Anastasia Yankova, a Russian model-turned-mixed martial artist who has appeared in a Nike commercial, was a month away from her professional debut when she took to Instagram to post a cartoon of Adolph Hitler. In the image, Hitler is seated on a window ledge, looking down with weepy-eyes on a dreary, overcast sky. “Matches my mood,” Yankova wrote.
“Aryan sadness?” asked a commenter.
“Only the weather and the restriction of carbohydrates,” she responded with a purple devil emoji later that day, September 2, 2013.
Mixed martial arts has a long and sordid relationship with white supremacists. But neo-Nazi-affiliated MMA outfits, like White Rex, a Russian clothing company and former fight promotion that helped launch Yankova’s career, have typically been confined to eastern Europe and Russia, where they have, well, something of a stranglehold over the far-right fringes of the sport. But now, inspired in part by emerging international talents like Yankova, groups in America, including Rise Above Movement in southern California, have helped popularize a particularly violent version of combat-ready racism, offering an example of how to advance white nationalism with perfectly executed strikes and takedowns, which have already been used with vicious effect in street battles in California and beyond.
At her debut fight a month after her Hitler post, Yankova marched toward her opponent. The floor of the cage was emblazoned with a giant White Rex logo, a hybrid symbol of the swastika, the Nazi esoteric “black sun”, and the Russian Kolovrat, a swastika-like symbol popular with Russian white nationalists. The event, in Moscow, was titled “The Birth of a Nation,” a reference to the 1915 silent film of the same name, which glorified racial violence and is credited with reigniting the Ku Klux Klan. A “hatecore” band, You Must Murder, performed for the 2000 attendees, the tournament host was a former KGB operative, a contingent of the Russian Hells Angels motorcycle club flew a banner from the balcony, and the neo-Nazi Maxim “Tesak” Martsinkevich was reportedly invited to attend. There were 13 fights, Yankova’s the penultimate of the night. Yankova, in black tights, her hair braided back in rows, suffered a punishing first round but caught her opponent, Eleonora Tassinari, in an armlock 26 seconds into the second, winning by submission, and launching her career.
This wasn’t the first fight White Rex organized, or the first career it helped get off the ground. Founded by Denis Nikitin, the company started hosting a series of amateur tournaments in 2011 in Russia, and later fanned out into countries like Ukraine and Italy, where, in Rome in May 2013, they held a tournament in an abandoned subway station known as the Area19 compound, home to CasaPound, an Italian neo-fascist political party that claims to be the direct political descendant of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists. In Lyon, France, White Rex co-hosted MMA fights alongside the local branch of the neo-Nazi organization Blood & Honour.
White Rex’s events have featured guests with serious criminal backgrounds, including Erich Priebke, a convicted war criminal and former SS Hauptsturmführer—a Nazi Party paramilitary rank—and the convicted criminal “Tesak,” from the neo-Nazi group Format 18. (Tesak can also be seen wearing a White Rex shirt in a video he filmed of himself attacking a gay man in 2013. “I want to kill,” he said, “but I’m not allowed.”) In 2014, White Rex-linked fighters allegedly even brought their fighting skills to a far more militant cause in Wales—to train British white nationalists in underground combat training camps. Anton Shekhovtsov, an extremism researcher who recently published the book, Russia and the Western Far Right, wrote at the time: “British anti-terror police and the Home Office may want to keep a close watch on White Rex.”
The extent to which Yankova agrees with White Rex’s worldview remains unclear. She did not respond directly to requests for comment. A spokesman with the American fight promotion Bellator, the league Yankova now fights in, says she rejects it. Yet Yankova not only participated in The Birth of a Nation, she has appeared in a promotional video titled “White Rex—Strength through beauty (Anastasia Yankova),” and in photos modeling their clothing, featuring White Rex’s swastika-like logo, as well as a shirt bearing the words “Royal Blood” and “Since 14.08.08”—a reference to the 14-word white supremacist mantra and the code for Heil Hitler. White Rex’s Tumblr page states that Yankova is “a good friend of ours.”
In a White Rex-branded video interview, Yankova—wearing a maroon “Royal Blood—Since 14.08.08” t-shirt—speaks about the importance of professional fighters needing to be interesting not just within the realm of their sport, but to evolve beyond it, that to attract sponsors and fans, they must promote a personal brand and be interesting in their own right. “An athlete has a face, an image, something that reels you in. You want to see what he writes on Twitter; you want to see what photos he posts on Instagram. Because he reels you in as a personality: ‘What kind of person is this?’”
In the years since the Birth of a Nation fight, Yankova has risen in the ranks of MMA and extended her reach around the world. She has been featured in the Russian edition of Vogue magazine. A Telegraph article from April crowned her as “the new face of women’s MMA” and claimed that she “has a deal with Nike.” In February of last year, she appeared in a Nike Russia commercial called “Made Of,” which highlights top female Russian athletes. Now, with a professional record of 5-0, Yankova fights in the American promotion Bellator, a league that increasingly competes with the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), which rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars per year and was—in what remains the largest sports transaction in history—sold in 2016 for $4 billion.
