Photo: Logan Riely (Getty)

Shortly following the start of Pride Month in June, the UFC joined in the grand tradition of brands glomming onto the LGBTQ+ rights movement in order to enhance their profiles:

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The UFC’s gesture is a charitable one, but it also calls to mind all the ways in which the fight promotion, through the actions of its employees and its business relationships, has been a hostile place to those who belong to the LGBTQ+ community.

In its infancy, the UFC appealed primarily to hyper-masculine athletes interested in competing in macho combat sports events. This left little room for inclusivity, and allowed homophobia to fester. An early example of this took place in 2009, when UFC president Dana White went on a profane rant against then-Sherdog journalist Loretta Hunt and referred to one of her sources as a “fucking faggot.” Though White never apologized to Hunt, he apologized to the gay community, stating that he “never meant to hurt anyone in the gay or lesbian community at all,” but still went on to say that he “absolutely, positively meant to attack the reporter, Loretta Hunt from Sherdog. Absolutely.”

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Even though White did apologize (sort of) for his actions, he helped set the tone for the sort of language that was acceptable within the UFC. In 2010, former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, while filming the A-Team in Vancouver, told the Los Angeles Times that acting “is kind of gay.” The paper also reported that Jackson had a confrontation with one of the film’s crew members, during which Jackson reportedly called him “every conceivable gay slur.” Instead of apologizing, Jackson stated that his comments were taken out of context and that people should “lighten up.” In 2011, legendary Brazilian fighter Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira revealed that he has “no prejudice against the gays” but “wouldn’t train with someone who’s gay.”

“I have no malice, I don’t take our physical contact as (something) sexual,” Nogueira continued. “But what if that person has that malice of having physical contact with me, of staying there grappling?”

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More recently, fighters on the UFC’s roster have become more inclusive in their attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. Former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre spoke out against homophobic bullying, and his coach, Firas Zahabi, implemented a strict policy against hate speech within his gym. In 2013, Liz Carmouche became the first openly gay fighter to compete in the UFC when she challenged Ronda Rousey for the women’s bantamweight championship. Later that same year, former UFC light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans—at the time one of the UFC’s most popular fighters—came out in support of gay marriage. He explained to Outsports that he is a “heterosexual guy in a tough macho sport, which is exactly the reason I feel a duty to say I support gay marriage and gay rights.”

Kyle Kingsbury bent over during a weigh-in ceremony to reveal pink briefs with a pro-gay marriage message; UFC flyweight Joseph Benavidez stated (somewhat crudely) that, “It would be cool to see a gay guy beat the shit out of somebody. Busting a stereotype.” The UFC even introduced a “Protect Yourself” HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in collaboration with the Latino Commission on AIDS, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the LGBT Community Center. The promotion also implemented a UFC Code of Conduct policy, which allowed them to regulate “derogatory or offensive conduct, including without limitation insulting language, symbols, or actions about a person’s ethnic background, heritage, color, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.” In 2013, the promotion suspended Matt Mitrione after he made transphobic statements about MMA fighter Fallon Fox. It also suspended Nate Diaz for 90 days after he tweeted a gay slur. 

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These front-facing nods toward inclusivity and increased respect for LGBTQ+ people are meaningful, but they can’t conceal the UFC’s continued willingness to maintain business relationships with people and governments that promote homophobia and commit harrowing human rights abuses against the gay community.

In 2010, Flash Entertainment, a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates government, purchased a 10 percent stake in the UFC’s parent company, ZUFFA. The UFC would go on to visit the UAE on three separate occasions, and each visit was met with criticism regarding the UAE’s labor standards and institutionalized homophobia, among other concerns. The UAE is a patriarchal country that permits discrimination based on sex and gender. Various emirates have different laws and criminal convictions for “unnatural sex.” Abu Dhabi, the capital where the UFC hosted two of its shows, hands out prison sentences of up to 14 years for same-sex relations.

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Though the UFC’s new parent company, Endeavor, bought back Flash Entertainment’s share of the company in 2018, they later established a new partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi. The deal ensures that the UFC will host large-scale events in Abu Dhabi for the next five years.

