If parody is still possible, the opening montage is beyond parody. You’ve got your orchestral strings. An American flag. The ubiquitous name slapped on the back of a helicopter: TRUMP. Then Dana White in his traditional uniform, jeans and a black shirt with an extra button undone, lavishing praise. “Donald Trump is a visionary,” White says. “This guy is a fighter, he’s an entrepreneur.” Fireworks. A voiceover of Donald Trump himself saying, “Only Trump would do that. Enjoy the show, folks.” Footage of The Apprentice. This is still just the first minute.
And then we see Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, complimenting UFC President Dana White and lauding their shared “fighter’s mentality.” White speaking at the Republican National Convention, bellowing, “I stand with Donald Trump.” The music builds. Another American flag, in close-up this time. A title card reads, I shit you not, Combatant in Chief, over the sound of a cheering crowd. It is all very well-produced and all utterly deranged.
Combatant in Chief: The Story of Donald Trump’s History in Combat Sports, which is the government name for this thing, currently airs on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s streaming service. November of 2018 marks a quarter-century of the UFC and the organization chose to commemorate that anniversary with UFC 25 Years in Short, a series of 25 documentary films. It is a concept that may sound familiar.
Not long ago it might have seemed odd for UFC to be cribbing from ESPN. Dana White once tweeted that the only thing good about that network was Jim Rome, and following an Outside the Lines investigation into the promotion’s dismal fighter pay the UFC cut together a shameless damage control video, whose introduction saw White seething, “They’re dirty, they lie, and they never give you all the facts.” That, too, might sound familiar. But a lot changes over the course of a quarter-century, and after having recently inked $1.5 billion worth of partnership deals with ESPN, the UFC decided that it deserved its own version of 30 for 30.
Combatant in Chief is the 12th short documentary in the series. I’ve watched some of the other entries and they’re fine for what they are: professionally assembled marketing material, peppered with interesting nostalgia. There are some surprises—the animated Octo: The Disputed Origin Story of the UFC Octagon is nicely nuanced and quite good—but by and large these are the sort of things big, vain companies make about themselves, for themselves. Given this particular big, vain company’s notoriously loose relationship with objective reality, it’s no shock that so many of the films are filled with oafish hagiography, half-truths, and convenient omissions. But even by those standards, Combatant in Chief stands out.
If there’s something inherently queasy in having Barack Obama fill out an NCAA bracket on television or a championship team visiting George W. Bush at the White House—something unsettlingly stagy, too determined in what it elides and too overt in what it seeks to do—then Combatant in Chief is 14 minutes of pure jaw-dropping vertigo. It is a film that serves a very specific and peculiar type of contemporary fan: the kind that wails about keeping politics out of sports while saluting the hundred-million-dollar war machines flying over a stadium that was paid for by a tax subsidy. The type of fan that makes sure that everyone else at the game is singing the national anthem in a sufficiently sincere way. The type that delights in calling a billionaire team owner “Mister.”
The short version of why this movie exists is that Dana White and Donald Trump are acquainted because they once did a mutually beneficial business deal. They’re also each people whose egos require you to know that they are 1) cool, 2) important, and 3) in the orbit of other cool, important people. The story of the film is that, against all odds, they both just keep winning. It is paramount to both their self-worth and continued winning lifestyle that you and I understand all this.
A slightly longer explanation is this: At the end of the most troubled period in the UFC’s history, the company held three cards at Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. The first, which is relegated to just a quick mention in the film because it doesn’t bolster the narrative, was run by the UFC’s original ownership, SEG. The latter two events, UFC 30 and 31, were the organization’s first shows under new Zuffa management.
Zuffa was the vehicle of Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White’s childhood friends and inheritors of the Station Casino empire. They purchased the struggling fight promotion at a time when SEG was finally finding success with long-resistant state regulators but had otherwise run out of money and stream, and installed White as president. “Dana’s a special man. He’s a winner. He’s a champion,” said Trump, obviously. “I met him a long time ago, he said he was having a hard time going anywhere else, nobody would take UFC, and I said ‘You come into the Taj Mahal.’”
