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6/4/2024 |  Paris Olympics: What to know and who to watch during the judo competition (Associated Press (AP)) A roadmap to follow for the men’s and women’s judo tournaments at the Paris Olympics:
Athletes to Watch
—Teddy Riner, France: The world’s most famous active judoka attempts to cap his incredible career with a record-tying third individual Olympic gold medal in front of his home fans. Now 35, Riner took a shocking quarterfinal loss in Tokyo, but the 11-time world champion heavyweight still won gold in the mixed team event.
5/8/2024 |  Racism, Bigotry, Hate Continue To Plague Combat Sports (First and Pen)

In April, Ryan Garcia defeated Devin Haney in one of the most strangely promoted fights in recent memory.

The reactions were swift, but one of the most disturbing sentiments delved into religion, and that’s when the ugly side of combat sports reared its ugly head.

Haney is a Muslim, and some used his loss to mock Islam and call it the religion of a false prophet and other derogatory things. 

It was infuriating to read for the fight, as strange as the pre-promotion and Garcia’s antics were, degrading religion was never in the mix.

It’s a perfect example of the bigotry, racism, ignorance and hatred that so often infiltrates combat sports, an issue these sports rarely seem to address.

The Far Right Loves The Fight Game

In March at a bare-knuckle boxing event in Canada promoted by the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), a Montana-based fighter named Sam Polk, aka “Blunt Force Trauma,” destroyed his opponent in just over a minute in the first round. While that was exciting, the backstory behind Polk is not.

In a story by Sam Eagan in Front Office Sports, Eagan writes that Polk is an Army veteran who is sponsored by MurderTheMedia, “a far-right outlet founded by a Proud Boys leader who was sentenced to prison time for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.”

Eagan noted that Polk had two sonnenrads tattooed on his chest. The symbols, known as black suns, are ancient European symbols associated with neo-Nazi movements and the far right. Even worse, after Polk’s victory, neo-Nazi Christopher Pohlhaus, leader of the Blood Tribe, took to social media and posted screenshots of what he alleged were text messages between him and Polk, and claimed the win to be a “Total Aryan Victory.” 

In response, BKFC founder David Feldman stated the following:

“We were not aware of Polk’s sponsor or [alleged] ties to these groups,” Feldman told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Him or any other fighter who fights for organizations who support white supremacist beliefs are not welcome and will not fight in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.”

Yet Polk is still listed on the organization’s roster.

Extremism has infiltrated and spread throughout combat sports, and leaders employ combat sports as an effective recruiting tool because these bigoted movements are loosely or rarely policed by sanctioning bodies.

Embracing Ignorance In MMA And Boxing

We’ve witnessed it in MMA, where some UFC promotions boil down to race wars and political battles.

The December 2019 and November 2021 UFC fights between Kamaru Usman vs Colby Covington devolved into Black vs. white and never-Trumpers vs MAGA.

Covington proudly wore his red MAGA hat and paraded his support for Trump at every press conference, transforming the fight into a political promotion for the former president.

But the sport thrives off racial, ethnic and political tension, so the more personal, the better.

Leading up to their first match at UFC 229 in 2018, Conor McGregor attacked Khabib Nurmagomedov’s religion, father and country. The insults resulted in McGregor’s destruction through a Khabib rear naked choke at the highly anticipated fight. Afterward, a victorious but frustrated Khabib, who had endured weeks of taunts and personal attacks, jumped over the cage and unleashed on members of McGregor’s camp.

But it didn’t stop there.

In an attempt to goad Khabib into a lucrative rematch in 2019, McGregor targeted his wife and posted a picture of their wedding where her face was covered.

“Your wife is a towel mate,” said McGregor in a tweet he deleted a few hours later.

Some ignorant fans thought it was funny, but most didn’t.

And while it was deleted, it existed long enough for all to see.

Boxing has seen its fair share of racial ugliness as well.

