Far-right groups across Europe and North America are using mixed martial arts to swell their numbers, spread their ideology and fight their enemies
“You will not replace us.”
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.”
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.
RAM’s violent ideology coupled with its penchant for MMA and underground fight clubs distinguishes it from various other white supremacist groups in the United States. It has also helped RAM expand beyond the borders of the US, recruit new members, and network with a host of other neo-Nazi groups dabbling in MMA around the world. This is evident in the group’s recent ‘Europe Tour,’ which saw RAM visit several countries across the Atlantic to “bridge the gap between the two nationalist scenes”.
What ensued on the tour was a large-scale networking event that emphasized the growing trend of fascism in mixed martial arts.
Shield and sword
On 23 April 2018, approximately 1,000 neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended on Ostritz, a small German town near the Polish border, to attend the Shield and Sword far-right festival. Held in honor of Adolf Hitler’s birthday, the two-day event featured far-right merchandise, heavy metal concerts, political speeches and an MMA tournament with competitors from some of of the most notorious white supremacist groups involved in the fight scene. Among those present were members of the Rise Above Movement.
The MMA promotion responsible for the tournament goes by the name Kampf der Nibelungen. “To live is to fight,” Kampf der Nibelungen stated on its official website. “At all times it was fighters who defended their clan, their tribe, their homeland.”
Over the past few years, Kampf der Nibelungen has held its events in secret, attracting small groups of neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans to their shows. However, the number of attendees at their events are reportedly swelling. While their inaugural show in 2013 brought in 150 guests, that figure had quadrupled by 2017. The Shield and Sword festival in April was the promotion’s first public appearance. Reports suggest that Rundo, one of the pivotal figures of RAM’s leadership, actually competed in the show.
Members of the far-right hope to use MMA to pull in young people. “It’s a question of fashion,” Sword and Shield’s organiser Thorsten Heise told Vice News. “We’re seeing lots of young people in Europe not interested in drugs, they’re interested in fighting – in the ring, with rules. Especially in the nationalist scene, it’s the style – to be fit, to have a nice body. We love that, and the MMA fighters all love this also.”
Ostritz was just one of many European cities that RAM members visited over the past few months. The group also met members of CasaPound, a fascist party in Italy. However, the highlight of their trip took place in Ukraine, where they met one of the leading figures of the far-right movement in sports.
A week after the Sword and Shield festival, Rundo and Daley’s European tour arrived in Kiev, where they met with Denis Nikitin, the founder of a Russian neo-Nazi MMA, White Rex. The company sells clothing emblazoned with neo-Nazi symbols and racist slogans, including “Zero Tolerance”, “Angry Europeans”, and “White Rex Against Tolerance”.
Nikitin, a former soccer hooligan turned entrepreneur, uses his business to spread his far-right agenda. In interviews, Nikitin speaks openly about his ideology as a white supremacist. “If we kill one immigrant every day, that’s 365 immigrants in a year,” he told the Guardian this year. “But tens of thousands more will come anyway. I realised we were fighting the consequence, but not the underlying reason. So now we fight for minds, not on the street, but on social media.”
After spending several years in Germany, Nikitin returned to Russia, where he founded White Rex in 2008. He was one of the first people who combined the MMA subculture with far-right political ideologies, and has since established affiliates in countries such as Germany, England, France, and the United States, making him a pivotal figure on the far-right.
Through violent sports such as MMA, Nikitin is able to target disenfranchised youth and promote an alternative lifestyle through nationalist fervour. White Rex uses models with blonde hair and blue eyes to promote their clothes – another strategy to help sell the brand to the young men inclined to join their cause.
While White Rex operates under the guise of a clothing brand, Nikitin also uses his brand to organize MMA events. From 2011 to 2015, White Rex hosted multiple MMA shows, some of which featured several notable Russian fighters, including Bellator star Anastasia Yankova (Yankova has denied she shares White Rex’s ideology). White Rex also hired former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko to train its fighters ahead of one of their shows in 2013. Though White Rex held its final event in 2015, the clothing brand continues to gain popularity.
