Starting in Russia before spreading to Europe and the United States, neo-Nazi mixed martial arts (MMA) clubs have grown alongside the more traditional far-right movement. These active clubs reframe immigration and crime into an “us vs. them” narrative and train their members to fight those who would disrupt their idealized version of their home country. One such club active in the United States is Will2Rise, inspired by, and in partnership with, Russian contemporaries. It promotes physical training and is headed by Robert Rundo, a white supremacist facing federal charges in the United States for rioting, with deep connections to Russian neo-Nazi and active movements. Its reframed masculinity has been weaponized into the idea of an imagined community, whose members are reshaping themselves physically and mentally into the perfect white warrior priest.
There are more prominent active movements in Russia, Europe, and the United States that deserve attention and have certainly received it. In contrast, Will2Rise has largely flown under the radar of extremism researchers. Because of the lack of mainstream attention, the brand has been able to grow silently and Will2Rise has not hidden or censored much of its messaging, making it a compelling primary source for research.
Though the Will2Rise website obfuscates the organization’s white supremacy, the Telegram channel and blog posts on the sister site Media2Rise make their ideology clear. The Telegram channel posts in support of the defendants of the 2017 Charlottesville riots, call Black people “animals,” and posted a memorial for the 99th anniversary of the Italian fascist Black Shirts. Active clubs, Will2Rise included, train their bodies for both short- and long-term goals. Members go to left-wing protests to disrupt them and fight those who counter their ideology. They are also millenarian in nature, training for the inevitable race war and collapse of society. Will2Rise currently has just under 11,000 followers on Telegram, but the networked nature of the neo-Nazi movements makes it hard to pin down exactly how far their online reach is. In these Telegram channels, there is constant sharing of other channels’ content. By using an Internet traffic tool, we can see that the Will2Rise website has 53,000 total visits with 65% of them coming from the United States. Only 18% percent of the traffic is from Internet searching, which means the vast majority of visitors to the site are being linked from elsewhere.
Annie Kelly describes the alt-right as born out of an “anxiety about traditional white masculinity” which is being corrupted. Essentially, the alt-right stacked the “Great Replacement” theory on top of the more mainstream discourse on the loss of true masculinity. Active clubs exploit this by constructing their own version of an idealized form of masculinity and centering their brand around it. Additionally, the alt-right’s nationalist underpinnings created an imagined idea of what the United States used to be, and what it should be. To them, the United States used to be run by white, masculine, conservative males, until immigrants and liberals ruined it. All that’s left is to work to move the country back to where it used to be. Active clubs thus serve as the literal fist of the movement, allowing individuals to literally fight to spread and enact their ideals.
Far-right brands and styles of clothes cultivate identities by linking masculinity with nationalism and traditional warrior ideals. Will2Rise’s clothing promotes an idea of a “warrior thug” who is willing to do what it takes to protect their conservative ideals. Those ideals are protected by the brand itself, by claiming on their “About” webpage that the products are created by those who share the brand’s values and identity. Will2Rise T-shirt designs largely cloud their fascist themes. This may be because the movement in the United States is relatively small, and they may not feel confident outing themselves. The designs of brands in Russia are much more overt. Outside of a few designs that reference other far-right movements such as Strike and Mike, and White Rex, there are only two designs that are overtly neo-Nazi. The first is a design with “Me Ne Frego” plastered across the chest, a slogan used by Mussolini’s troops as he marched on Rome, and a second design with a figure sporting a Sonnenrad tattoo.
By hiding their overt fascism, Will2Rise creates an “in” group of counter-culture warriors and an “out” group of sheep. Individuals can wear this fascist clothing and hide in plain sight while signaling their ideals to others who know the brand. The frankly cool designs and its hidden messaging work in the brand’s favor, as those who don’t know the associated values can purchase the clothing and unwittingly join the community. A significant number of individuals are radicalized through their communities, and the community-driven nature of active clubs and their brands work in favor of their recruitment, advertising, and fundraising.
Active clubs and the MMA movement push an idealized version of MMA practitioners’ character and biology, encapsulating both immutable and mutable characteristics. They thus create an imagined version of themselves as a perfect white warrior priest who is capable of both proselytizing their ideology and beating dissenters. Much as a priest may pray to step closer to God, neo-Nazi MMA practitioners train to come closer to their idealized selves. The brands they ally with then become their holy robes and uniform, signaling to those around them where their allegiance lies. While the movement remains relatively small in the United States, it is certainly growing, and its presence and activity stands as a testimony to the dark side of extremist MMA clubs.
Aaron Manzano graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a B.A. in International Politics and Cultural Anthropology. He is currently pursuing his M.A. in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs where he specializes in far-right extremism.