Leading up to their legendary first fight in 1971, Muhammad Ali mercilessly attacked Joe Frazier, calling him “ugly,” a “gorilla” and the highly detested “Uncle Tom.” The taunts turned the fight into a divisive event based on class, income and skin tone. It was white collar vs blue collar, light-skinned vs dark-skinned, Black Power/Malcolm X vs peaceful protest/Martin Luther King.

Ali’s diminishing insults affected Frazier for years and created an ugly, contentious rift in Black America.

A Modern Day Faux Crusades

One of the more surprising instances of bigotry occurred in collegiate wrestling.

Penn State wrestler Aaron Brooks is a young man who attributes his success to his faith. Last month at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, he donned a bandana that read “100% Jesus” before winning his fourth title, which wasn’t an issue.

But a year prior, after winning his third straight title, Brooks unleashed a direct insult at Islam that shocked everyone.

“It’s everything. Christ resurrections and everything. Not just his life, but his death and resurrection,” said Brooks to ESPN after being asked about the role his faith plays in his career. “You can only get that through him, it will be spread only through him. No false prophets, no Muhammad nor anyone else. Only Jesus Christ himself.”

Afterward, Muslims and many others rightfully slammed his unwarranted denigration of Islam. 

No one has any problem with Brooks sharing his love for his religion, but he could easily have expressed it without insulting Islam.

This is this type of hateful, demeaning rhetoric that inflames tensions, especially during this time in an increasingly divided America where Christian nationalism is spreading rapidly across the country and conservatives are attempting to use it to infiltrate areas such as education, politics and the law.

Will Combat Sports Do Right?

Other professional sports have generally avoided these issues that plague combat sports. And when they flare up, they’re quickly addressed.

When former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught using racial slurs, players protested and Adam Silver fined him $2.5 million, banned him for life, and forced a sale of the team.

But combat sports thrive off of controversy. 

Hatred, racism and bigotry help fan the flames of fight promotions. In many cases, you can say ignorance and hatred are encouraged because it’s seldom silenced or punished in these sports.

Much of the attraction for those perpetuating hate is the violent nature of sports like MMA and boxing. 

When a fighter is aligned with a hate group, followers rally around him, strengthening their recruitment efforts.

“That’s one aspect of what we’re seeing when the far right promotes itself via combat sports,” says Dr. Brian Hughes in that FOS story by Sam Eagan. Hughes is a professor at American University and director of PERIL, an organization that researches extremism and radicalization. “It’s a way of elevating the movement’s visibility and credibility. When an audience roots for a fighter aligned with a far-right group or movement, some of them are rooting for the movement by proxy. The idea is, little by little, to shift casual fans to becoming political supporters.”

That’s why many UFC fans voraciously support the former president when he shows up at the fights, and why he loves showing up at these fights.

While combat sports are fertile ground for recruitment, not all fight fans support these movements or are radicalized through the fights, but it’s a valuable tool for hate groups.

“Fight sports align with far-right values in a way that other sports don’t,” said Hughes. “Far-right politics have always emphasized the importance of violence. Far-right philosophy valorizes violence as the pinnacle of being alive. And ironically, because combat sports are so diverse, they give racist far-right groups the ability to see violent racial conflict performed in miniature in the ring or Octagon.”

Will combat sports take action against these movements? Realistically, no, because the more controversy stirred between fighters, the better the promotion and return at the gate and PPV buys.

So it’s up to us to know better, do better and keep up the good fight outside of the ring and octagon.

4/20/2024 |  A Bare-Knuckle Fighter Won His Pro Debut. The Far Right Scored a Marketing Win (Front Office Sports)

In March, the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, or BKFC, staged its first card to take place in the frozen north at River Cree Resort and Casino, just outside of Edmonton, Alberta. 

