The Trump presidency turned MMA into a chud-filled hub of racism and sexism. Southpaw wants to offer an alternative.
Since its inception in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has shaped martial arts practices and entertainment in the United States. UFC brought MMA into the mainstream, making the sport into a multimillion-dollar industry and title fights must-watch TV. But it has also come to attract a particularly ugly brand of right-wing conservatism, particularly as Donald Trump’s presidency made xenophobia, racism, and other forms of white supremacy more acceptable in public. Thankfully, leftists have responded by staking their claim in the martial arts world — and one of the most unique spaces they've carved out is the Southpaw podcast.
The Southpaw name references a fighting stance, but it doubles as a nod at being on the left side of the political spectrum (a “southpaw” is a left-handed fighter). Its tagline, “radicalizing politics and combat sports,” might seem unusual to outsiders. People often think that a) politics have no business in martial arts; or b) martial arts is full of white guys who’d hate-crime somebody in a second. So why would real leftists get involved? To Southpaw’s co-founders Sam and Paul, both of whom requested Mic withhold their last names due to concerns of harassment, these misconceptions are exactly why Southpaw needs to exist.
Sam tells Mic that he was inspired to launch Southpaw after noticing how Trump’s presidency radicalized the martial arts world. Before Trump, Sam explains, “martial arts had an apolitical right-wing view,” meaning it “defaulted to being more conservative, pro-authority, pro-police, pro-military, and being punitive,” but it wasn’t necessarily overtly associated with those spaces.
But after Trump’s election, “a lot more fighters became unabashed about their support of, more or less, fascists,” Paul tells Mic. Their observations aren’t hard to trace. UFC president Dana White’s friendship with king chud himself is well-documented; in 2018, White and welterweight fighter Colby Covington, who once called Black Lives Matter a “sham,” visited Trump at the White House. A year later, Trump became the first president (current or former) to attend a UFC event, and he’s popular in other combat sports too; just last month, he served as a commentator for a Triller Fight Club boxing match. He has such a big presence in WWE, too, that he has his own WWE Hall of Fame profile. During the 2020 presidential election, White urged people to re-elect Trump, as did Chuck Norris.
The problem goes beyond U.S. politics: MMA fighters have endorsed Brazil’s fascist president Jair Bolsonaro, and Niko Puhakka, a Finnish professional MMA fighter, once displayed a neo-Nazi tattoo during a fight in Poland. Outside of organizations like the UFC and fighters themselves, the media has also played a huge role in the shift to more overt right-wing sympathies in professional fighting.
“If I want to hear an interview with a fighter or maybe even a coach, what am I going to turn to? [Before Southpaw] it was Joe Rogan,” Sam says. Rogan is one of martial arts media’s biggest names. He’s also notorious for hosting white supremacists and touting coronavirus conspiracies on his absurdly popular podcast. When he was diagnosed with COVID over the summer, he took the horse-deworming drug ivermectin.
“It’s very easy to get subtly pushed into [right-wing views] without even noticing.”
Over the past few years, Sam explains, right-wing media began embracing martial arts, after big name fighters and promoters became more openly conservative. When Southpaw launched in 2018, it offered an alternative. But the project wasn’t only about attracting combat sports fans who were already leftists. The co-founders wanted Southpaw to act like a magnet, too, drawing people away from right-wing sources before they become fully radicalized.
“I feel like a lot of people ended up further radicalized to the right because they started out kind of like a coin standing on a side. It could go either way,” Sam explains. “They have an interest in martial arts or MMA, and [start] listening to Joe Rogan, or Alex Jones has an MMA fighter on, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris. It’s very easy to get subtly pushed into [right-wing views] without even noticing.”
This desire to catch people before they veer hard right is born of Sam and Paul's belief that MMA fans have the potential for political growth. They themselves had this experience. Growing up, Paul tells Mic, “I always knew it was important to take care of other people. But politically, I didn’t know what that meant.”
