Where Are Our Left-Wing Cranks in UFC?

ByAlan "Chuy" Codd

In 2008, a photo was making the rounds from the Republican National Convention. The picture is shot from behind depicting a hulking man in a tank top, covered in tattoos. Alone, he is squaring off against a wall of a half dozen police officers in riot gear.

Looking at the photograph without context, one would assume that this was some sort of biker or hooligan type, perhaps causing trouble, which garnered the attention of the police. Or maybe, given that it is a picture of a large white man with a shaved head and tattoos, that he was some sort of proto-Proud Boy or MAGA chud there to root on the party of George W Bush and the forever war. But a closer examination of his tattoos – a man with a gun to someone’s head with the caption “capitalism” on his neck, the giant picture of Sabo-Tabby on his left shoulder – spoke to a different reason why he was at the Convention that day.

For MMA fans, he was instantly recognizable as world-class grappler and former UFC Heavyweight title challenger Jeff “the Snowman” Monson. He was facing off with police that day because he, along with other protesters, was attempting to form a human chain in order to stop the buses transporting several Republican politicians from arriving at the venue. “We were basically blockading the street,” Monson later told Vice. “And when the busloads of Republican delegates were being unloaded we just wanted to prevent them from going in the Target Center, basically making a human wall. The riot police swept us up and pushed us into a park and then arrested us... They had arrested the group of us and I was coming up to the front saying, ‘I’m coming through; you can arrest me.’”

Police detained the protesters in the park just long enough for the delegates to get in the convention before letting Monson and the crowd go. "The charges were mostly dropped,” Monson told Vice. “But that's what the government does: They arrest you and then they act like they’re doing you a favor by dropping the charges and letting you go home."

Jeff Monson was one of the first, and, still, very few MMA fighters who is openly on the left. While MMA, in general, appeals to and attracts a broad base of athletes and fans, in recent years, more fighters seem to be comfortable coming out in support of beliefs held by the far right and fringe groups.

While it might seem obvious to outsiders that the world of hand-to-hand fighting, of bloodsport, would be rife with conservative beliefs and politics, that is not necessarily a fait accompli. The business of mixed martial arts draws fighters in from all walks of life, but its promises of big pay days in exchange for risking serious injury in physical combat, was always going to appeal primarily to those of a less genteel upbringing. And the reality of its highly exploitive business model, where fighters assume all the risk while the promotion keeps the majority of the reward, has the potential for labor solidarity.

With this in mind, it is no coincidence that MMA is experiencing a growing conservative mood at the same time that the UFC –the biggest and most well-known MMA promotion – is facing a critical moment in the company’s history, staring down antitrust lawsuits and increased scrutiny over fighter’s pay. With this type of business model, where is the room for a fighter like Monson who’s Twitter bio reads, “Pro MMA Fighter, ADCC World Champ, American Top Team, Anarcho-Communist”?

Jeff Monson rose to prominence in the UFC during the promotion’s wild west days in the late nineties and early aughts. During this time, most Americans considered MMA to be an oddity/sideshow at best, or, at worst, human cock-fighting – a stark sign of our cultural decline. A unique blend of college educated wrestler, who went on to win the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club grappling tournament. That, coupled with strong Marxist beliefs and a jacked physique covered in hammer and sickle and other anti-capitalist tattoos, Monson stuck out even in a time when the UFC was rife with characters that would rival the WWE.

Monson would go on to eventually challenge for the UFC heavyweight title, only to come up short to Tim Sylvia. He would go on to have a middling career following this, but that would not be the focus of Jeff’s life. After fighting for various MMA promotions, he eventually fought in Russia against local folk hero, and one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time, Fedor Emilianenko. Monson acquitted himself well in the fight winning over the Russian crowd.

Due to his clear pro-communist stance, Monson was actively wooed by a Russian government desperately trying to build legitimacy by tying itself to the country’s Soviet past, ultimately leading to Monson becoming a Russian citizen. Monson had an op-ed published in Newsweek regarding this decision titled “Why I became a Russian Citizen.”

