan website Troublemakers in 2017, Nikitin said he intended to use the brand to draw people to his ideology.
“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, honour, heroism — then we could use our videos and events to bring people closer to our ideas.”
“It's neo-Nazi propaganda done by people with some skills in design and marketing,” said Klymenko, the head of policy for global monitoring and human rights at the Fare Network, which combats discrimination in football.
“They believe that they need to defend some things. Some of them define it as Christianity. Some of them define it as white European heritage.”
Far-right expert Robert Claus, author of Their Fight: How Europe’s Extreme Right is Training for the Overthrow, said the brand was attempting to link “the growth of the fitness market and combat sport market in general of the past 20 to 30 years to their fascist ideology of the ‘political soldier’.”
The formula proved a hit with far-right youth, with Nikitin – whose track record of hooligan violence gave him high status among aspiring right-wing militants – acting as a kind of roving ambassador for the brand, building networks with extremist groups across Europe. White Rex tournaments were held in association with far-right political groups like Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD, or Italy’s neo-fascist CasaPound, while Nikitin reportedly has close ties to Ukraine’s ultranationalist Azov Movement, and has given combat training, including in knife fighting, to far-right youth movements.
But White Rex’s influence has stretched beyond Europe. The brand’s most notable imitator was the California-based Rise Above Movement, a notorious white supremacist movement that described itself as “premier MMA club of the alt-right,” and openly modelled itself on White Rex’s ideology, aesthetics and business model, even selling its own activewear line.
Its co-founder Robert Rundo toured Europe with Nikitin in the summer of 2018, mixing it up with neo-fascist groups across the Continent, and fighting in a White Rex tournament at a neo-Nazi festival in Germany.
“When Robert Rundo looked at Dennis Nikitin, he saw an example of someone he could copy and... become a small version of for the US market,” said Klymenko.
According to Zidan, under Nikitin’s influence, Rundo has become “one of the most dangerous white supremacists currently active in the mixed martial arts space.”
In October 2018, Rundo was arrested, along with other RAM members, and charged with conspiracy and rioting over violence at MAGA rallies in California in early 2017. The charges underlined the dangers of the far-right MMA scene: the group were alleged to have organised combat training, and traveled to rallies with the intention to incite violence, with Rundo accused of throwing a counterprotester to the ground and repeatedly punching him.
In June 2019, the charges were dismissed and Rundo was released, after a federal judge found that the Anti-Riot Act – the statute under which the charges were brought – was “unconstitutionally overbroad.” The charges were reinstated in March, but Rundo had long since fled to Europe, where he and Nikitin have been making a podcast giving advice to aspiring extremists on how to start their own far-right fight groups, or “active clubs.”
Rundo has written online that he intends the network of active clubs across the US to “awake[n] the racial bonds between kin” through “engaging in shared fitness activities, sweating, and bleeding together.” Telegram channels promoting the initiative show propaganda from white nationalist fight clubs around the world – jacked men, their faces covered, sparring, working out and spraying white power graffiti – and direct members to real-world meet-ups with likeminded people.
According to Claus, Nikitin’s ability to physically network with other right-wing extremists across Europe has been severely curtailed since Germany imposed an entry ban on him in 2019, which applies across all 26 European countries that are members of the Schengen zone.
But that hasn’t stopped him continuing to exert an influence over the far-right scene internationally. When Australian media exposed a major neo-Nazi group known as the National Socialist Network in August, it was revealed that one of its key figures, Jarrad Searby – a former MMA fighter and leader of the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys – had hosted Nikitin on his podcast only months earlier, discussing their mutual passion for what the latter called “white boy fight clubs.”
“I think you’re a pioneer and would love to help build your brand over here [in Australia],” said Searby, a gym owner who was funnelling recruits into the neo-Nazi group.
“You have a good message and the people here will be inspired to see you standing up.”
For experts, the fear is that the militant worldview of such white supremacist networks will lead to more extreme violence than simply unleashing their MMA skills on supposed political enemies. Klymenko said that with Nikitin having already given knife training to extremist groups, and a noticeable knife culture within the far-right MMA milieu, “it's only a matter of time until the next neo-Nazi MMA fighter will take up firearms.”
“In their worldview, the sense of danger that they think they're facing is growing... They find confirmations for their ideology, and for their kin being under threat, in every news article, in every social media post, in every TikTok video.”
“Defending it with their fists during anti-racism demonstrations is just one one step. The next step is acquiring more serious weapons and ultimately using them.”
Additional reporting by Tess Owen