RAM’s meeting with Nikitin was several months in the making. They regularly posted links to White Rex’s shows and clothing on their social media accounts. More recently, however, RAM has begun selling White Rex clothing on their apparel website, Right Brand Clothing, which suggests a growing relationship between the two entities. It also means that White Rex – a clothing brand that promotes hate, Islamophobia, and nazi ideology – is now available in the United States.
“RAM saw all these well organized groups in Europe and beyond that were outspoken,” Bryan Schatz, an investigative journalist for MotherJones who penned The Terrifying Rise of Alt-Right Fight Clubs, told the Guardian. “They had gyms. They had events that drew a lot of people. I think [RAM] found a lot of inspiration in how successful these groups were able to be so they wanted to import that model to the United States.”
A quick search on the Right Brand Clothing website highlights several White Rex items of clothing, including a t-shirt that features Nazi symbols, such as the SS bolts. The description reads: “From the infamous European clothing brand White Rex this shirt is 100% cotton. Made in Europe. Wear this shirt with pride. Features sleeve patch. This is a European cut, we suggest buying a size up.”
Naturally, White Rex is not the only far-right MMA brand that has caught RAM’s attention. Another group mentioned on RAM’s social media pages is Agogé, a white nationalist boxing gym founded by Generation Identity. According to the extreme right-wing group, the gym is a place for “patriots and identity in Lyon.”
Generation Identity has hosted training camps in France for over six years. Promotional videos show dozens of young men and women working out wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Defend Europe”. Following their success in France, the group has attempted to expand into Canada, particularly the francophone region of Quebec. It has also spurred similar movements from groups like Atalante Quebec, who opened up a secret fight club in Quebec for its members to train in. Despite the fact that a potentially violent “identity boxing club” had been established in Quebec, the local police department had no plans to intervene or monitor the secret club.
On 24 May 2018, six members of Atalante Quebec – some wearing masks – barged into the Montreal offices of Vice Media, where they proceeded to insult reporters, throw leaflets and clown noses around, and intimidate those present in the office. They left before police arrived on scene. However, the group’s leader was arrested the following month and was charged with criminal harassment and intimidation. Their MMA fight club continues to operate despite their well-documented intimidation tactics.
“The alt-right and the analogous identitarian movement are encouraging their members to get off the computer and network in real life,” Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told the Guardian. “They want their members to take real world actions. Ultimately, they want to establish a white ethnostate by any means necessary. In the case of Atalante [Quebec], they probably view opening a martial arts school as a way to prepare for street clashes with anti-fascist activists or actions they believe are necessary to bring about a white ethnostate.”
Mixed martial arts provides a unique platform for white supremacists to promote their ideology and recruit new members. It allows far-right extremists to draw parallels between their training regimens and the appropriation of faux-medieval culture and history to suit their racist aims. Many such groups, including White Rex and RAM, view their MMA gyms as training grounds for upcoming race wars. They use Roman and Germanic mythology to romanticize their nationalist fervour, while brainwashing youth into “defending” their homeland against a common threat.
“As far as I can tell, it is basically this idea that they need to come together – essentially like an army – to protect their race, which they see as being attacked.” Schatz explained.
RAM is not the only group in the United States engaging in MMA and street fighting. A group of young, pro-Trump white men recently formed the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights (FOAK) and announced that it would serve as the “tactical defensive arm” of the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization started by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. Kyle Chapman, the founder of FOAK, revealed that his group plans to “protect and defend our right-wing brethren when the police and government fail to do so.” Other similar groups have since sprouted in Italy, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
It is likely that white-nationalist fight gyms will continue to sprout across North America and Europe for the foreseeable future. Their ability to not only operate in the open, but to also establish a worldwide network of violent, well-trained white supremacists, emphasizes the extent of the problems facing Western society.