By Elias Khoury
On January 20th, South African Dricus du Plessis dethroned Sean Strickland in a thrilling five-round bout to become the new UFC middleweight champion. Strickland’s time as divisional king was short-lived. The American only just became champion this past September following a dominant decision win over Israel Adesanya. Now, after failing to defend his belt even once, Strickland has reentered the mortal ranks of mere contenders.
After du Plessis’s victory, a recording of South Africans — black and white — celebrating his win appeared on the jumbotron. Du Plessis, an Afrikaner, looked up and beamed. “That’s South Africa, baby!”
This heartening display of unity juxtaposed Strickland’s divisiveness, signaling a new era in the middleweight division. Though it lasted less than four months, Strickland’s title reign was controversial. The California native, as Andrew Richardson of SportsBlogs Nation euphemistically writes, is infamous for “hot takes” and “wacky public statements.” These include opposing female suffrage and saying “we need to put women back in the kitchen.” Strickland is also homophobic. In January 2022, he tweeted the following:
“If I had a gay son I would think I failed as a man to create such weakness.”
At a pre-fight presser, combat journalist Alexander Lee tried to ask Strickland about that comment. It was a tense exchange. Strickland interrupted Lee before he could finish his question, flipped the script, and began questioning him instead. The then-champion asked whether Lee would mind having a gay son.
“I’d have no problem with it,” Lee calmly answered.
“You’re a weak f**king man,” replied Strickland. “You’re part of the f**king problem… and… you have no f**cking backbone.”
Unsurprisingly, Strickland is a staunch supporter of Donald Trump. That hardly makes him unique among elite UFC fighters. Last year, welterweight Jorge Masvidal declared Trump “the greatest president in the history of the world” during a post-fight interview. Masvidal then praised Ron DeSantis, calling him the “greatest governor of all time” and saying we must “keep Florida free.” Finally, Masvidal shared some choice words for President Joe Biden before leading the crowd in a “Let’s Go Brandon” chant.
This was far from the first time a UFC fighter had espoused right-wing politics during a post-fight interview. In March 2023, at UFC on ESPN 43, Holly Holm implored fans to “protect” and “end the sexualization of… children.” She was obviously playing into the vicious groomer narrative that demonizes LGBT people as sexual abusers.
In 2021, lightweight Beneil Dariush dedicated his decision win over former contender Tony Ferguson to the victims of “Marxist ideologies.” Four years earlier, after beating Jessin Ayari, Darren Till called for the imprisonment of Brazilian president Lula da Silva. He then endorsed Jair Bolsonaro, a fascist who believes Brazil’s former military dictatorship didn’t kill enough people.
And who could forget Colby Covington? The #5-ranked welterweight contender, winless in three title fights, literally drapes himself in the American flag on a regular basis. He also proudly refers to himself as “Donald Trump’s favorite fighter.” Like his favorite president, Covington is racist. After losing to Kamaru Usman by knockout, he goaded the Nigerian with references to his “little tribe” and “smoke signals.”
UFC president Dana White likes to pretend that these indiscretions simply don’t happen. During a Fox News appearance — already ironic — he outlandishly said the following about his martial arts promotion:
“One of the things [we at the UFC] have tried to do… is stay out of politics. When people tune in to watch sports, they don’t want to hear… what your opinions are or who you’re voting for… You want to listen to [politics]? Turn on any other station.”
These remarks not only ignore the many right-wing outbursts of White’s athletes, they also ignore White’s own history. He spoke in support of Donald Trump at both the 2016 and 2020 Republican National Conventions. The two are supposedly friends, with White repeatedly inviting Trump to sit cageside with him at UFC events. White has also, on numerous occasions, dragged top fighters with him to Trump rallies.
It’s easy to treat Strickland as exceptional. Yet he’s merely one link in a chain of reactionary politics that has defined the UFC throughout the Trump era. Sure, Strickland is a particularly crass and outspoken manifestation of this ideological trend. But he’s just one piece of a much larger mosaic. In that sense, Strickland is hardly remarkable.
That is precisely why left-wing and even centrist fans feel increasingly alienated by the UFC. By embracing far-right politics, the promotion is limiting its audience. Beyond the moral dimensions of promoting reactionary politics, it’s also bad for business. White is uncharacteristically and irrationally leaving money on the table. Smarter management would solve the problem, and ensure mixed martial arts appeals to a broad market.
But the folly of current management — White in particular — isn’t that they’re too committed to free speech. Rather, they amplify reactionary voices and suppress more reasonable ones. Three months ago, following his knockout of Alexander Volkanovski, lightweight champion Islam Makhachev used his post-fight interview to support Palestine.
“I’m not celebrating the win today because of the crazy things that are happening around the world,” said the Dagestani prize fighter. “Palestine, we stand with you. All our [prayers] are with you.”
The UFC’s official YouTube channel uploaded the interview — well, a version of it. They made sure to delete the part about Palestine.
Following Strickland’s defeat, White affirmed his organization’s supposed commitment to freedom of expression. “There’s no leashes on any [of my fighters]… That’s ridiculous to say I give someone a leash — free speech, brother.”
But there are leashes, brother. You just only put them on dogs of certain breeds.
Elias Khoury is a managing editor at the Hampton Institute.