In October 2018, the FBI arrested four members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a US white supremacist group that trains in mixed martial arts, on rioting charges related to their participation at the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The four men, including RAM co-founder Ben Daley and UCLA doctoral student Michael Miselis, pled guilty and were sentenced for their crimes.
The prosecution was a contrast to another case the previous month against RAM members accused of rioting at a rally in Huntington Beach, California, in 2017. A district judge dismissed the charges against RAM co-founder Robert Rundo, Aaron Eason, and Robert Bowman, claiming that the federal statute used to prosecute the members infringed upon their First Amendment rights to free speech. Tyler Laube, who had pled guilty in a separate hearing, withdrew his guilty plea and had his case dismissed. The US government is in the process of appealing the case, though it appears that the damage has already been done.
“RAM has definitely gotten a second life thanks to the court rulings that have cleared their members on federal criminal charges,” AC Thompson, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, tells the Guardian. “The group was absolutely on the verge of collapse, with its leaders and key members locked up – and new recruits scared off by fears of going to federal prison. When you look at the history of the white supremacist movement in the US you can see many instances in which white power groups survived prosecution and came out the other side stronger and even more hardcore.”
Prior to the string of arrests, RAM boasted more than 50 members and marketed itself as the “premier MMA club of the alt-right.” Founded in 2017 by Daley and Rundo, RAM members trained in various combat sports such as MMA and boxing, which they later used during street fights and protests, including Charlottesville. Dressed in skull masks, RAM members specialized in attacking protestors who opposed their ideology. They would then glorify their antics in propaganda videos posted on social media.
With the dismissal of the Huntington Beach charges, RAM has been handed a lifeline. Armed with a new lease on life, one of the most dangerous white supremacist groups in the United States is set to retake its place among a growing international network of far-right fight clubs.
In the days and weeks following the California judge’s decision to dismiss the charges against Rundo and his associates, the group took to social media to drum up support for its cause and to reestablish its base.
Using an account on far-right social media platform Gab, RAM posted pictures celebrating the charges being dismissed against its “wrongfully imprisoned” members. One of the posts boasted a new hype video under the title Keep the Flame Alive, while another showed Miselis flexing beneath the caption, “They can lock us up, they can lie about us but they can’t stop a idea whos [sic] time has come.”
To monetize its cause, RAM reached an agreement with far-right clothing store Our Fight Clothing Co to feature several of its branded t-shirts, the proceeds of which it claims will “go directly to our legal defence.” RAM also used the far-right clothing store as a personal blog to promote its violent ideology. Shortly after his charges were dismissed, Rundo posted a lengthy essay, titled Combat Sports for the Future of Nationalist, to the store’s website in which he espoused the importance of MMA as a “weapon” for white supremacists, as well as a way of building a community of like-minded individuals. “The nationalist movement was never built on idle talk but on those with iron will who didn’t back down,” he wrote. “In a time of weak men it only takes some effort to rise above all. Combat sports is that way up.”
Instead of simply releasing training montages and hype videos as it did in the past, RAM is now carefully articulating its message in an attempt to create unity amongst members. These posts also verify that right-wing fashion, propaganda, and MMA are the basis of white supremacist recruitment and mobilization tactics – a topic that has been reported on extensively by the Guardian.
“RAM hold a unique place in the white supremacist scene in the US. They are really emulating the European groups who blend together racist politics and combat sports like MMA and boxing,” Thompson says. “They have a pretty mainstream aesthetic –they aren’t LARPers or cosplaying as Nazi soldiers. And they aren’t as nerdy as a lot of the alt-right guys. The RAM approach has the potential to grow in the US.”
Beyond RAM’s homegrown efforts to recapture its peak in 2017, there is a growing concern that the group will attempt to strengthen ties with white nationalist groups in Europe, including old allies such as Russia’s White Rex and Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.
In April 2018, Rundo travelled to Ukraine to compete at an MMA event in front of hundreds of white supremacists from across Europe. The contest was hosted at the Reconquista Club, a restaurant that moonlights as a fight club by night and is affiliated with the Azov Battalion. Boasting a sports bar, pole dancing shows, and a fight ring, the club is equipped to host a sports event tailored to ultra-nationalists.
Though Rundo lost his bout against a local fighter, he still took time to thank his hosts by shouting “Slava Ukrayini” (Glory to Ukraine), a first world war slogan adopted by the Ukrainian army in recent years. An FBI criminal complaint against Rundo that was unsealed in October 2018 also sheds light on his time in Ukraine, revealing that he and other notable RAM members, including Miselis and Daley, met with Olena Semenyaka, the international secretary for Azov’s political wing, the National Corps. According to a 2018 report by journalist Christopher Miller for RFE/RL, the Azovs are in the process of expanding their ultra-nationalist ideology abroad, which helps explain the group’s outreach to fight clubs and white supremacist groups in the West.
One of those responsible for promoting Azov’s ultranationalist ideology is Denis Nikitin, one of the most prominent far-right hooligans in Eastern Europe. Nikitin, a dual Russian-German citizen, is the founder of neo-Nazi clothing brand White Rex and arguably the main organizer for far-right combat sports events across Europe. In 2018 he told the Guardian: “If we kill one immigrant every day, that’s 365 immigrants in a year. But tens of thousands more will come anyway. I realized we were fighting the consequence, but not the underlying reason. So now we fight for minds, not on the street, but on social media.”