“My critics will be sad to hear that my decision wasn’t the result of my longtime dislike of America’s aggressive foreign policy or imperialistic capitalist ambitions,” Monson wrote. “Rather, it was due to my solidarity with the Russian people.” He goes on to describe growing up in the 1980s where he was told that Russia was “an evil country buried in a swathe of red.” But after having experienced the “culture of social responsibility” developed by Russia’s “experience with communism,” Monson discovered that he was part of the “Russian soul.” The fact that he was “fascinated by the 1917 Revolution” might have also played a part in his decision to declare “Ya russkiy.”

Since Monson’s rise in UFC in the early aughts, no other fighters have taken up the mantle of the left-crank in quite the same way, while there has been a steady flood of far-right-cranks into MMA. In 2009, UFC and Strikeforce had to ban apparel from Hoelzer Reich clothing after fighter Joe Brammer wore their Nazi-themed gear during his UFC debut. A year prior, fighter Melvin Costa, made waves fighting for the smaller King of the Cage promotion while brandishing a tattoo of a Nazi eagle and swastika on his chest. Costa did clarify to reporters that he considers himself a “white nationalist,” not a neo-Nazi, because “I believe in Hitler’s point of view as far as racial consonance, but I don’t believe a lot of his things as far as controlling the economy.” In 2012, former UFC owner and current company president, Dana White came under fire for allowing Brandon Saling, a fighter with neo-Nazi tattoos, to fight in a televised Strikeforce promotion.

In more recent years, the connections between MMA and the far right have only grown. In 2018, multiple articles came out detailing the rise of “fascist fight clubs” like the Rise Above Movement, a racist group out of southern California that trains amateur MMA fighters. Last year, UFC was again criticized when a trainer’s neo-Nazi tattoos were spotted during a live broadcast of UFC 251 on ESPN. Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunes sparked controversy in the lead-up to her fight with Chinese fighter Zhang Weili in UFC 261 when she said in an interview “Better dead than red,” the popular slogan of the American far right during the Cold War. Namajunes clarified that, while holding nothing against Weili personally, she saw the fight as a way to get revenge for what the Soviet Union did to Lithuania. Many pointed out the long history of Lithuanian nationalists rehabilitating Nazi collaborators in the country for the purpose of demonizing the Soviet Union and the left domestically.

For his part, Dana White has not been shy to enter the political sphere. He was an outspoken early supporter of Donald Trump in 2016. In 2020, he spoke at campaign events and donated one million dollars to Trump’s campaign. He even was given a coveted slot on the last night of the Republican National Convention where he railed against the “lawless destruction” occurring in American cities before concluding that it was “critically important to reelect President Trump.” But White’s public embrace of right wing politics are not solely because he is the physical embodiment of the MAGA-chud.

In 2016, Endeavor, a talent and media company, purchased the UFC for a reported $4 billion. This sale positioned Dana White (who owns 9% of the company) to make an estimated $360 million. Enough money to play $25k hands of blackjack for recreation and to import snow for his driveway, for the Christmas holiday…in Las Vegas.

Though the original owners of the UFC stand to make generational wealth, their fighters, aka their main product, are still woefully underpaid. Part of the reason that the UFC was valued so high, is that their business model is built around the fighters only getting about 16% of the overall revenue. Comparing this amount to the amount that boxers make, it is clear to see how much the UFC underpays even its biggest stars. For example, Jon Jones, one of their most recognizable stars makes $500k per fight. Their largest star, Conor McGregor, makes around $3 million per fight. Compare this to how much boxing’s biggest stars such as Canelo (guaranteed $15 million per fight) or Anthony Joshua ($30 million) make and it is easy to see why UFC was seen as such a prime investment.