BKFC claims to be—and, as best anyone can tell, is—the first promotion to hold legal, sanctioned, and regulated bare-knuckle boxing matches in the United States since the 19th century. The event featured up-and-coming fighters competing for contracts in what were essentially tryout matches; unsurprisingly, every fight ended by knockout or technical knockout. Briefer and bloodier affairs than boxing or mixed martial arts matches, bare-knuckle fights feature five two-minute rounds in a circular ring. Fighters tape and wrap their hands up to one inch from their knuckles, and each round begins when fighters “toe the line” three feet apart from each other at the center of the ring. It’s all designed to maximize action and brutality. 

One of the winners was debuting Montana-based fighter Sam Polk. Listed at 6′ 2” and 205 pounds, the 42-year-old Polk, who goes by the nickname “Blunt Force Trauma,” squared up against the equally heavily tattooed and mustachioed opponent, Jake Craig. After walking out to a ballroom-style crowd and stepping into BKFC’s circular ring, Polk and Craig toed the line, beginning their five-round scrap. 

The fight was short and visceral. Within the first 10 seconds, Polk cracked Craig with a right hook as he darted into the clinch. After Craig barely beat the first 10 count, Polk knocked him down with a crushing uppercut, and then once more with a dagger of a jab. 

In total, Polk threw 19 shots, finishing things at 1:12 in the first round. Less significant than Polk’s heavy-handed finish, though, is who he is, and who celebrated his victory.

Polk—an Army veteran, according to BKFC’s announcers—was sponsored by MurderTheMedia, a far-right outlet founded by a Proud Boys leader who was sentenced to prison time for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. He entered the ring with two sonnenrads, or black suns—an ancient European symbol now associated with the far right and neo-Nazi movements—tattooed on his chest. After his win, the infamous neo-Nazi Christopher Pohlhaus, leader of the Blood Tribe, posted screenshots of what he claimed were text messages between him and Polk, proclaiming the win a “Total Aryan Victory.” 

This direct association between extremism and fighting raises questions about the increasing extent to which combat sports are marketed to and by the far right. And what experts who spoke to Front Office Sports find particularly troubling is that this makes a victory for Polk a victory for the far right in a very tangible sense.

“A successful individual, such as a celebrity or someone who stands out in their field, can help make extremist beliefs more appealing to regular people,” says Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at the Counter Extremism Project.

BKFC founder David Feldman did not respond to a request for comment sent in early April. He did reply immediately to an FOS inquiry about the availability of media assets sent in mid-April, after which he claimed not to have received the initial request for comment. He did not respond to subsequent calls and emails.

“We were not aware of Polk’s sponsor or [alleged] ties to these groups,” he told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Him or any other fighter who fights for organizations who support white supremacist beliefs are not welcome and will not fight in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.”

As of publication time, Polk is still listed on BKFC’s roster on its website. Polk and Pohlhaus did not respond to requests for comment. 

BKFC is attempting, successfully—it styles itself “the world’s fastest growing combat sports promotion”—to rehabilitate the image of bare-knuckle boxing, a sport that was effectively illegal in the western world for well over a century. BKFC held its first event in June 2018 in Cheyenne, Wyo.; before that, the last major bare-knuckle fight was held in 1889, when boxing great John L. Sullivan beat Jake Kilrain in a 75-round bloodbath. The promotion has built a significant following, holding close to 100 events and promoting in Thailand, the U.K., Mexico, and Bulgaria. In 2022, Triller, the social video platform that has previously promoted Jake Paul and Mike Tyson fights, took a majority stake in BKFC.

Although it remains a relatively niche sport, BKFC has garnered more than a million followers on Instagram, in large part by bringing former champions and stars from the Ultimate Fighting Championship into the fold. Last year’s BKFC 41 event, for example, featured former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, and former title contender Chad Mendes, as well as Mike Perry, Paige VanZant, and Chris Leben. 