After a decade of using White Rex as a platform to radicalize disenfranchised youth, Nikitin, who has a semi-official role with Azov, is now responsible for organizing MMA tournaments for the Reconquista Club and bringing together like-minded fighters from across Europe and the United States. This has allowed him to expand his network of affiliates by inviting the likes of RAM to compete at the Reconquista shows and “exchange ideas.”
Nikitin has long relied on a group of affiliate fight clubs across Europe to help promote his ideology and organize events. One such entity is Pride France, a French offshoot of White Rex that is part extreme right lifestyle brand, part neo-Nazi fight club. Founded in 2013, Pride France maintains an online store called 2YT4H (which stands for “too white for you”) that sells a variety of streetwear and fight gear emblazoned with far-right symbolism. Some of Pride France’s most popular items include a HTLR t-shirt, and a Halloween shirt depicting a smiling KKK caricature with a noose and a torch. There is also a selection of children’s clothing with similar white supremacist slogans.
Pride France does not just stop at clothing though. In partnership with Blood and Honor and White Rex, it organizes an annual combat show called Day of Glory in Lyon, France. The poster for the inaugural event in 2014 was filled with Nazi symbols, including a fighter tattooed with the SS emblem. In 2015, Pride France and White Rex continued their partnership and sponsored that year’s event hosted by Kampf der Nibelungen (KdN), a German far-right MMA promotion. Other European fight clubs with links to the far-right, such as Greece’s Pro Patria, have participated in shows with Pride France and White Rex, creating spaces for extremists to recruit new members and expand their networks. However, the rise of these clubs has generated a counter-reaction from law enforcement, anti-fascists, and governments.
In April 2018, thousands of white suprematists arrived in Ostritz, a sleepy town along the German-Polish border, to attend Shield and Sword, a far-right festival. The two-day event featured a skinhead concert, ultra-nationalist clothing stalls, and an MMA tournament hosted by KdN.
Concerned about the deluge of fascists that flooded their town, Ostritz authorities decided to foil the 2019 edition of the festival by confiscating alcohol on the premises and limiting attendance. The alcohol ban hit attendance and led to the cancelation of KdN’s MMA event at the festival. When KdN attempted to reschedule the event for a later date in Ostritz, local officials placed a ban on the event, arguing it was primarily used for “right-wing extremist combat training.” KdN promoters appealed the ban but failed to have it lifted.
Germany’s approach to countering KdN events shows how governments can make an impact. However, while the court ban is an important victory for Germany’s struggle against far-right extremism, it is by no means a definitive blow to KdN or the country’s far-right scene.
While KdN is the most prominent German far-right combat sports group, there are others such as TIWAZ, which is affiliated with brands such as Pride France and Imperium Fight Team, a German MMA team that has reportedly incited violence against immigrants. Imperium’s founding coach is Benjamin Brinsa, a former UFC fighter who was released from the promotion after allegations he was a neo-Nazi sympathizer. While Brinsa has denied the allegations, he remains a member of the Leipzig-based hooligan group Scenario LOK and has reportedly helped organize rallies against refugees.
The struggle against Nazis and ultra-nationalism is not unique to Germany. Greece, another country with a longstanding history of fighting fascism, has also taken steps to counteract the rise of the far-right. In order to counteract groups such as Pro Patria, Greek anti-fascists have formed their own fight clubs to defend themselves against ultra-nationalist attacks. White Tiger Muay Thai is one of the most prominent anti-fascist gyms in Athens. Founded by Ilias Lamprou, a Muay Thai expert with links to solidarity movements in places such as Palestine and Genoa, White Tiger is home to more than 100 students who share his distaste for fascists.
“You can’t separate anti-fascism from the bigger view of things that happened socially in Europe, America or even further,” says Lamprou. “Historically, the state used fascism as a useful tool to hold back progressive changes. We need to overcome these obstacles in order to clearly see the way to personal or social emancipation.”
Lamprou’s message resonates in the United States, where various groups are working to bring down clubs such as RAM. Yet despite FBI probes and arrests over the past year, the premier fight club of the alt-right is rebuilding its ranks. According to Thompson, RAM’s recent prosecution made them “movement heroes, even with people who weren’t fans of the group before they went to jail. They have a new legitimacy and cachet, having gone to jail for their activism.”
Thompson adds: “Look at another outlaw organization built around a hyper-masculine image and violence: the Hells Angels. Of course, the Angels are an apolitical outfit, but you can definitely see similarities between them and RAM. And the Angels manage to constantly bring in new recruits – even when veteran members are constantly circulating in and out of prison and getting into shoot-outs with rivals.”
While RAM has been given a new lease on life, the group faces difficulties during its rebuilding process. RAM has been barred from various social media networks, complicating its plans for expansion. It is also likely that the group will continue to be tracked by FBI and law enforcement. Nevertheless, RAM’s existence is a reminder that the struggle against fascist fight clubs is far from over.