The most important reason for the gap in fighter pay between the two sports is that there are several different organizations and titles in boxing, whereas the UFC has a quasi-monopoly on mixed martial arts. With enough competition in boxing, there are different companies that vie for the broadcast rights (where the real money is), allowing boxers to share in revenue from PPV buys as well. With the UFC being the biggest organization in MMA, they can set the price floor and ceilings for their fighters.

Another point to note, is that boxing has been heavily regulated by the Ali Act which passed in 2000. This act provides a bevy of rights to the fighters, including giving the respective state’s boxing commission more power and, importantly, allowing fighters to sign annual contracts. The UFC is known for having extremely binding contracts that often self-renew if a fighter is a champion. It is these contracts that have prevented some faces of the sport such as Georges St-Pierre (GSP) from fighting a highly publicized fight with Oscar De La Hoya – it was rumored that White’s personal grudge against De La Hoya might have also played a role in blocking the fight. The UFC is well aware of the advantage it gains from having a more exploitable workforce and in 2016, when rumblings began that the Ali act should extend to MMA, they hired the Washington based law firm, Farragut Partners, to lobby against the Muhammed Ali expansion act.

As part of their continuing commitment to fucking over their fighters, the UFC banned paid sponsorships on the fighter’s uniforms six years ago, signing a deal with Reebok to provide all the fight kits for the fighters. This severely impacted one of the few independent avenues for fighters to make money. Companies and brands were incentivized to sponsor fighters, in order to get the higher visibility from fighters appearing in the octagon.

For many fighters, this was a crucial source of income. “$2500?!?!?!!!!” tweeted fighter Brandon Thatch referring to the new per fight set-rate for endorsements under the Reebok deal. “But hey they do throw in a pair of shoes… Ouch that hurts the wallet” – on a side note, they did not throw in a pair of shoes, choosing to give fighters a half-off coupon instead. Fighter Aljamain Sterling was even more clear, “I’m 3 fights in and will make half the $$ I get now, which is already crap.” Former fighter, now broadcaster, Brendan Schaub, stated he was making six figures from sponsorships alone.

The Reebok deal did pay fighters, but on a tiered level; where you fought on the card, determined how much you received. Several fighters who left the UFC to join other promotions have often come out saying that they already make more money than they did in the UFC, even though they are fighting for smaller promotions.

To make matters even worse, the UFC signed a huge deal with ESPN recently, where they provided a large amount of content for the launch of their ESPN Plus platform. It also forces any non-subscriber to use the ESPN Plus platform to purchase pay-per-view events – essentially forcing MMA fans onto the platform. Variety reported the 5-year deal to be worth $150 million per year for the UFC. This contract is rumored to have effectively removed the need for UFC pay-per-view events to be a success on their own terms. Their money is basically guaranteed regardless of how poor a card may perform.

And here, we begin to see where the secret of UFC’s immense profitability lies. By monopolizing the MMA media-space, UFC leaves most fighters with no alternative but to work with the company on the company’s conditions. For those that have achieved enough recognition that they might be able to make money outside of the sport, they are locked into contracts that require the UFC to “loan” them out – with UFC taking a cut of the fighter’s revenue, of course. And for those who might try to create an independent revenue stream via endorsements, the UFC has cut-off that avenue as well. In short, if you want to try and make a living at MMA, you belong to the UFC.

This situation is exacerbated by a large faction of fighters who almost seem to relish in their current demeaned position. When Trump became President, many in the MMA world came out to support Trump and other far-right groups/ideologies that had seemingly moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Combat sports has always attracted a strange mix of personality types, from social outcasts like Jeff Monson, to collegiate athletes who find no recourse after the Olympics are out of reach. Unfortunately, since the halcyon days of Jeff Monson, it seems as if there have been more fighters who have taken up the mantle of right-wing crankery, than there have been fighters who have come out of in support of the left.