Sam says he was aware of politics to some degree when he was young. As a Korean immigrant, for example, he had general thoughts on racism because “that was something I could experience.” Early on, he learned not to generalize things, which he says has helped his politics today. “[As a kid], I realized the way I received racism as an Asian immigrant was different from an Asian person who was born here,” Sam says, “which was different from the way a Black [boy] received racism, which was different from a Black girl.”
Sam and Paul’s criticisms of mainstream martial arts come from a longstanding immersion in the sport. Sam’s parents enrolled him in martial arts after he immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6. He recalls that the school was full of Korean students and teachers, and classes were taught in Korean — which was no accident. “For my parents, and a lot of immigrants, especially from Asia, martial arts isn’t necessarily [about] self-defense,” Sam says. “Their concern was about loss of culture. I think if I stayed in Korea, my parents would have never enrolled me because they wouldn’t have seen the need.”
Paul’s introduction to martial arts came from a more simple place: “I didn’t really understand or do well in traditional ball sports,” he tells Mic. His parents put him in martial arts instead, because the classes were easy to enroll in. When the UFC debuted in November 1993, a teenaged Paul went online to find a place where he could train as a young kid with no money.
As it turned out, Sam, at the time a high school wrestler who had also been hooked by UFC 1, frequented the same forums. He suggested that he and Paul start training together.
“After, I realized I agreed to meet a stranger [from] online. It’s not like we exchanged photos or even names,” Paul recalls. “Luckily [Sam] was very nice. He got to try out some moves that probably none of his [training] partners were willing to. Like, ‘Let me try a rolling kimura.’ As a 16-year old kid, I was like, ‘Sure. Let’s see how it goes.’”
That phrase “let’s see how it goes” captures a lot of Southpaw’s general attitude. During its early days, neither of its founders expected to attract a huge audience. Sam says, “We had a joke that the left-wing bubble in martial arts was very small. Maybe only five people were gonna listen to us — at tops, 50. But we would have a monopoly on the 50 people in martial arts that were lefties.”
For some time, it was basically only family and friends listening, but the project slowly began to grow. Then, after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, Sam says the podcast really took off.
“I think it gave context to the things I was talking about. People might have been like, ‘What does that have to do with martial arts?’ But then you saw so many martial artists being on the side of the police [and] racism,” Sam explains. Along with Floyd’s murder, the pandemic drove people to Southpaw, as several fighters posted anti-vax conspiracies on social media. In January, Tito Ortiz, a former UFC star, even asked his followers to boycott a burger place that wouldn’t serve him without a mask. Right-wing conspiracies were bleeding into the fighting world, and leftists interested in the ring needed a place to feel heard.
“Sam and Paul have a good idea of how to make something formal enough that you take it seriously, but also comfortable enough that you don’t feel like you have to always be on edge.”
Sam and Paul's easygoing vibe made Southpaw the welcoming place they needed. In addition to fight commentary, the show features analysis of the sport from a leftist perspective. There are interviews with fighters like Fallon Fox, the first professional trans MMA fighter, and discussions of other martial arts like muay Thai, sumo, and wrestling. Sam and Paul have also conducted interviews with Chicago's Haymaker gym, which explicitly describes itself as an "anti-oppressive and anti-fascist" gym, and England’s Reading Red Corner, a left-wing boxing club. In one episode, they spoke to the scholar Dr. Gerald Horne, who wrote The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering, and the Political Economy of Boxing.
It’s not just that Southpaw's discussions are unique for the MMA world, but that the hosts specifically take a different approach to debates. Angel Marti, a long-time martial artist based in Los Angeles who is teaming up with Sam to host an upcoming new Star Trek-based series for Southpaw, learned about the podcast from a friend and found it refreshing. In the world of leftist podcasts, Marti explains, there tends to be a trend: “You have a bunch of left-wing podcasts where everybody tries to do their own version of Chapo Trap House: ‘I am an angry, sarcastic lefty.’”
Southpaw, however, never played that game. People don’t have to be political experts to follow Sam and Paul’s discussions. “Sam is a great interviewer in that he looks out for things that might need to be explained. He does it in a way that doesn’t insult people’s intelligence,” Marti says. “You feel like you learn about stuff with Sam.”