That Trump and White would get along is no surprise. Both are incapable of seeing life as anything but a zero-sum game to be dominated; neither is especially curious about anything that doesn’t directly help them accomplish that goal. The idea of hard work, for both, amounts to exploiting any angle you can to take money from suckers; loyalty is what you feel towards whoever is currently delivering power and cash for as long as they continue to do that. The rest is negotiable. If your fighters—or contractors, or the media, or the people you’re governing—don’t like it, they might just not be winners. That their respective real estate mogul dads and gambling conglomerate friends didn’t set them up is too bad, but also on them. They should have worked harder, and maybe wanted to be winners a little bit more than they did.
This worldview, or aspirations to it, might be the most direct of the harrowing paths that lead to believing Donald Trump is a great man who would necessarily be a great President. If a public lifetime as a racist, misogynist, litigious grifter buffoon matters less to you than the answer to the question, “is that real marble?” then Trump is the perfect candidate. This is how you get to Dana White, looking a bit out of place but believably earnest, while speaking optimistically about a Trumpian future at a podium at the RNC.
Whatever he has done as President since, he has been Donald Trump the whole time. His personal appointments are still luxurious, and he remains a friend of White’s promotion and people in White’s tax bracket, generally. That is how you get to a film like this.
When your entire universe is about you, facts are malleable. Trump realized this long ago, and the UFC most certainly has as well. Combatant in Chief is a testament to that understanding. The film is not heavy on substance, but what’s there could be described, generously, as sketchy as hell. It smudges everything, from minor particulars to broad historical events. Some of this is inconsequential. On the attendance numbers for UFC 30, Trump says, in the way that he does, “We had 6,000 people, which is what it held. It was a sellout immediately.” The former CEO of Trump Entertainment Mark Brown earlier mentions wanting to fill 5,200 seats, which is the capacity number cited elsewhere. Another film in the series has Dana White on camera at the show, saying, “We got a sellout crowd here, 5,000 people.” For whatever it’s worth, retrospectives from Yahoo and SB Nation list live attendance estimates at 3,000.
There are more blatant fabrications in service of our protagonists, though. The film reaffirms the “Zuffa Myth,” White’s insistence that his bold management was the driving force in moving the previously barbarous UFC into a professional standard of regulation and safety. The truth is that SEG and advocates like Jeff Blatnick had already achieved sanctioning in several states, including New Jersey, and the company was operating under what would become the Unified Rules before Zuffa arrived. Another doc in UFC’s own series, Blackout, refutes White’s entire stance on this issue.
There are glaring omissions, too, most notably the details of Trump’s investment in Affliction Entertainment. The brief and disastrous existence of that promotion is given passing mention only so White can affirm that, despite trashing his competitors, he never said anything bad about President Trump. The reason the name “Affliction” isn’t even uttered aloud may be that, as with his debacles with the USFL, Tour de Trump, and Trump League baseball, it fell apart after only two shows.
But this is all standard corporate-history bullshit. The most malevolent part of Combatant in Chief is its positioning of Trump as the hero of an Atlantic City resurgence. Bernie Dillon, Trump’s former Director of Special Projects—it’s terrifying to consider what that title might mean—says, “When he came to Atlantic City we were really knocking it out of the park. He had the Midas touch.” Trump’s voice follows with, “Everything I touched turned to gold.” Besides missing the point of the Midas myth in a perfectly fitting way, this is historically grotesque. What Trump did in Atlantic City was the same thing he has done everywhere else—failed upward, spectacularly oblivious to the collateral damage that resulted. He bled every target dry, was bailed out by his dad and several bankruptcies, and left destruction in his wake. Personally, he did great.
If you are credulously watching a UFC-produced documentary about Donald Trump, it’s doubtful that you care about any of these inconsistencies. And if you’re a fan of either Trump or White, this is the reality that you’re accustomed to; a person like that might find it cool just to learn that these two titans are such good buds. “I got to know Dana and I said, ‘He’s a winner,’ and then you see what he’s done with UFC,” Trump says. “I like it. I love watching it. What he’s pulled off is something that’s pretty unprecedented in sports. In business, generally.” Winners get to decide what makes it into the official history and what doesn’t, and these winners decided to tell a story about how Dana White and the President saved mixed martial arts.
It doesn’t take much and the notes are all recognizable. There are shots of the White House and a “USA, USA” chant. A lot more American flags, everywhere now. Smiles and thumbs up, and finally, White and Trump are shaking hands. The credits, including “Executive Producer Dana White,” roll.