Fascist fight clubs in the age of COVID-19
Karim Zidan delves into the changing strategies fascist MMA fight clubs and promotions.
The novel coronavirus pandemic — a crisis that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and infected millions more — has caused unprecedented damage to the economic and socio-political landscape around the world. It has also led to a new mobilization effort from far-right groups who welcome the pandemic as an opportunity to further radicalize their base.
Over the past few months, far-right and neo-Nazi groups have exploited the situation by encouraging violence, advancing accelerationist theories, and further propagating xenophobic and racist messaging that embody their disturbing ideologies. The Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a neo-Nazi group based in northern Europe, even claimed that the pandemic would bring about the “ruins” from which the group can build a “society lasting thousands of years into the future.”
“[The coronavirus] might be precisely what we need in order to bring about a real national uprising and a strengthening of revolutionary political forces,” Simon Lindberg, the leader of NRM’s Swedish branch, stated on the NRM website.
The sense of newfound opportunity extends to fascist fight clubs and neo-Nazi groups involved in combat sports. Several have been active on social media, while others have emerged following lengthy absences. This article will delve into some of the most notorious groups and extrapolate their potential plans in the age of COVID-19.
White Rex (Russia)
Founded in 2008, White Rex is a neo-Nazi MMA promotion turned clothing brand that appeals to fans of combat sports. The company produces shirts, hoodies, pants, sports gear, and other items branded with fascist and neo-Nazi symbols. They have produced t-shirts that feature the black sun and swastika amalgamated into a single symbol, as well as slogans such as “Zero Tolerance,” “Angry Europeans,” and “White Rex Against Tolerance.” Others, including women’s wear, sport symbols such as “88,” which stands for “Heil Hitler.”
White Rex began organizing mixed martial arts events in 2011 under the name “Warrior Spirit.” The first event, an all-amateur tournament, was held on June 18, 2011 in Voronezh. The promotion transitioned to professional events by late 2013 and slowly began to gain notoriety within the MMA industry.
White Rex has not held an MMA event since June 2015 but has continued to expand as a far-right clothing brand and as a financial backer for several other flourishing far-right MMA promotions. The organization was founded by Denis Nikitin, a former football hooligan turned entrepreneur who has helped nurture an international network of neo-Nazi fight clubs known as the “Pan-European Network.” He is also affiliate with the far-right Azov Battalion in Ukraine, where he works as the unofficial ambassador for their MMA events at the Reconquista Club in Kyiv.
Though White Rex’s original website was taken down several years ago, the organization has since built a new page in 2020, as well as an online store to sell their merchandise. They also posted a new video on their VKontakte page with the caption “Since 14.08.08 — The nightmare is back.”
While it remains unclear what the notorious organization is planning, what we do know is that it is now active as an entity for the first time in several years and has poured renewed resources into its products. This likely means that the organization is either taking advantage of the current desperate climate or it is planning to host an event in the near future.
Kampf der Nibelungen (Germany)
On September 4, 2020, Kampf der Nibelungen — one of the most prominent far-right combat sports promotions in Europe — announced plans to hold an event the following month, its first since having its 2019 event banned by German authorities.
Traditionally, the promotion’s events coincided with the annual far-right festival dubbed ‘Shield and Sword,’ is held to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Hundreds of disenfranchised youth and white supremacists gathered for a weekend of celebration that culminated in an MMA show designed specifically for neo-Nazis and their supporters. Given that Germany has not only outlawed Holocaust denial, but the outright display of Nazi symbolism as well, it was only a matter of time before they took notice of the festival.
In 2019, Ostritz authorities decided to foil the neo-Nazi festival by confiscating all the alcohol on the premises and limited the overall attendance. Officers arrived on scene and confiscated over 4000 litres of beer on the first day and another 200 litres the following morning. The booze ban ensured minimal violence at the festival and led to the cancelation of Kampf der Nibelungen’s annual showcase event.
