There are, of course, two leaders in the nebulously defined combat sports genre (which somehow includes everything from kickboxing to roller derby): World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship. Behind the scenes, both have close ties to the Trump administration, with UFC President Dana White having spoken at the last two Republican National Conventions and nominal WWE co-owner Linda McMahon having served in Trump’s cabinet before resigning to head up his official reelection super PAC. On-screen, though, you get two distinctly different impressions.
On the UFC side, they’ve consistently embraced Trump, which White usually attributes to a mutual loyalty going back to Trump’s casino hosting early UFC events just after White took over the company. The underlying emotion is, if nothing else, wholly understandable: The UFC had been blackballed by the cable industry, only being available to satellite customers, and running in New Jersey as part of a plan to get athletic commission regulation in every state was a big deal. Getting a venue with some name value surely helped.
Real life is more complicated than that, however. White’s appreciation of Trump has escalated far beyond “he did a nice thing for me and now I’m returning the favor,” to the point of the UFC producing a lavish Trump propaganda “documentary” for their streaming service two years ago. And when Colby Covington, a top contender in the welterweight division, reinvented himself as a slavish MAGA devotee, it curried favor with UFC brass, resulting in an Oval Office meeting with Trump, VIP status at campaign events, and most recently, a congratulatory phone call from the president after his last UFC win. Every time, too, the UFC presents these events as Awesome Things That Are Happening.
WWE has taken the opposite approach. Despite having an even longer and deeper connection with Trump — he’s in the “celebrity wing” of their Hall of Fame, and he’s hosted two WrestleManias, appearing as Vince McMahon’s foil at WrestleMania 23, the best-selling wrestling pay-per-view event of all time — his name hasn’t been mentioned on WWE programming since before Election Day 2016. Basically, he’s a ghost as far as WWE is concerned. Back in 2016, Dave Meltzer’s reporting in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter pegged the reason: fear that openly associating with/supporting Trump on WWE programming would alienate too many fans given the high number of Black and Hispanic viewers. (Speaking more broadly, the only recent-ish research into the topic, from 2013, shows wrestling fans leaning further to the left than the vast majority of sports fans, albeit with low voter turnout. MMA fans were shown to be just left-of-center with slightly better voter turnout.)
This all creates a strange disconnect: Neither company is any less a part of Trumpworld than the other, but on the surface, it sure feels like the UFC is much more entrenched with Trump, and thus, the Republican Party. The fact that it wasn’t always this way only adds another layer of disconnect.
Until the Trump era, the public politics of the UFC — both during and before White’s tenure — were entirely survivalist. The most vocal early opponents of what would come to be known as MMA were John McCain and New York State Senator Roy Goodman, both Republicans. When the original owners, Semaphore Entertainment Group, sold the UFC in 2001 to brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta (White’s high school friends turned financial backers), the choice made perfect sense because of the Fertittas’ political connections as casino magnates, not to mention Lorenzo having recently sat on the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Getting the UFC regulated in Nevada, the fight capital of the world, was the key to making a grand return to cable television. Hell, getting regulated in all 50 states is the reason that the UFC has its own registered political action committee.
Over the same time period, the McMahons’ had no problem being open about their hardcore Republican beliefs. Most famously, there was the “Smackdown Your Vote!” voter registration drive, which launched in 2000 by what was then known as the WWF. (It’s been dormant since the 2010 mid-term elections.) It was explicitly framed as nonpartisan, but from the start, there was the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, with promo packages on WWE programming routinely stressing that their fanbase could be who decides the election. That sounds more like a strategic creation of a voting bloc than a magnanimous nonpartisan gesture.
