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Fighting Talk

On the lessons Donald Trump learned in the wrestling ring

On October 9, 2019, President Donald Trump wrote one of the strangest letters ever sent from one head of state to another. ‘History will look upon you favourably if you get this done the right and humane way,’ he told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as they jostled over Syria. ‘It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!’

The letter was shocking because we expect world leaders to address each other in the stilted language of diplomacy. Yet Trump was speaking in a familiar register - familiar, at least, to fans of ‘sports entertainment’.

Consider the following speech, delivered by professional wrestler Mr McMahon:

‘I am the dream killer, the reaper of souls, the master puppeteer on the stage of fools. I am the only one who can see the big picture, the grand design ... I am the master of the house. I pull the strings around here. So I don’t care who the hell you are - if you’re in my way you will get taken out.’

Why did the Leader of the Free World want to spend an evening watching men, clad only in shorts and gloves, knocking each other senseless inside a cage?

Now read Trump’s letter again, as if it were a wrestling promo. Imagine him with a tight singlet, veiny muscles and a shiny championship belt slung over his shoulder, jabbing a finger at the camera. It makes more sense that way, doesn’t it?

Trump and McMahon have more in common than a rhetorical style. In 2007, Trump took on McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), in a ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ at WrestleMania 23. In a scene that seems more surreal with each passing year, McMahon was arguing with a referee when Trump, dressed in suit and tie, flattened McMahon with a clothesline before pummelling him on the floor. After being declared the winner, Trump proceeded to shave off a screaming McMahon’s hair in the centre of the ring.

The President’s association with the WWE dates back to the 1980s, when Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza hosted both WrestleMania IV and WrestleMania V, becoming the first venue to hold the ‘Show of Shows’ two years running. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Is Trump’s approach to geopolitics really inspired by professional wrestling? If so, perhaps such a foreign policy is suited to our outlandish times. As the director Werner Herzog recently put it: ‘I was raised with Latin and Ancient Greek and poetry from Greek antiquity, but sometimes, just to see the world I live in, I watch WrestleMania.’

WWE is not the only sports empire allied to Trump. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s top cage fighting promotion, credits the President with saving it from oblivion. In the late 1990s the organisation was struggling for survival as Senator John McCain led a campaign to ban what he called ‘human cockfighting’. In 2000, Trump threw the sport a lifeline, hosting a fight card at the Trump Taj Mahal. The UFC’s popularity later exploded and in 2016 the company was sold for $4 billion.

That same year UFC president Dana White endorsed Trump in a speech at the Republican National Convention. Two years later, the UFC released a documentary, Combatant in Chief, which paid lavish tribute to the President. Karim Zidan, a reporter who has exposed links between mixed martial arts (MMA) and authoritarian leaders worldwide, called the film ‘a case study in political sportswashing’. The UFC, he argued, was allowing Trump to launder his reputation via one of the fastest-growing sports on Earth.

On November 3, 2019, Trump flew to New York to attend a UFC event at Madison Square Garden. Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal were fighting for the BMF belt. The title was hastily invented after ‘West Coast gangster’ Diaz challenged fellow ‘gangster’ Masvidal to a fight to decide who was the ‘baddest motherfucker’ in MMA.

Why did the Leader of the Free World want to spend an evening watching men, clad only in shorts and gloves, knocking each other senseless inside a cage? Maybe he sees the sport as a metaphor for his own bruising brand of politics. As international norms break down, it becomes ever more important to project strength. Trump may think of himself as a fighter standing up for America’s interests against ‘gangsters’ such Erdoğan, Putin and Kim Jong-un. Perhaps by associating himself with the brutal ballet of MMA, he is symbolically proclaiming himself the world’s BMF.

As it turned out, the BMF bout wasn’t close. Masvidal stopped a bloodied Diaz in the third round. Shortly before the fight, a reporter had asked Masvidal what he thought of The Donald. “No matter what your views on Trump as a president,’ he said, ‘the guy’s a bad motherfucker, man.’ Naturally Trump retweeted that video.