The promotion attempted to reschedule the event for October 2019 but was foiled again when German authorities placed a ban on KdN’s events in the town of Ostritz, stating that the event had no sporting character but was primarily used for “right-wing extremist combat training.” The Higher Administrative Court in Bautzen later rejected a complaint by the organizers to lift the ban, stating instead that the “public interest in securing the liberal democratic basic order” is above the economic interests of the organizer. The court also stated that the fighting techniques used by the militant fight club could be applied against Germany’s police force. As a result, the October 12 show did not take place.
Despite the various obstacles in its path, the promotion announced on September 4, 2020 that it planned to hold a closed-door event in October that would only be accessible to the public though an online broadcast.
“In this crazy year of Corona, we naturally want to adhere to the applicable regulations and have therefore developed a new concept. The KDN 2020 will be broadcast online. The stream starts on 10.10.2020 at 6 p.m. (at least that’s currently planned, small changes may be possible). Everything will be offered to you as usual, in addition to a break program, there will be different camera perspectives for the first time and a professional commentator. We will set new standards in our circles this year and hope you will support us. We are aware that a stream cannot replace everything, but we want to show everyone that we do not give up and let setbacks influence us. You can currently expect more than 15 fights with participants from almost all European countries.”
Traditionally, KDN events were held in secret locations, are mainly targeted at neo-nazis and disenfranchised German youth. They even describe themselves as an organization for “young Germans who unite the dedication and enthusiasm for ‘their’ sport and who do not want to be under the yoke of the prevailing mainstream.”
The ‘About Us’ section on their website further clarifies their mission statement:
“The Battle of the Nibelungs therefore wants to provide a stage for all athletes and sports fans who are longing for an alternative to the prevailing honour-free and valueless zeitgeist. Participate, visit our events or get in touch with other athletes and become a role model to encourage others to turn their backs on the system of losers, hypocrites and weaklings.”
Their website, which has since removed all extremist references, is now limited to an online clothing store that sells t-shirts for men and women. They also maintain social media accounts on mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, where they also sell their merchandise. They have also ran various promotions during the COVID-19 crisis and posted a variety of homemade training videos to keep their followers motivated.
Rise Above Movement (United States)
Based in southern California, Rise Above Movement (RAM) — a white supremacist group that refers to itself as the “premier MMA (mixed martial arts) club of the Alt-Right” — has made headlines over the past few years for violent encounters during protests in Huntington Beach, Berkeley and Charlottesville. Dressed in skull masks, RAM members specialized in attacking protestors who opposed their ideology. They would then glorify their antics in propaganda videos posted on social media.
Then in October 2018, the FBI arrested four RAM members on rioting charges related to their participation at the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The four men, including RAM co-founder Ben Daley and UCLA doctoral student Michael Miselis, pled guilty and were sentenced for their crimes. Three other RAM members, including RAM co-founder Robert Rundo, were arrested for rioting in at a rally in Huntington Beach, though the charges were dismissed by a district judge.
Since having his case dismissed last year, Rundo has revived the group’s social media footprint. Using an account on far-right social media platform Gab, RAM posted pictures celebrating the charges being dismissed against its “wrongfully imprisoned” members. To monetize its cause, RAM reached an agreement with far-right clothing store Our Fight Clothing Co to feature several of its branded t-shirts, the proceeds of which it claims will “go directly to our legal defence.”
Much of the group’s recent activity has taken place during the novel coronavirus pandemic. They remain active on Gab, most recently posting a photo celebrating the accused Kenosha shooter along with the caption “3 Commies Down.”
The group has since began posting blog posts highlighting the group’s violent ideology. Among the posts is an essay by Rundo titled “Combat Sports for the Future of Nationalist,” which espoused the importance of MMA as a “weapon” for white supremacists, as well as a way of building a community of like-minded individuals. Rundo even goes so far as to reference some of the aforementioned neo-nazi groups listed in this article.
“This sporting culture is something we can lay claim to, this is something we are setting the trend in. What better trend to set for our people to become in shape, active, and capable. Meanwhile, the left is burning itself out pushing drug culture, consumerism, and apathy. Now, this is not some far-out idea but something that’s going on all over Europe, drawing larger numbers than almost any other events nationalist put on. Last year I had the honor to be one of the first Americans to compete and take part in one of these events. It was put on by one of the founders of this active lifestyle movement White Rex in collaboration with Kampf Der Nibelungen in Germany.”