Sure enough, the real intent behind the campaign would be revealed in an L.A. Times article by Dana Calvo that ran in October 2000, just a few weeks before Election Day. “While some groups view getting out the vote as a civic responsibility, others say it can refresh a group’s public image as well as earn it clout with the politicians they might help get elected,” Calvo wrote. “For example, the ‘Smackdown Your Vote!’ registration drive by the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. allows the company, which went public last year, to curry favor with the Republicans, the party much of its audience supports, says its vice president of corporate communications, Gary Davis. ‘And what could be more ideal than doing voter registration in a presidential election year?’ Davis asked. ‘We wanted to represent our fans: Middle America.’”
At the time, WWE had a featured group of villains known collectively as Right to Censor, or RTC for short, that was very obviously inspired by L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council, or PTC for short. When WWE returned to network TV a year earlier with the launch of the weekly SmackDown! series, Bozell, who ignored cable shows at the time, sprung into action, constantly denouncing what were admittedly egregiously raunchy shows. As payback, the WWE attacked PTC board member Joe Lieberman, who also happened to be Vice President Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. In particular, during Right to Censor’s match the night before the election on Monday Night Raw, color commentator Jerry Lawler went into a clearly planned rant about how he wasn’t voting for the Gore/Lieberman ticket.
“I… I… I tell you who… I’ll tell you who I’m not gonna vote for,” Lawler began after prompting from play-by-play announcer Jim Ross. “I’m not gonna vote for Gore and Lieberman! Let’s face it, Gore and Lieberman could be card-carrying members of RTC. They love to censor things!”
Ross would quickly issue a disclaimer that these were strictly Lawler’s views (albeit adding that he “wasn’t endorsing those two gentlemen, either”) before his sidekick restated his argument in more explicitly RTC-centric terms. “I’ll tell ya, these Right to Censor… see? They love to censor people,” Lawler continued. “They don’t want you to have freedom of speech, freedom of press. They wanna control everything about everybody’s life!” Years later, in an August 2004 edition of the aforementioned Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Meltzer would report, “There are people significantly high in the Democratic Party who felt that could have swayed the election, although with a race that close, everything on both sides could have swayed it.”
WWE content would, after 9/11, become similarly politicized thanks to crude, often nonsensical war exploitation. And when Linda McMahon ran (unsuccessfully) for both of Connecticut’s Senate seats in 2010 and 2012, WWE, while keeping some distance, encouraged fans to “Stand Up for WWE” in light of how the company’s past was being used against her.
As far as I can tell, the shift started around 2012, with Linda running ads that directed voters to consider voting for her alongside reelecting President Barack Obama, eschewing party line votes. The following year, WWE promoted Stephanie McMahon, Vince and Linda’s daughter, to Chief Brand Officer, which resulted in a ramping up of WWE’s attempts to become inoffensively corporate. With the aforementioned 2013 research showing that the WWE fanbase, if anything, leaned heavily to the left, and Nielsen data routinely illustrating that the company has particularly large Black and Hispanic audiences, it also became increasingly clear that WWE needed to avoid rocking the boat. Yes, Linda was eventually in the Trump cabinet as Small Business Administrator, and the entire McMahon family proudly visited Trump in the Oval Office a few weeks into his presidency, but she had long since stopped being an official and on-screen part of WWE.
But while WWE’s depoliticization is easy enough to plot out as a reaction to shifting viewer demographics amid a larger shift toward more surface inoffensive corporate politics, the UFC’s opposite shift is difficult to pin down in the same fashion. Calling it a reaction to Trump feels lazy, but it also feels almost entirely accurate, changing, at least outwardly, the same way that many people’s friends and family members did. Before Trump, it didn’t feel like an aggressively partisan company. After Trump, the public face of the company is routinely endorsing extremist politics and refusing to condemn Covington’s explicitly racist comments about welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
Not that this means we should give the WWE and McMahons a pass. Silence hasn’t improved their politics. They’ve merely kept their opinions to themselves to protect their financial interests — a heel in babyface’s clothing, to use wrestling parlance. Essentially, then, they believe the exact same things and support the exact same politicians as the UFC and White. It’s just that the UFC has no problem hitting you over the head with it.