Donald Trump’s Long, Strange Relationship With MMA

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Count it among the many things I didn’t know yesterday that Donald Trump—real estate mogul, reality TV star, beauty pageant impresario, leader of the Republican presidential primary race, and famous man in wig—is in the New Jersey State Martial Arts Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2013, along with famed MMA coach Ray Longo, women’s MMA pioneer Tara LaRosa, and Fightland’s own Fight Doctor, Michael Kelly.

Trump’s official Hall of Fame title? “Visionary.”


During its first seven years the UFC was a small regional organization. Harried wherever it went by bad press, political condemnation, and apocalyptic hand-wringing, the promotion was allowed nowhere near the big fight capitals like Las Vegas, New York City, and Atlantic City. It generally stuck to the south and the west: Casper, Wyoming; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Dothan, Alabama.

It was actually Donald Trump (who, a decade before, had turned Atlantic City into a boxing mecca and the home of the Mike Tyson phenomenon) who helped the much-maligned sport of MMA take its first step into cultural legitimacy in the U.S., opening the doors of his Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City to the UFC on November 17, 2000.

When Zuffa purchased the UFC in January 2001, Trump once again opened his arms and the doors of his casino to the struggling promotion for UFC 30 and UFC 31, and with Trump’s help UFC 32 was moved to the much-larger Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. By September of that year, the UFC had broken into Las Vegas. The modern MMA era—the one that would eventually lead to deals with Fox and Reebok, the rise of Ronda Rousey, and MMA fighters on The Tonight Show—had begun.


UFC President Dana White: “The Trump Taj Mahal was the only venue that would take us and accept us at the time. … [Trump] saw this thing before anybody else did. A lot of people want to jump in after and everybody tries to throw money at it … but this guy saw it before anybody did.”


Seven years after welcoming the UFC to the Taj Mahal, Donald Trump bought a significant equity stake in Affliction Entertainment, a fight promotion created in 2008 to challenge the UFC’s dominance. The promotion’s two pay-per-view events were filled with former and soon-to-be reinstated UFC fighters like Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovski, and Vitor Belfort, but really, Affliction’s claim to fame was that it was the promotion that finally got legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko to fight in the United States. In addition to a star-studded roster, the promotion also featured an unprecedented payroll. Heavyweight Tim Sylvia, who had just been cut from the UFC, earned $800,000 to fight Emelianenko, far more than even the biggest stars in the UFC were making at the time. Affliction’s first two events were successful, but on July 22, 2009, Barnett tested positive for anabolic steroid 11 days before his main event fight against Emelianenko. The fight and the event were cancelled, and Affliction, under intense financial pressure, folded.


“If we make money, that’s great. I think we will. I think it will be successful,” Trump told reporters at a 2008 press conference announcing his partnership with Affliction. “What I do is usually successful.”


In order to quality for the first debate of the Republican primary (to be president of the United States, remember) next week on Fox News, Trump had to file financial disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission. While the report puts Trump’s worth at over $2 billion, it also shows that corporations run by the reality TV host have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy more than 10 times.


As part of his presidential campaign extravaganza, Trump has taken shots at U.S. Senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain. During a campaign speech in Iowa on July 18, the Builder of Large Buildings said that McCain, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison cell, was not, in fact, a war hero. “He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like people that weren’t captured.”


McCain was one of the most powerful enemies of MMA in the dark early days, back when the sport was being sold by the UFC as a spectacle devoid of rules or human decency. It was McCain who popularized the phrase “human cockfighting” (a phrase that has shown up, by law, in every single article written about the sport in a non-MMA publication since) and spearheaded the anti-MMA campaign that resulted in 36 states banning the sport in the mid-Nineties.

In January 2014, the longtime senator from Arizona had a change of heart, however, joining with the UFC to show support for a study at the Cleveland Clinic studying the effects of head trauma in fighters and admitting that had MMA been around 50 years ago when he was boxing at the Naval Academy, he “absolutely” would have tried it.


In January 2014 Trump compared the dangers of MMA to those of football and said he wouldn’t let his son compete in either, for fear of brain damage. Dana White responded, “Okay, so we’re going to take football away? We’re going to take fighting away, too? Or any type of contact sport? It’s ridiculous; it makes no sense. It’s the pussification of America.”


Donald Trump once owned a football team: the New Jersey generals, of the upstart United States Football League, which for a few spring seasons back in the early-to-mid 1980s put a scare in the NFL. According to many, Trump was largely responsible for the demise of the USFL, convincing his fellow owners to move the league’s season to the fall, against the mighty NFL, arguing that doing so would ultimately force a merger of the two leagues and greater profits for USFL owners when they sold their teams. The league was dead by 1986.


In 1999 Trump said on Meet the Press that he was “very pro-choice.” Earlier this year in at CPAC, he said he is “very pro-life.” In 1999 he believed in universal healthcare. Announcing his candidacy (for president!) last month he called Obamacare a “disaster” and a “big lie.” In the mid 2000s he called Hillary Clinton a fantastic senator; earlier this month he said she would be a “terrible president.” In his book The America We Deserve, published in 2000, Trump wrote that he supported a ban on assault weapons and longer waiting periods to buy guns. Asked about the issue on Fox News two years ago, Trump said, “I’m a gun person. I believe that you need guns for protection.” In 2009 he called President Obama a “strong guy who know what he wants.” Trump then spent most of 2011 trying to convince the world that Obama was not born in the United States and demanding to see the president’s birth certificate.


“We’re having a very successful press conference,” Trump said when announcing his partnership with Affliction. “A lot of people showed up. Who knows what they’re going to write? Who the hell cares? It ultimately doesn’t matter as long as they write.” 


Check out these related stories:

The Martial Arts-Fueled Bromance Between Steven Seagal and Vladimir Putin

The Glimmer Man Under Siege: The Life And Times of Steven Seagal

Martial Art Pretenders: A History of Imitators and Snake Oil