It is this exact way of thinking that makes it easier for the UFC to continue to avoid that thing that has helped players in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, the formation of a union. Sam Alvey, a fighter often on the opening fights of cards, even went so far as to say he is against unions. He argued that a union would prevent a fighter from making “Conor McGregor money” – something that Alvey himself has avoided his entire career, apparently without notice. He truly thought that all he needed was to mount a big enough win streak in order to make that McGregor money – Alvey is currently on a five-fight losing streak. “Mr. Block is legion,” wrote Walker Smith in 1913, referring to a particular type of American worker represented by the Mr. Block comic strip. “He is representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters. Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire; he is patriotic without patrimony; he is a law-abiding outlaw who licks the hand that smites him and kisses the boot that kicks him.”

Fan favorite, and noted QAnon/Trump supporter, Jorge Masvidal, came out briefly in support of greater fighter pay, after facing a tough contract negotiaton, but quickly grew silent regarding the issue after receiving a new contract last year. Fighter Leslie Smith saw her UFC contract not renewed in 2018 when her last fight did not go through, because her opponent did not make weight. Per commission rules, Smith was entitled to 20% of her opponent’s purse, and was also offered an additional $5k from said opponent. Smith refused this, as well as refute the claim that her opponent offered her an extra $5k. Despite still having a fight left, Smith was unceremoniously cut from the promotion’s roster.

Looking deeper into it, Leslie Smith was trying to get fighters unionized through an organization called Project Spearhead. Specifically, she was trying to force the UFC to define whether fighters are actually contractors or employees. Much like Uber, UFC defines its fighters as independent contractors in order to both create greater precarity for the fighters and to exert more control with less responsibility over the promotion’s workforce. Smith was effectively fired for daring to threaten this system of control.

There have been other attempts – some more, some less serious – to form a fighter’s union in the sport, but they have typically fizzled out. Perhaps the biggest attempt was when a few notable fighters – including people’s champ GSP – teamed up with former fight promoter, Bjorn Rebney, and attempted to form a fighter’s association. The attempt was unsuccessful, with some blaming the fighters’ choice to associate themselves with a fight promoter who many said was worse than Dana White. But it also seems as if some of the still active fighters received favors from the UFC in exchange for dropping support for the association. Notable fighters such as Donald Cerrone, and TJ Dillashaw received preferential treatment even after stringing together losses – Cerrone’s “fight” against Conor McGregor being an especially egregious example – or receiving suspensions for use of performance enhancing drugs.

With the UFC posting huge profits during a pandemic, and signing a huge deal with ESPN, it is obvious that the company has become much closer to the level of the major league sports. Unlike the major league sports, the athletes do not have a union to bargain collectively. It is difficult to tell if the personality types that professional fighting attracts, makes it easier for the UFC to plant doubt or divide fighters against each other. But it is clear that the right-wing politics of the workforce is a source of the company’s immense profits.

There is a tendency on the left to see sports, and contact sports in particular, as the property of the political right. And with its displays of blind patriotic nationalism, promotion of “meritocracy” (no matter how fantastical the reality), and its celebration of violence, it is easy to see why this is the case. But there is no reason why sports has to be the domain of the right. Nationalism was forced onto sports by leagues looking for easy money from the Pentagon; all those bootstrapping meritocracy stories cover much more interesting real accounts of athletes who “make-it” that are just as riddled with luck and chance as training and skill; and pacifism is a middle-class value, not a value of the left. So, why have sports become dominated by right wing politics? Because that is the way that the capitalist class wants it.

Dana White might be ideologically anti-union, but he is also bound by his desire to maximize profit to break-up any efforts at organizing amongst his fighters. And the easiest way to do that is to create a workplace atmosphere that is hostile to such talk from the start. The wild west days that brought a wide variety of weirdos to the sport are gone. As profits soared, the ranks of the fighters were filled with company stooges, Qanon nerds, MAGA chuds, Eastern European Nazis, and other right-wing cranks. It would be interesting to see what Jeff Monson would have done, or had to say if he was still fighting in the UFC today. The sport needs more Jeff Monsons and less Sam Alveys.

Listen to Chuy, Brian, and Greg talk UFC politics in the Patreon episode "Sports Ball," on Mechanical Freak