According to Nike spokesman Matthew Kneller, the company learned of Anastasia Yankova’s ties to White Rex shortly after Nike Russia aired the commercial that featured her last spring. “We immediately ceased working with Anastasia once this was brought to our attention. We haven’t worked with her since, nor do we have any plans to in the future,” says Kneller. He clarified that Yankova was never a “sponsored” athlete, as has previously been reported. When asked if Nike paid Yankova for her participation in the commercial, Kneller declined to comment.
Ryan Grab, the senior director of communications at Bellator MMA, based in Santa Monica, California, said in an e-mail, “We are aware that Anastasia Yankova previously fought once for Russian-based promotion White Rex early in her career, though we were not aware of their alleged stance on these aforementioned issues. After speaking with Yankova, we are confident she does not share these same beliefs and moreover, stands firmly against these types of nationalistic views.”
It’s not the first instance of fighters with racist ties performing at the highest levels of MMA—a laundry list dating back a decade includes convicted felon and white nationalist Melvin “Man-o-War” Costa; Brandon Saling, who has been convicted of attempted rape and whose tattoos included “88,” code for Heil Hitler; and Niko Puhakka of Finland, who sported various white supremacy-themed tattoos, including his affiliation with Blood & Honour, a violent neo-Nazi organization that started in the UK. (After being banned from fighting at several events, Puhakka renounced his old views.)
Lower level fighters have included Jason Tankersley, the head of the Maryland Skinheads who used to run an MMA gym for its members, and Richard “Rick” Desper, a former Hammerskin who was arrested on multiple counts of assault in 2002 in York, Pennsylvania, during a riot between white supremacists and anti-racists.
Though Yankova did not respond directly, after Mother Jones reached out to Bellator and Nike, she removed all of her social media posts revealing her affiliation with White Rex. As for the cartoon post of Hitler, Grab says, “Yankova understands that its meaning may have been misconstrued and ultimately, that it may have been offensive to some. For that, she is extremely apologetic and has since deleted the post.”
But, says Kevan Feshami, a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the fact that Nike mistakenly got involved with a fighter like Yankova is evidence that white supremacist groups such as White Rex are becoming more and more ubiquitous in the MMA world, and are successfully “trying to insinuate themselves into the mainstream culture; they’re trying to make this all seem normal. And it’s working really well.”
As Yankova has entered the MMA scene in America, so too have violent groups inspired by White Rex. The Rise Above Movement (RAM), a collective of California white nationalists who train in mixed martial arts and boxing and who have battled their way through recent politically explosive rallies and protests, frequently post White Rex videos on their Twitter page and generally seem to worship the Russian clothing company. “Check out this organization from Russia,” they wrote in August, linking to a video from White Rex’s “Birth of a Nation” fight night. “Great white pill.”
RAM, which calls itself “the premier MMA club of the Alt-Right representing the United States,” made its public debut on March 25 at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Huntington Beach, California, that drew more than 2000 Trump supporters. Fancying themselves guardians of Western civilization, they showed up with an anti-Semitic sign and a banner that read, “Defend America.” Some of its members’ clothing and tattoos betrayed their affiliations with South Bay Skins and Hammerskin Nation, notoriously violent skinhead gangs. In photos and videos shared online, RAM fighters can be seen in brawls with counter protestors and antifascist activists who attempted to block the Huntington Beach procession. One RAM member threw a masked counter protestor to the ground and pummeled him with his fists and elbow. Another, alongside someone not affiliated with the group, attacked a writer from OC Weekly, repeatedly punching him in the face until someone nearby fired off a blast of pepper spray.
A 2017 investigation by ProPublica tracked RAM’s members and activities over the year, finding that they were in the middle of violent melees in Huntington Beach, Berkeley, San Bernardino, and Charlottesville, often instigating fights and even kicking over barricades in order to chase down and punch, kick, and stomp counter protesters. In reviewing court and prison records, ProPublica discovered that several of RAM’s core members have extensive criminal histories, including felony charges for illegal weapons, robbery, and assault. One RAM member, 27-year-old boxer Robert Rundo, served 20 months in state prison for stabbing a Latino man five times, including in the neck, in what the court called a “gang assault.”
What sets RAM apart from countless other white supremacist groups is its enthusiasm about mixed martial arts. On Twitter, they posted a video from a Ukrainian nationalist MMA event, with the hashtag #ItsOkayToBeWhite, and another from a white nationalist boxing club in Lyon, France, called Agogé, launched by Generation Identity, a group that recently made headlines for wanting to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe by intercepting humanitarian ships in the Mediterranean. In one video they linked to, the Swiss Nationalist Party, a far-right group that Switzerland’s federal police classify as “extremist”, invited the founder of White Rex to host an MMA training seminar to prepare them for defending against the alleged crimes of “asylum seekers.” “We need more of this,” RAM wrote.
