Caged Politics: How Right-Wing Media Utilizes the UFC to Fuel Political Division

UFC President Dana White during a recent appearance on "Fox News Primetime"

Beneil Darisuh—a long-time mixed martial artist with the Ultimate Fighting Championship—feels compelled to warn you about the dangers of communism.

Speaking to conservative talk show host and right-wing operative Candace Owens last week, the Iranian-born fighter discussed his perspective on communism and Marxism, which he admits is shaped by the experiences of his Vietnamese wife whose parents fled their homeland to escape the country’s communist government.

“The government, once it takes power, nobody takes that away,” Dariush told Owens during the interview. “If it’s gained freely, it will be taken back in blood. That’s the only way to get away from communism, Marxism. You can see it in history.”

Dariush went on to criticize mainstream media and its alleged defense of communism, which he claims is achieved through deliberately ambiguous language, “The issue is, it’s the way they play with words. You say ‘communism,’ and they say ‘Well, we’re not really talking about communism, we’re talking about socialism.’ You say ‘socialism,’ and they say ‘Well it’s not that kind of socialism, it’s this,’” Dariush explained.

The Iranian-American fighter caught Owens’ attention following his most recent fight in May 2021. After securing a pivotal victory that cemented his place as a high ranking fighter in the UFC’s lightweight division, Dariush dedicated his win to the people “hurt by Marxist ideologies.”

“It’s just a fight,” Dariush told color commentator Joe Rogan during the post-fight interview. “I know it’s not much, but I want you to know that I love you. And I understand the pain; I don’t completely understand, but I love you. I understand your pain.”

Dariush isn’t the first UFC fighter to criticize communism, nor is he the first fighter to be platformed by right-wing media seeking to paint Democrats as harbingers of communism and socialism. Among the most popular fighters enlisted in the anti-communism discussion is Jorge Masvidal, a UFC star whose father escaped communist-controlled Cuba on a tire.

Amid historic protests in Cuba, where demonstrators rallied against shortages of food, medicine, electricity, as well as the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Masvidal shared his thoughts on Cuba and its government, which he described as a “killing machine” last week.

“This oppression has been going on for 61 years,” Masvidal said in a video shared across his social media accounts on July 12. “It’s not just because of the pandemic, or it’s not just because they ran out of medicine because they’ve been out of medicine, they’ve been out of resources and food. Because of the corrupt government, the extreme corruption over there where only a few at the top eat and everybody else has to suffer, those days have to come to an end.”

Masvidal’s comments were immediately picked up by right-wing outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, the latter of which used the headline, “Jorge Masvidal Destroys Communism And The Cuban Dictatorship In Awesome Video” and ended with a paragraph that stated “we need more athletes speaking out against actual evil in this world, and we need a lot fewer athletes who treat America like a terrible place. If they truly feel that way, then get on a boat to Cuba and don’t come back. We’ll see how much you actually love communism and socialism.”

It’s worth noting that while Fox News hosts and Daily Caller columnists consistently tell athletes—particularly those who support Black Lives Matter—to keep politics out of sports, the networks celebrate conservative athletes who spout the right-wing ideology they push.

By platforming a handful of UFC fighters’ anti-communist political stances, right-wing media outlets are able to utilize popular athletes to propagate the message that communism is evil, that the U.S. is a step away from full-blown communist control, and that Republicans are the only ones who can save American democracy. They rely on human interest stories from UFC fighters who fit this narrative and help promote their disinformation campaign. This approach mirrors the Trump team’s strategy of co-opting Latino UFC fighters for anti-socialism events and rallies throughout the 2020 presidential campaign.

In October 2020, the Trump reelection campaign hosted a four-part “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour, which made its way across the state of Florida with events in Tampa, Orlando, Coconut Creek, and Miami. The tour featured Masvidal, who spoke at each of the rallies about the “horrors” of communism and socialism. “We aren’t going to buy the same wolf tickets and false promises that destroyed great countries like Venezuela and Cuba. It’s not going to happen,” Masvidal told the crowd during one of the rallies.

As Trump attempted to weaponize Latino athletes for political gain, right wing outlets such as PragerU—a YouTube channel founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager that spreads disinformation and right-wing propaganda—produced documentaries on the likes of former UFC champion Tito Ortiz, who shared his story about growing up in California and his reasons for campaigning for Trump. Ortiz, a known adherent of the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement, would later campaign and win a seat on the Huntington Beach city council.

Conservative media’s interest in the world’s leading mixed martial arts organization is not limited to anti-communist narratives. Outlets such as Fox News have called on the UFC whenever its executives or fighters publicly share views that match right-wing talking points. UFC President Dana White pioneered this relationship and appears eager to maintain it. In April 2021, White embarked on a series of conservative talk shows appearances, including spots on Sean Hannity and Candace Owens’ shows, to criticize sports leagues such as the NBA and NFL for their political advocacy—such as showing support for Black Lives Matter—during broadcasts. White blamed so-called “woke culture” and “cancel culture” for the issues facing sports leagues and promised the conservative audience that the UFC would not be pressured by the current political dynamics in the United States.

White, a longtime friend of Trump who campaigned for the former president in 2016 and 2020, continued to make appearances on Fox News and other right-wing outlets to criticize mainstream media and, most recently, to encourage people to get back to work and help reopen the economy in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Everybody that’s slowing down, everybody that is afraid, not getting back to work, not wanting to run their business, not wanting to get back to normal and full capacity, I’ll run you over. No problem,” White said on “Fox News Primetime” Monday.

Each of White’s appearances on conservative programming helped further right-wing talking points. From criticizing political activism in sports, lambasting mainstream media, and self-aggrandizing his reckless return to full capacity sporting events during a global pandemic, White’s comments are in line with right-wing messaging and GOP politics.

The UFC’s blossoming relationship with conservative media in the United States is mutually beneficial for both parties. By amplifying the UFC president’s bombastic comments, outlets such as Fox News are propagating key talking points while attracting the largest CHK demographic that watches sports—Americans ages 18 to 35. Meanwhile, the increased attention given to the UFC has helped secure the organization’s conservative fandom, many of whom voted for Trump or have right-leaning tendencies.

While it is difficult to measure the long-term impact of the UFC’s relationship with conservative media, it is clear that right-wing outlets will continue to call upon the UFC to fuel political division in the U.S.