“We are making a long-term commitment to Abu Dhabi because we have had great success in that market,” UFC President Dana White said in the official press release. “The demand from our fans to bring UFC back to Abu Dhabi has been overwhelming, and over the next five years, DCT Abu Dhabi will help us deliver some spectacular UFC championship fights to the UAE.”

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Outside of working with questionable Middle Eastern monarchies, the UFC has also been linked to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen dictator known for atrocious human rights abuses including crackdowns on Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community.

In January 2019, reports emerged that several people had recently been detained in Russia’s Chechen Republic on suspicion of their sexual orientation. These latest reports of rekindled state-sanctioned violence against gay Chechens came less than two years after the 2017 crackdown on Chechnya’s LGBTQ community, where over 100 gay men were detained and subjected to torture. Three of these victims allegedly died in extrajudicial killings during interrogation.

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The Chechen government, as well as the Kremlin, denied the reported persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the republic. Kadyrov himself refused to acknowledge the existence of gay men in Chechnya to HBO Real Sports in July 2017, before adding that if any do exist in his republic, they should be sent to “Canada” to “purify our blood.” U.S. based organization Human Rights Watch later released a detailed report on the renewed crackdown, which included interviews with several men interrogated and tortured by the police.

They screamed at me. One of them started kicking me, I dropped to the floor, flat on my stomach… Another one then beat me with a stick, from the waist down, he was hitting me very hard for some five minutes. Then they made me kneel on the floor and put metal clips on my thumbs [the wires were hooked to a device delivering electric shocks], he turned the knob [of the device], first slowly and then faster and faster… With every turn, my hands bounced up and excruciating pain went through them… He stopped when I screamed my heart was about to burst. They took the clips off and my hands were heavy and felt dead.

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Despite these harrowing reports—and an extensive HBO Real Sports documentary on how Kadyrov uses mixed martial arts as an extension of his government—the UFC continues to associate with Kadyrov through his fight club, Akhmat MMA.

Founded in 2015, the Akhmat MMA fight club consists of an MMA promotion and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other post-Soviet states. The fight club is operated by Abuzayed Vismuradov, a colonel who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department after accusations that he was personally involved in Chechnya’s anti-gay purges. He is also sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs, and travel fees. A handful of fighters affiliated with Kadyrov’s MMA gym were later signed to the UFC, including Kadyrov’s cousin, Abdul-Kerim Edilov, who who reportedly threatened an HBO journalist in Chechnya (Edilov requested his release and was granted it in May 2019). Fighters from the UFC have also associated with Kadyrov. For example, former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum signed a lucrative”deal to become an ambassador for the Kadyrov’s fight club. When confronted about his association with a dictator, Werdum pleaded ignorance and claimed he does not involve himself in “politics.”

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Not only has the UFC signed and promoted fighters affiliated with Kadyrov, they have also played host to the dictator and his henchmen at several UFC events in Europe. Vismuradov was in attendance at the UFC Rotterdam show in 2017, while Kadyrov was seated in the front row of the UFC debut even in Russia. Vismuradov, too, was in attendance in Russia and later posted a picture of himself alongside UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby, which carried a caption claiming that the UFC and Akhmat MMA had reached a new agreement to continue signing fighters from the Chechen club. The UFC has two openly gay champions in Amanda Nunes and Jessica Andrade, and yet it seems to have no problem allowing politicians who have been credibly accused of murdering and torturing gay people sit ringside at its events.

When the UFC first began selling “We Are All Fighters” shirts in 2016, it claimed the shirts were “designed to make a meaningful impact in communities where UFC events are held by supporting organizations that help people overcome adversity, achieve equality, or provide a public service.” It’s impossible to square those stated goals with the UFC’s decision to maintain relationships with Kadyrov and the UAE. Making donations to worthy LGBTQ+ causes and suspending fighters who say homophobic things are nice gestures, but there is no clearer expression of a company’s values than whose money and influence it chooses to accept. The UFC can sell all the rainbow-colored t-shirts it wants, but everyone can still see exactly where it stands.