Rundo later posted another article titled “Do the White Thing” which is little more than racist drivel about the struggles of being Caucasian in the United States. “Today we see store windows proudly displaying signs such as black-owned business or minority-owned, in turn protecting it from looters or arsonists. In today’s modern world, I’m sure people would be even scared to leave a bad review on yelp for one of this business even if the fried chicken you ate gave you salmonella. Yet for white store owners, it is the complete opposite. Its widely accepted not to support or loot white-owned businesses. Famous heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua told a crowd of his black kin to “not shop at their stores” and buy black, “theirs,” of course, meaning white,” said Rundo.
Beyond its blog posts, RAM has also begun making fascist documentaries in an attempt to counter “left ruled mainstream.” Despite their efforts, RAM has only been able to raise approximately 30% of their $1000 funding goal to continue the documentary series.
While it is unlikely that RAM will ever regain the influence and momentum it carried in the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, they have now fashioned themselves as martyrs and unifying force for other violent nationalist groups around the world. Even if they have been reduced to online propaganda, their continued existence is a reminder that the struggle against violent extremists is an uphill battle.
In July 2020, independent journalist Moss Robeson reported on the “Kommandos,” a neo-Nazi military youth camp that trains children as young as 10 years old. The camp is promoted by neo-Nazi militant Diana Vynohradova, who was convicted for participating in the racist murder. She also sports white supremacist tattoos and has been known to incite hatred against Jewish people.
Vynohradova is the lead instructor at the camp, which trains young Ukrainian in hand-to-hand combat, martial arts, as well as the use of guns and grenades. They are reportedly being groomed to join the Right Sector (the Ukrainian nationalist political part and paramilitary movement which Vynohradva represents) and/or its Volunteer Ukrainian Corps (DUK).
Their Facebook page is filled with photos from the youth camp, including several of campers making fascist salutes and another of a counsellor with a SS tattoo on his neck. That same Facebook page carries a picture of Vynohradova posing with Anatoly Shponarsky, an MMA fighter with the neo-Nazi “14 words” tattooed on his stomach. He is believed to be an affiliate of the group who also provided the camp with sports equipment.
The Kommandos youth camp is by no means a unique or isolated incident. For years, Generation Identity, a pan-European right wing movement rooted in anti-immigration beliefs, has hosted training camps for Europeans in France. Promotional videos showcased hundreds of young men and women jogging and working out wearing t-shirts with the Generation Identity logo as well as slogans such as “Defend Europe.”
Legio Hungaria (Hungary)
Legio Hungaria — a Hungarian far-right group founded in 2018 — is one of the more prominent ultranationalist groups in the country. In February 2020, the group organized a “Day of Honour” in Budapest that commemorated an attempted breakout by besieged Nazi forces in 1945. They referred to the Nazis and their collaborators as “heroes.”
Several months later, the group announced they would be hosting a “nationalist sports camp” aimed at radicalizing young Europeans. The camp is open to “comrades” between the ages of 14 and 18, as long as they shared a “proper worldview.“
“Importantly, this is not a plain sports camp, but is specifically for the nationalist environment and is held in that spirit,” the application read.
The nationalist sports camp is being held for the third consecutive year since Legio Hungaria’s formation in 2018. According to their website, the teenagers will train in martial arts, strength and endurance workouts, as well as “some extra surprises.” The ad also featured an image of a a group of young men with neo-Nazi tattoos playing tug-of-war.
It appears that fascist fight clubs have continued to evolve and find new ways to flourish in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite attempts to de-platform the groups and bring legal action against them (efforts that have worked in cases such as RAM and KDN), the groups have continued to survive and spread their toxic ideologies, while others, such as Kommandos, have emerged as new threats to cosmopolitan and progressive societies. And in the wake of widespread economic disparity and political tension as a result of the pandemic, is likely that many of these groups will continue to thrive.