Perry, who is on a multi-fight contract that he claims is worth $8 million, has found great success in the BKFC. Feldman, BKFC’s founder, has claimed that BKFC 41, headlined by Perry’s bout with Rockhold, sold more than 100,000 pay-per-view buys and was illegally streamed more than 700,000 times. His bout against Alvarez at BKFC 56, Feldman claimed, was streamed illegally more than a million times, representing steady growth in interest in, if not revenue for, the once taboo sport.

BKFC’s partner Rumble, the video platform backed by famed investor Peter Thiel and Ohio senator J.D. Vance, did not respond to a request for comment; nor did representatives for Thiel and Vance. Triller also did not respond to a request for comment.

The growing audience for BKFC is part of what made Polk’s appearance at the Canadian event so noteworthy; another part, though, is just how overt his ties to the far right appear to be.
 

“Hail victory” is, of course, the literal translation of “sieg heil.”

Other extremists and neo-Nazis also championed Polk before and after the fight. The Western Chauvinist, for example—an influential Canadian Proud Boys account with tens of thousands of followers on Telegram, X, and other platforms—hyped Polk’s BKFC debut by calling on those followers to “Support Our Guy.” (“Check the black sun tats on his shoulders,” the account told a user who asked whether Polk was really “our guy.”)

Another supporter was the aforementioned Pohlhaus, one of America’s most notorious white supremacists and the leader of the Blood Tribe, anADL-designated hate group that has made news in recent months for holding neo-Nazi rallies outside of LGBTQ events in multiple states. (Pohlhaus also drew attention last year for attempting to build an all-white community in Maine.) 

On his Telegram feed, Pohlhaus reacted to the Polk fight live, posting a screenshot and calling Polk “his boy.” In the aftermath of the fight, Pohlhaus posted what appear to be screenshots of text messages between him and Polk discussing their body weights and mile times, proclaiming to his thousands of followers that “Sam Polk is better than you.” 

According to experts, Polk’s BKFC victory is a major marketing win for extremist groups, which aim to utilize his success as well as his masculine, traditional image as a bare-knuckle fighter to elevate their ideology and recruit new believers. 

“Countries and governments are not the only ones who practice ‘sports diplomacy.’ Non-government actors can, too. That’s one aspect of what we’re seeing when the far right promotes itself via combat sports,” says Dr. Brian Hughes, an American University professor and director of PERIL, an organization that researches extremism and radicalization. “It’s a way of elevating the movement’s visibility and credibility. When an audience roots for a fighter aligned with a far-right group or movement, some of them are rooting for the movement by proxy. The idea is, little by little, to shift casual fans to becoming political supporters.”

Though Polk and his management have declined to address these connections, to the extremists championing him, his success in BKFC is an opportunity to celebrate and highlight their presence at the edge of the mainstream. 

“Polk is an athlete who competes in front of many people. This could help MurderTheMedia’s visibility and advertising,” says Fisher-Birch. “He is also a bare-knuckle fighter, which is particularly ferocious; and physically, he looks like what many men in the extreme right likely aspire to.”

Combat sports of all types have become increasingly popular in right-wing spaces over the last decade. Commercial brands that cater to a mainstream conservative audience, such as Black Rifle Coffee, have been booming in recent years, as a parallel economy divided along political lines has begun to emerge. Many of those brands have found eager collaborators with the UFC, which has made no bones about its cozy relationship with former President Donald Trump and has hosted him at numerous UFC events during this election cycle. Black Rifle Coffee inked a multiyear live event marketing deal with the UFC at the beginning of 2024. BKFC appears to be following a similar model, signing an apparel deal with conservative clothing brand Grunt Style last fall. 

On the far right, combat sports have been a popular culture staple and recruiting method for years. Active Clubs, neo-Nazi men’s groups that are centered around training in mixed martial arts in preparation for civil violence, have spread to as many as 17 states and 30 groups around the U.S., including a handful in Canada. Estimates from a former Active Club member put nationwide membership at 300 to 500 people as of 2023. 

