UFC fighters close to Bolsonaro find themselves in spotlight after riots

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

On 8 January 2023, a sea of people dressed in the yellow and green that symbolizes Brazil’s flag descended on Brasília, the nation’s capital, to demand that the military overturn the presidential election.

Over the course of four hours, thousands of far-right supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed all three branches of the country’s government – Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace – and wreaked havoc throughout the iconic modernist architecture.

The chaotic scenes were reminiscent of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, as crowds fueled by false claims of election fraud ransacked buildings, attacked police officers, and chanted pro-Bolsonaro slogans while demanding the removal of newly-inaugurated president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Apart from the rioters who swarmed the country’s federal institutions, mixed martial arts fighters were among those who publicly celebrated Bolsonaro and the attempted coup, including one who competed on this past weekend’s pay-per-view show in Brazil.

Deiveson Figueiredo, a former UFC champion who lost his flyweight title following a TKO loss in the co-main event of UFC 283 Saturday, was among those calling for a military coup against Brazil’s elected government. A recent investigation by BloodyElbow.com revealed that Figueiredo shared a series of pro-Bolsonaro posts on WhatsApp, including a photo that said it was time to “Invade Brasília”.

“Either a free country remains or [we] die for Brazil,” read the post.

A second post shared by Figueiredo encouraged rioters to “camp inside the Congress” while a third showed Bolsonaro being saluted by military generals along with a caption calling on the military to initiate a coup d’état against the incumbent government.

Figueiredo’s staunch support for Brazil’s controversial former president is shared by a plethora of Brazilian athletes, including among local jiu-jitsu stars and UFC fighters. Over the past few years, the far-right populist received endorsements from UFC champions such as Anderson Silva, Rafael dos Anjos, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Cris Cyborg and Fabricio Werdum. He was also backed by the Gracie family, a prominent martial arts clan credited for creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Bolsonaro, who served as Brazil’s president from 2019 through 2022, regularly rubbed shoulders with UFC fighters and even elevated some to prominent political positions. Former UFC fighter and jiu-jitsu champion Renzo Gracie was named the Ambassador of International Tourism under Embratur, a branch of Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism in 2019. The following month, Gracie posted a video threatening to choke French president Emmanuel Macron. Three years later, the Gracie family was embroiled in a scandal that saw them allegedly receive government payouts from a fund designated for Brazil’s poorest families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the celebrity endorsements, Bolsonaro lost a run-off election to former president Lula in October 2022. He fled Brazil just days before his rival’s inauguration and landed in Orlando, Florida, where he stayed in a vacation home owned by former UFC featherweight champion José Aldo. The former president was reportedly there during the riots on 8 January.

Aldo later defended his decision to host Bolsonaro in his home, claiming it was merely a business opportunity.

“The country is divided. Everyone on the other side will criticize me,” Aldo said on the Flow podcast, one of the most popular podcasts in Brazil. “I wasn’t thinking about that, though. There’s a good side and a bad side to everything you do in your life. The street is always crowded now. I’ve been getting so many messages from people who want to stay at the house. I’m sorry, but some people just think small. They have no eye for business.”

The former UFC champion, who is also allegedly involved in a government handout scandal, now plans to put up a plaque in his home that reads: The president of Brazil stayed here.

MMA’s embrace of Bolsonaro is part of an ongoing trend of right-wing politicians and authoritarian leaders weaponizing the sport for political gain. Several MMA fighters, including legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, have campaigned for Russian president Vladimir Putin, while other Russian fighters (including a handful in the UFC) have publicly supported their country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Elsewhere, Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless dictator accused of countless human rights abuses during his tenure at the helm of the Russian republic of Chechnya, founded his own MMA fight club and now has several fighters affiliated with him competing in the UFC. Kadyrov, who has attended two UFC events in the past, has been known to use his gym as a form of reputation laundering and as a tool to distract from well-documented abuses such as forced disappearances, torture, and an ongoing purge of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya.

On an organizational level, the UFC has hosted events in partnership with the Abu Dhabi government in the United Arab Emirates, a country with a poor human rights record.

Meanwhile, the UFC’s controversial president Dana White has also spent the past few years promoting former US president Donald Trump and offering him a unique platform to espouse his political ideology. This, in turn, has encouraged other like-minded fighters to throw their weight behind other controversial leaders without fear of repercussions. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that countless UFC fighters have publicly used their platforms to endorse Bolsonaro, as well as to encourage attacks on democratic institutions.

Yet while the vast majority of Brazil’s UFC fighters overwhelmingly support Bolsonaro, there remain a handful of exceptions.

Two years ago, UFC strawweight Virna Jandiroba used her post-fight victory speech to praise Brazil’s universal healthcare system and take aim at Bolsonaro for his botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fighter also recently shared a harrowing story about her grandfather, who served as a colonel during Brazil’s infamous military dictatorship and was persecuted for opposing the regime. This experience with fascism defined Jandiroba’s left-wing worldview, and made her weary of populist figures like Bolsonaro.

“Bolsonaro offends me and my people on several levels,” Jandiroba said during a recent interview with Bloody Elbow. “It’s impossible for me to like him.”