The president of the United States was nowhere to be seen at the Bellator NYC event this weekend at Madison Square Garden, but that doesn't mean his spirit wasn't hovering around the place like a mist, which seems to be the way the world works these days. Not even our beloved MMA is free from politics in the Age of Trump.
The invasion began last week, when heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko began waxing wistful on the MMAHour about the possibility of performing in front of Trump again, this time in the president's hometown. Trump was one of the co-owners of the short-lived Affliction promotion, which, for the briefest moment in the late aughts, gave American fans the chance to witness firsthand the skills of a man who to that point had been viewed like an untouchable, unseen god out of some Russian myth. Fedor, not Trump. But Affliction folded its tent after just two events, each of them capped off by stunning Emelanenko victories, and since then Emelianenko and Trump hadn't crossed paths, nor did they while Fedor was in Manhattan last week.
"No we didn't have an opportunity to meet him," Fedor said through a translator. "I would be very happy if the president of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, could come to our fight and support us."
Fine. There's nothing wrong with a fighter in the twilight of his career indulging in a little nostalgia for the days when he was an unbeatable giant. Fedor's Affliction years were his salad days, a time when he was more myth than man. Nine years, three bad losses, and five meaningless victories later, with the air of invincibility blown entirely away, who can fault him for finding positive associations in anyone connected to those days, and to wish one of those people (say, a sitting president) would appear again from out of the past, like a talisman and a good-luck charm, to bring back some of the old magic? No politics there: just the recognition on the part of a fighter past his prime that he was once golden and is now just a man in decline.
But Fedor—who, let's not forget, is one half of a mutual admiration society with Russian President and ace election meddler Vladimir Putin—didn't stop at mere nostalgia. He had thoughts about Trump's performance as president, and his reception in America, as well.
"I think that he is doing his best for his country," Emelianenko said. "I cannot understand why he has such a negative publicity right now in his own country. I think he is doing everything for his people. But to tell the truth, I don't live in the United States. I live in Russia. That is why, maybe, I cannot make an objective judgment. This is my feeling."
While it's unclear whether Trump wants yet another high-profile Russian celebrating him while he may or may not be under investigation for colluding with Russia (we're guessing he does), there's no doubt the president will take all the help he can get from athletes who share his enthusiasm for "winning." So he was probably delighted to hear (and there's no way he didn't hear) the words spoken by Matt Mitrione after the American heavyweight knocked out Emelianenko in the first-round of their fight. Sure, Trump was probably pulling for his old friend Emelianenko, but in the end the quickest way to the president's heart is by winning, and if his affections didn't transfer immediately from Fedor to Mitrione following the knockout (I bet even Trump felt a pang of loss and nostalgia) they surely did after the American took to the microphone and declared his affection for Trump (which is actually the quickest way to the president's heart; just ask the members of his cabinet) and his contempt for other athletes who refuse to visit the White House after a big win.
"Hey, President Trump, fuck the Golden State Warriors!" Mitrione shouted. "I'm a real warrior. I'll come to the White House. I'll be good and honorable. So invite me, my man."
Mitrione, of course, was speaking about the newly crowned NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who have been famously reluctant to say whether they would visit the White House if asked. Following in the footsteps of some members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, several Warriors, including their coach, Steve Kerr, have been vocal in their opposition to Trump and concerned about validating his policies and politics by visiting him at his new home. But Matt Mitrione was clearly having none of it. Trump, after all, is his "man," and in Mitrione's world, apparently, when the president invites you over, you go happily. All in all, Mitrione's "call-out" was the perfect loudmouth American bookend to an already strangely Trump-centric MMA fight.
So the ball is now in your court, Mr. President: Do you invite your enthusiastic American supporter with the dirty mouth who just knocked out your enthusiastic Russian supporter with ties to Putin who conspired to help make you president over to the White House or not? It's all a tangled web, isn't it?