Earlier this week, newly minted U.S. president Donald Trump selected WME-IMG chief financial officer Chris Liddell to oversee a new think tank called the Strategic Developments Group. The decision to hire the Hollywood powerbroker executive emphasizes the increased ties between the White House and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Liddell, 58, will serve as an assistant to the president and director of strategic initiatives. His appointment came alongside that of Reed Cordish, who will serve as an assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives. In a news release, Trump stated that both “played instrumental roles throughout the transition” and that “their skill sets are exactly what is needed to effect substantial change, including system-wide improvement to the performance of the government.”
WME-IMG purchased the UFC for $4.02 billion in mid-2016 and quickly exerted its influence in the immediate aftermath of the sale. The promotion purged 80 employees, including the majority of the executives who operated under the previous owners. More interestingly, however, was the promotion’s political maneuvering in the following months. New UFC owner Ari Emanuel met with Trump and vice president Mike Pence shortly following the election. He later visited Moscow with UFC president Dana White, where they met with Kremlin officials like deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko to discuss a potential event in Russia.
Emanuel’s relationship with Trump dates back several years. The tycoon’s WME agency once represented Trump when he was a host on The Apprentice, and Trump even referred to him as a “close friend”. However, when the Hollywood Reporter questioned whether the agency was interested in re-signing him, Emanuel revealed that he is “not contemplating any of that.” WME later acquired the Miss Universe pageant from Trump, where Ari famously said “He wanted to sell it. ‘Great, we want to buy it.'”
Apart from Emanuel, UFC president Dana White also shares a past with Trump. This was mainly in the form of a working relationship between the UFC and the Trump Taj Mahal, which allowed the UFC to host two consecutive events when they were a polarizing entity still banned on Pay-Per-View in 2001. As a result, White stood in front of the Grand Old Party (GOP) Republican National Convention last year and praised Trump in a deafening speech. He was also pictured at the campaign celebration at Trump Towers following the Republican candidate’s victory on election night, which seemingly highlighted White’s close relationship with the president.
“He calls me twice a month. We still talk twice a month. He’ll talk about the fight that just happened the other day. I’m telling you I’ve dealt with him for 16 years and everything about this guy has been as stand-up as stand-up can be.”
Given their exceptional ties to Trump’s White House, the UFC is in a unique position to become the latest medium for sports diplomacy in the United States. Politicians and statesman have traditionally used sports for a variety of political purposes, including to help enhance their image and make them more endearing to the public. Sports have also been used by dictators and authoritarian rulers to distract from human rights abuses and government shortcomings, build an international reputation through state prestige, and to present a more masculine and powerful image to a segment of their own population.
In this particular case, the UFC could become a means for Trump to connect with a segment of his followers. The promotion’s main audience is males between 18-35 with little ethnic diversity, which is a suitable audience for Trump’s interests and divisive policies. It is also an entity has historically shown a similar disdain for journalism that Trump’s White House has now adopted. A Dana White press conference in front of a UFC banner is eerily comparable to a Trump press conference before a White House podium. Naturally, this makes the violent sport a perfect representative of Trump’s kleptocracy.
The UFC could also act as a medium for sports diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia, especially given that White and Emanuel have already met with high-ranking Kremlin officials from Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
As it currently stands, cage fighting could become a staple of Trump’s presidency.