They are not merely fans. RAM’s own propaganda videos mirror those put out by European and Russian far-right MMA crews and football hooligan firms who trade in white nationalist ideals. The videos show RAM members in group training sessions in southern California parks—shadow boxing, hitting focus mitts, and sparring. If an image they posted to Twitter is to be believed, they have their own gym, with a full ring and banners hanging from a wall that display the RAM logo. Some of its members in their sparring videos—with crisp jabs, straight rights, and disciplined footwork and head movement—are clearly more adept than others, who throw looping, imprecise punches. But their street battles display the skills they’ve picked up in their training, using techniques commonly employed in MMA.
When I reached out on Twitter to ask about their training methods, one RAM member first told me that the group no longer existed. (Just a few days earlier they posted a picture online showing masked men reading in a park, with a caption that read, “When the squads [sic] not out beating up commies #altright.” (Aric Toler of the open source investigative outlet Bellingcat discovered that RAM had swiped the image from a German nationalist’s Instagram account.) Later, the RAM member sarcastically told me they rebranded under the name, “The Nation of Yahweh,” referring to a controversial offshoot of the Black Hebrew Israelites religious movement. Two days after that, he blocked me.
Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher at the ADL, calls RAM “an alt-right fight club.” She notes that RAM’s slickly-produced propaganda videos, with the ramped up music and “rosy picture of drug-free physical strength training” are made to “recruit their base” and fuel radicalization. Though several of their members have previously been “strung out on drugs,” as ProPublica put it, they emphasize straight edge culture—the prohibition of drugs and alcohol, in the context of white nationalism, as a means to keep “pure blood” in their veins.
They blend imagery prevalent within the European and Russian extreme right, everything from tagging their moniker on walls to their fashion choices, haircuts, and shirtless training scenes. RAM members don skull masks and tape their hands when they descend on rallies to fight their ideological foes. Like the Polish rapper Bujak, whose music videos celebrate hooliganism and mixed martial arts in the service of white nationalism, RAM mocks that “if [you’re] not training [you’re] alt lite.”
“Some white supremacists promote the notion that physical strength enables them to uphold what they believe as honorable ideals of their race,” says Mendelson. “They create this Doomsday future and feel the dire need to defend themselves against threats purportedly posed by immigration, multiculturalism, and Islam.”
At rallies, RAM members have held banners and signs reading “Rapefugees Not Welcome,” “Islamists Out!” featuring knights on horseback chasing Muslims, and “Da Goyim Know,” an anti-Semitic slogan. One of their acts of “activism” included hanging a banner from a freeway overpass in Carson, California, that declared, “Secure Borders, Secure Future.” “A lot of these groups play up the victimization narrative,” says Mendelson. “They see themselves as cornered against forces trying to eliminate them. The option of responding, even violently, is justified.” Likely because of this, Mendelson says that in the last decade-plus mixed martial arts “has been peppered with white supremacists and a corresponding fan base, as they see it embodying their ideals of strength and defending their race.”
According to Pete Simi, a scholar of far-right extremism who spent seven years in the field with groups such as the Aryan Nation and coauthored the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate, RAM’s approach to fitness parallels Nazi Germany’s ideals about the body, masculinity, and physicality. “They see physical fitness in a kind of racialized lens, as a way to cleanse the body and maintain this Aryan purity, but more practically: to actually be prepared for the race war, or skirmishes that come up prior to the major battle.”
RAM may be the most visible racist group to openly publicize their training, but they are not alone. On June 19, 2017, a message on Stormfront, a forum for racial extremists founded by a former Alabama Klan boss, pronounced that “a confederation of MMA clubs are [sic] being formed, to teach our folk self-defense.” With “the rise of Left-wing terrorism,” it went on, “a number of martial arts fighters and/or veterans felt that it was necessary for our people to learn how to defend themselves against domestic terrorist mob attacks, as carried out by BLM and Antifa.” The post states, “Several nationalist organizations are lending aid to this endeavor.”
The Tennessee white supremacist organization Confederate Blood and Honour (C28) is reportedly linked to this newly-formed MMA coalition, which calls itself the Confederation of Volkisch Fight Clubs. In June, C28 passed out stickers and flyers at a soccer game, protested a gay pride parade, and teamed up with Billy Roper, who the SPLC calls “the uncensored voice of violent neo-Nazism.”
One Stormfront member responded, “This sort of activity is an absolute necessity for our folk.”
“Most of us are glad to help and all of us should be training,” said another. “You could be the American version of White Rex someday.”