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Sports fan Trump hits UFC fights and big games to try to put his 2024 nomination in a headlock

Donald Trump has spent less time campaigning in early-voting states than many of his Republican primary rivals

Jill Colvin
Friday 15 December 2023 14:56 GMT

After Donald Trump attended South Carolina's annual Palmetto Bowl, video of the crowd chanting “We want Trump!” as the former president arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium spread across conservative social media.

It was much the same two weeks earlier when the GOP front-runner attended an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in New York, fist-bumping and waving to the crowd as he entered Madison Square Garden like he was one of the fighters, with an entourage that included the musician Kid Rock, UFC president Dana White and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

While Trump has spent less time campaigning in early-voting states than many of his Republican primary rivals, his campaign has been filling his schedule with appearances at major sporting events including Saturday's UFC fight in Las Vegas. Videos of his appearances routinely rack up hundreds of thousands of views across social media, particularly on non-political outlets, including popular online sports channels and fan sites. And they are far easier and cheaper to produce than campaign rallies.

It's a strategy that, aides say, puts him in front of potential voters who may not closely follow politics or engage with traditional news sources. And it is part of a broader effort to expand Trump's appeal with young people and minority voters, particularly Latino and Black men, that the campaign hopes to win over in greater numbers after gains in 2020. UFC's fanbase in particular is overwhelmingly male.

Aides stress Trump is a genuine sports fan who frequented fights and games long before he ran for the White House and would be attending even if he weren't running. He is a particular aficionado of boxing and other combat sports. During a summer appearance on the "UFC Unfiltered” podcast, Trump recalled his favorite fights from decades ago, blow by blow.

In the 1980s, he befriended boxing legends like Mike Tyson and promoter Don King as he hosted high-profile fights at his Atlantic City casinos and became so involved with professional wrestling that he starred in WrestleMania 23's “Battle of the Billionaires." And for a time, he owned the New Jersey Generals, a professional football team that played in the NFL-rival United States Football League.

In recent years, he has become particularly tied to mixed martial arts and its machismo. He is close personal friends with White, UFC’s founder, who spoke at the Republican National Conventions in 2016 and 2020 and credits Trump for saving the sport by hosting fights when others shunned it as too violent.

Campaign staff often tune into fights late at night aboard Trump's private plane as he returns to Palm Beach, Florida, following events, streaming fights on ESPN+ or DAZN.

Trump has also drawn support from the sport's stars, including Colby Covington, who will be fighting Leon Edwards Saturday night for UFC's welterweight title. Covington said this week that organizers overruled his request to have Trump walk him out to the octagon. But Trump may still get a role if he wins.

“He's going to wrap that belt around me,” Covington told reporters on Thursday, wearing a suit jacket signed by Trump that featured the former president's mug shot on the back. “It's going to be a spectacle.”

There is of course a long history of sports in presidential politics. Candidates have used them to project an image of strength and vigor, endear themselves to voters and seem more accessible.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss wrote about how Theodore Roosevelt was frequently pictured boxing, horseback riding and hiking, while John Kennedy swam, sailed and played touch football despite serious injuries sustained during the war. Richard Nixon “went to great lengths" to emphasize his football and baseball fandom as he tried to court working-class voters, while George W. Bush famously threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the first World Series game in New York after 9/11, trying to signal to nervous Americans that life would go on after the terror attack.

Trump’s team sees the appearances as a way to connect with sports fans, signaling he shares their interests, and a way to showcase a different side of the combative politician, who has been indicted four times and is usually shown on the news railing from behind a rally lectern. They also hope to capitalize on his history as a celebrity and his relationships with business and entertainment figures.

When Trump attends an event like Saturday’s fight, “The audience gets to see him through an unvarnished filter that isn’t tainted by news media and political biases,” said his spokesman Steven Cheung, who previously worked for UFC himself. “It gives us the great opportunity to connect with voters who are, quite frankly, turned off by many traditional news outlets.”

Jeffrey Montez de Oca, a professor of sociology and the founding director of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, said politicians “use sports all the time and they’re used to connect with regular people,” as well as to “project strength and power.”

Sports, he said, generate “powerful emotions” that take hold of fans and “make you feel like you’re a part of something much larger than yourself” — emotions that politicians try to harness.

“For Trump to walk into that space, he’s able to participate in the general feeling going on in that room. The love, the enthusiasm, the feeling of connection with the sport, with the athletes, then attaches to him as well,” he said.

Kyle Kusz, a University of Rhode Island professor who studies the connection between sports and the far right, recalled how Trump aligned himself with sports figures during his 2016 campaign, appearing with basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired for abusive behavior, and invoking Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired in connection with the child sex abuse scandal involving his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, among others facing scandal. He noted all were white men whose diehard fans saw them as unfairly victimized.

Sports stars in 2016 were among the few celebrities willing to campaign with Trump, who was shunned by the Hollywood establishment.

This time, Trump's appearances are part of a broader effort by the former president's team to engage with non-traditional media outlets, including YouTube shows and podcasts like “UFC Unfiltered" that can drive millions of views. The appearances allow Trump to reach listeners who may be turned off by the mainstream media and politics, and get their news from alternative sources.

They have also tried to harness the power of social media by creating their own viral moments. His team realized early on that video of Trump interacting with supporters had particular traction, and now often organizes stops where he has passed out Blizzards at Dairy Queen or tossed autographed footballs into the crowd at a frat house in Iowa.

The scenes have also provided a contrast, first with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once seen as Trump's leading primary rival, who is often criticized for seeming wooden and awkward at public events, and now with President Joe Biden as both men gear up for a widely expected general election rematch. Biden has largely eschewed campaign events, holding just a single rally, his campaign launch event.

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