Combat sports are also extremely popular with right-wing extremist groups across Europe. In Germany, extremist groups host MMA Festivals, and Russian neo-Nazi Denis Kapustin has hosted frequent MMA events through his fascist lifestyle brand White Rex. The sport has become a remarkably useful recruiting tool for these groups, providing both a cover for training in violence and a method for bringing prospective recruits into the fold. 

“The far right and right-wing extremists celebrate righteous rage as a core identity expression. For these groups, the mayhem of violence becomes a point in and of itself. Combat sports can be understood as marginal or counterculture practices,” says Dr. Solomon Lennox of Northumbria University, whose research focuses on the intersection of combat sports and the right wing. “They operate at a position slightly removed from the mainstream; as such, they potentially have greater leeway within which to embrace alternate ideals, ideologies, and personalities.”

Experts make clear that there is nothing inherently fascistic about combat sports; the issue, rather, is that extremists are weaponizing them as a vector of recruitment and a means of promoting their ideologies.

“It’s not true that joining combat sports leads to radicalization. But there are some important psychological factors that are the same for both,” says Hughes. “Fight sports align with far-right values in a way that other sports don’t. Far-right politics have always emphasized the importance of violence. Far-right philosophy valorizes violence as the pinnacle of being alive. And ironically, because combat sports are so diverse, they give racist far-right groups the ability to see violent racial conflict performed in miniature in the ring or Octagon.“

The far right has valorized Polk’s victory, and claimed it as its own—something that is unlikely to be affected by BKFC’s proclamation that it will not allow fighters with ties to white supremacy. In the caption of a highlight video of Sam Polk circulating in far-right Telegram spaces, the creator—whose profile picture is a cartoon of Adolf Hitler doing cocaine—writes, “Support your people in whatever endeavor they choose. From fighting to finance. Their success = Our influence. Time we use nepotism for our benefit. Making ‘fringe’ beliefs become mainstream only takes a few people with a podium/stage/title.”

Says Fisher-Birch: “There are many individuals in the extreme right who would love it if someone with cultural influence supported their beliefs. Movements need heroes and celebrities.” 

3/11/2024 |  WWE Mats for Sale: UFC-Inspired Deal Puts Prime Drink Ads Center Stage (Front Office Sports)

The WWE revealed on Friday night a logo for Prime Hydration, the sports drink founded by YouTube star and frequent WWE collaborator Logan Paul, as its first sponsor to appear on its wrestling mats. A WWE spokesperson told The Wall Street Journalthat the logo would appear at future tentpole WWE events, including WrestleMania and Money in the Bank, and that executives are also shopping around sponsorship deals for other places on the mat. 

The agreement with Prime Hydration is for two years at an eight-figure cost, which WWE says marks the largest sponsorship in the organization’s history. It’s also the latest move the WWE has taken from the playbook of UFC since partnering with that outfit last fall to form the TKO Group. Prime became the official drink of UFC in January 2023, and the fighting league has long plastered sponsor logos all over its Octagon. 

According to company earnings reports, UFC brought in $48.3 million in sponsorship revenue during the 2023 fourth quarter, compared to just $15.4 million by WWE in the same time period. That’s despite WWE outearning UFC by $44 million in media rights deals and content sales. 

The new mat sponsorships aligns with a growing ad trend as sports executives push where they can sell sponsorship space. In 2017 the NBA added on-jersey sponsors in the form of a patch, and MLB followed in ’23. In the NFL, sponsor patches are commonplace on practice jerseys, and UFC fighters have had logos on their shorts for years.

2/2/2024 |  Meta warns investors that Mark Zuckerberg's love of extreme sports could kill him (Business Insider)
  • Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg loves extreme sports and other high-risk activities. 
  • Last year he got hurt while training in mixed martial arts.
  • Now Meta is warning investors that Zuckerberg's risk tolerance could be a problem for the company.

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