Another listener-turned-contributor, who goes by the stage name Carrion, hosts Pride Never Die, a recurring series within the Southpaw podcast that focuses on LGBTQ+ martial artists. They tell Mic, “Sam and Paul have a good idea of how to make something formal enough that you take it seriously, but also comfortable enough that you don’t feel like you have to always be on edge.”
It’s this willingness to engage honestly with some of the uglier aspects of the sport that helped Southpaw build a tight-knit community. Alana McLaughlin, the first openly trans MMA fighter since Fox left MMA, first found Southpaw through its social media presence. “Then I started listening to the podcast,” McLaughlin tells Mic. “It was the first time I'd heard anything like it. It's really amazing to have commentary on martial arts and combat sports through a leftist lens.”
Southpaw’s existence is bittersweet. While people enjoy the content and spaces Sam and Paul curate, Southpaw ultimately exists because most other martial arts spaces are awful, if not outright hostile. And although Trump’s presidency was certainly a trigger, the issues go far beyond the 45th president. Many martial arts spaces are breeding grounds for the same white supremacist myths that people tend to associate with platforms like 4chan and reddit.
“One problem that I have with Western martial arts is that it’s used from such a militarized perspective,” Ron King, a professional fighter who wrote about being a Black fighter in the U.S. for Southpaw’s blog, tells Mic.
It’s a problem that McLaughlin has noticed too. “The martial arts space is practically inseparable from a lot of right-wing and fascistic ideas about strength and independence,” she tells Mic. In addition, martial arts spaces love to emphasize messaging about independence and freedom, as if practicing a martial art is the first step to becoming a vigilante. Perhaps nothing encapsulates martial arts’ more extreme freedom messaging better than Chuck Norris’s 2010 book Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America, whose cover features Norris wearing a karategi with an American flag on his sleeve.
“It's all one big toxic system.”
“A lot of that has been shaped by popular media over the past 30 years or so — action films where the protagonist is always some abrasive loner tough-guy who is white and scruffy and rough around the edges, but he gets results, dammit,” McLaughlin says. “To me, the vast majority of men in the martial arts space are trying to live up to a cultural idea of masculinity that they’ve been propagandized into believing without ever stopping to analyze it.” Both McLaughlin and Carrion mentioned too how gyms specifically cater to police and military members. “There are all these programs for giving police discounted rates on training,” McLaughlin says. “It's all one big toxic system.”
These white supremacist notions and values are embedded within martial arts at all levels. It can make the sport a hostile place — and even incentivize unnecessary violence. For example, UFC, which is notorious for its meager paychecks, entices people with bonuses for giving the performance of the night — “which was a covert way of saying, ‘We’d rather knock somebody out because it plays better in highlight images,’” Paul says.
This translates to a game that doesn’t much value slick defense, and discourages fighters from watching out for themselves or their fellow competitors. Instead, it’s knock ‘em sock ‘em robots in an octagon. And when MMA is consumed by a fanbase that clutches onto the notions of masculinity McLaughlin mentioned, it’s these types of fights that are most appealing.
Southpaw creates a space for martial arts that is distinctly different from this. Rather than trying to frame martial arts as entertainment that is separate from everyday life, Southpaw asks how these sports can be used for liberation. And when they do talk about the more violent aspects of martial arts, like, say, the fighting, the focus is never on hurting someone for the sake of hurting them. Instead, there’s an emphasis on people reclaiming their bodies and expressing themselves while still respecting the boundaries of their teammates.
At its core, Southpaw is about uplifting the oppressed. It will always serve as a counterweight to the more conservative corners of the martial arts world, and be a space where the most vulnerable members of the community can feel seen and heard.
When it comes to Southpaw’s future, Sam says he doesn't have any specific goals he’s working towards, “because if I have a goal and if I’m rigid about it ... In my mind, I envision a round hole, and it’s a square peg. Me trying to force that in there? It’s not going to be a good thing.”
Instead, Sam says: “It’ll be what it’ll be, right? I trust that’s the best way for it to be.”