If President Trump was going to attend anybody's mixed martial arts bout, you would have expected it to be Colby Covington.
He sports a MAGA hat. He denounced a Muslim fight manager as a “terrorist rat.” He said an American fighter of Nigerian extraction should be “sent back” to Africa. He told a fight crowd in Sao Paulo, “Brazil, you’re a dump. All you filthy animals suck.”
Also, he had the Two Fredos, Donald, Jr. and Eric, cageside at his last big bout. He afterwards got a call from the president congratulating him on his victory. That was followed by an invitation to the Oval Office, where he presented the president with his welterweight championship belt.
Yet even though Covington has another championship bout with Kamaru Usman scheduled for Las Vegas in December, Trump has decided to bestow the favor of his presidential presence elsewhere.
Trump is instead expected to attend a match this Saturday at Madison Square Garden between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz. Masvidal is the son of a Cuban raft refugee who has reportedly done time for drugs and for manslaughter. Diaz is perhaps the world’s fiercest vegan. The match was in danger of being scratched when Diaz tested positive for drugs, but they turned out to be just traces of organic vegan vitamins.
Masvidal has not hesitated to taunt Covington over Trump's choice.
“No matter what your political views on him, not every fighter can say, ‘Hey, the president is showing up to my fight’,” Masvidal told TMZ Sports. “So that’s humbling in itself, especially when there are other fighters out there trying so hard, saying, ‘Hey, Mr. President, look at me,’ and the president won’t even go to their fights, look at them or acknowledge them.”
Covington had originally been scheduled to fight Usman at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, but he reportedly asked for more money than Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was willing to pay.
Given the current political climate, Trump may not have been entirely disappointed when the Masvidal bout was scheduled in place of the Covington contest. Trump may have been less than anxious to attend an event featuring a fighter who channels him so virulently. Covington’s entry chant is “You suck! You suck! You suck!”
In any case, Trump’s primary concern is not any of the fighters, but Dana White, the man who organized both bouts. White has long declared himself an ever, ever, ever Trumper. And by attending the bout at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Trump is fulfilling a pledge he made to White regarding a November bout at the same venue three years ago.
Trump often talks about loyalty, but it is usually of the one-way variety demonstrated by despots and mob bosses. This may he a time when it is actually reciprocal.
In interviews, White has said that he ended up in the mixed martial arts game in Las Vegas after a hitman with Irish gangster Whitey Bulger caused him to flee Boston over an unpaid $2,500 debt. White worked as an MMA fight manager, then joined Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, sons of a casino owner, in purchasing the nearly defunct Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) for $2 million.
That was in 2001 and MMA was so disreputable that White had great difficulty securing a venue. Sen. John McCain did not help matters when he denounced the sport as “human cockfighting.”
The one person who seemed undeterred by MMA’s reputation was somebody known by the fancy people as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” Donald Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City were faltering despite lots of glitz and big-name entertainment acts. He decided to try something downmarket, or at least different. He opened his venues to UFC and earned White’s undying loyalty.
“I would never, never, never say anything negative about Donald Trump because he was there when other people weren’t,” White has told the press.
Business being business, White does not seem to have voiced offense when Trump lent his name and a little money to an MMA clothing company's effort to begin promotion bouts in competition with UFC. Affliction Apparel became Affliction Entertainment. Donald Trump, Jr. served as a top executive, along with Trump Organization counsel Michael Cohen, future jailbird. The company proceeded to lose a fortune.
"We knew we would sustain losses, and we unanimously agreed that the losses would be inconsequential compared with building a brand,” Cohen said. "The benefit of Donald Trump in this business is the amount of press that he commands. And that's press that you're not paying for."
Donald Trump, Jr. said, "We're obviously a very cash-rich company. So we can come into something to make sure it's done appropriately. Depending on how everything goes, if we have to put in more, we'll put in more."
The company soon after went bust. Affliction Entertainment reverted to Affliction Apparel and went back to selling MMA apparel in cooperation with UFC.
But there was something about MMA that continued to appeal to the elder Trump. Here was one realm where nobody was going to call him a vulgarian. And he may have sensed that there is something valuable to be mined in the politically incorrect, that sweat and blood can rouse people more viscerally than reason and sentiment, that there is a base to be found in baseness.
Trump also seemed to have actual affection for the man who had made MMA such a success.
"Any good thing that happened to me in my career, Donald Trump was the first to pick up the phone and call and say ‘congratulations,’ " White has said.
White answered with unqualified loyalty. He shrugged off advice not to get political and spoke on Trump's behalf at the 2016 Republican convention.
“Donald championed the UFC before it was popular, before it grew into a successful business, and I will always be grateful to him for standing with us in those early days, so tonight I stand with Donald Trump,” White declared from the podium.
Trump did not become so subsumed in the campaign that he forgot the UFC had a big championship coming up at Madison Square Garden the Saturday after the election.
“Donald originally told me that he would come to the fight if he won,” White told TMZ.
White allowed at the time, “It wouldn’t suck if he came.” But he more than understood when Trump proved unable to attend.
“I don't think Donald really realized what his duties were going to be had he won," White said.
The bond between Trump and White was no doubt deepened after Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the 2017 Golden Globes. The 67 year-old actress spoke on behalf of groups Trump had scorned.
“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts,” she said.
The remark was not as haughty as Hillary Clinton’s talk of deplorables, but took a similar measure of a cultural divide.
White responded, “It’s not going to be everybody’s thing, and the last thing I expect is for an uppity 80-year-old lady to be in our demographic and love mixed martial arts.”
Our 73-year-old president is expected to attend the big UFC bout on Saturday, as he had spoken of doing on a Saturday in November three years ago. The winner will be declared the Baddest Motherfucker and awarded a BMF belt.
There will no doubt some Trump supporters present, who mistake the Oval Office for an ethical equivalent of an Octagon ring, think the BMF belt should go to him.
But MMA crowds are ethnically mixed, so Trump is likely to receive some boos, albeit fewer than in any other venue in his home city, save perhaps parts of Staten Island and Queens.
However the crowd receives him, the man running the show will remain an ever Trumper. And there will remain a base in baseness.