They use combat sports as a medium to recruit, radicalize, and discipline white nationalists.
A night of canvasing begins with a group of angry, white men.
Dressed in matching T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the phrase “Active Club,” the masked white nationalists wield a starter pack of extremist paraphernalia: stickers that read “FCK ANTIFA” and “Defend the White Race,” posters promoting a “nationalist lifestyle,” stencils etched with racist slogans, and black spray paint. They disperse, plastering stickers on lamp posts, billboards, and the occasional statue. They replace Black Lives Matter slogans with smatterings of hate messages and promises to “reclaim America.”
Among the scattered propaganda is a blue poster imploring readers to start their own active clubs—spaces for white men to train in combat while openly embracing white nationalism through street activism and publicity stunts. “Now is all we have,” read the poster. “Join the fight.”
Various videos and photos posted online by the group show this scene play out over and over again. You might even have seen these posters across small-town USA: Seymour, Indiana; Coeur d’Alene Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyoming—or even across cities like Denver and Philadelphia. These calls to actions are not the work of misguided teenagers but the persistent effort of infamous white nationalists like Robert Rundo, who spent years sowing the seeds of hate while building a global following for his neo-Nazi fight-club initiatives.
By using combat sports as a medium to recruit, radicalize, and discipline white nationalists disenfranchised by mainstream conservative politics, Rundo is able to create physical and digital spaces where extreme right political ideologies can flourish. He also joined forces with like-minded white nationalist groups such as Patriot Front and Revolt Against Tradition, which has allowed Rundo to rapidly expand his network and spread his active club ideology across North America.
The Rise of Active Clubs
The chaos that took place in Berkeley on April 15, 2017, was among the worst the city had seen in years. For approximately three hours, protesters for and against then President Donald Trump brawled at a “Patriot Rally” on the streets surrounding Civic Center Park, armed with pepper spray, smoke bombs, sticks, and wooden dowels. Seven attendees were hospitalized with injuries while 20 people were arrested, according to Berkeley police.
Among those arrested was Rundo, who arrived in Berkeley with members of his Rise Above Movement white nationalist group, and was later taken into custody on suspicion of battery on a police officer and for resisting a police officer. The charges were dropped after an Alameda County deputy district attorney determined that there was not “enough evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.” It took more than a year for the Department of Justice to bring federal charges against Rundo and three other RAM members for their alleged involvement in political rallies across California, claiming that they “violently attacked counter-protesters, journalists and a police officer.”
According to the complaint filed by federal officials in October 2018, Rundo and three other RAM members were allegedly involved in “violent attacks” at the Berkeley rally, which included Rundo punching a defenseless person and a police officer. The complaint also noted that RAM members celebrated the assaults in Berkeley, which prosecutors say included one member posting photos of himself attacking people and of other RAM members assaulting counterprotesters with their combat sports training.
The 2018 federal complaint followed the filing of an indictment in federal court that led to the arrest of four other RAM members on rioting charges related to their participation at the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 at which a counterprotester was murdered. The four men, including RAM co-founder Ben Daley and UCLA doctoral student Michael Miselis, pleaded guilty and were sentenced for their crimes. The RAM defendants in California were luckier. While many expected Rundo and the three other defendants to face jail time—one RAM member even pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge—a district judge dismissed the charges against them in 2019, claiming that the federal statute used to prosecute the members infringed upon their First Amendment rights to free speech.
Prior to the string of arrests, the California-based RAM boasted more than 50 members who trained in various combat sports such as mixed martial arts and boxing, which they later applied during street fights and protests. The group rose to prominence in 2017, when they began attending political rallies and targeting anti-fascist activists. They infiltrated protests and disrupted proceedings by fighting with those opposing their ultra-nationalist ideology. They concealed their identities using skull face masks and goggles, and went into rallies with their hands wrapped in tape in preparation for physical altercations. They then glorified their antics in propaganda videos posted on social media.
RAM’s penchant for MMA and underground fight clubs is one of the main things that distinguishes it from various other white supremacist groups in the United States. It has also helped RAM expand beyond the borders of the U.S., recruit new members, and network with other neo-Nazi groups dabbling in MMA around the world.
While four of RAM’s most prominent members remain in jail since being indicted on Charlottesville rioting charges, Rundo left the United States after having his case dismissed in California and has spent the last few years trying to further his white nationalist agenda and rebuild the fighting community that had been diminished by federal prosecution. After moving to Eastern Europe, Rundo founded a far-right propaganda outfit known as the International Conservative Community, which boasts a network of neo-Nazis around the world, with groups in Greece, Poland, Sweden, Hungary, Russia and Canada. The ICC is behind the propaganda campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with the fatal shooting of two protesters during an anti-racism demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Rundo’s campaign included spreading artwork depicting Rittenhouse with the caption, “Kyle was Right.” The ICC has planted stickers, large-scale graffiti work, and banners emblazoned with Rittenhouse’s image across Europe and North America. In Serbia, where Rundo was living in 2020, the group painted a picture of an armed Rittenhouse standing proud with a Schwarze Sonne (German for Black Sun) as his backdrop; the symbol, also known as a sonnerad, is used by a number of with far-right groups that traffic in neo-Nazi ideologies. The painting in Serbia was featured alongside a Confederate flag and a picture of a deranged-looking Homer Simpson cartoon character aiming a gun, with the caption “KILL YOUR LOCAL ANTIFA SCUM.”
It was around this time that Rundo began encouraging his followers to form their own “Active Clubs,” which he defined as a “small group of comrades who share our values of identity.” The aim of such groups is to “focus on physical fitness” and “create displays of defiance that show your community that our culture will not be erased.”
“The active club is not so much a structural organization as it is a lifestyle for those willing to work, risk and sweat to embody our ideals for themselves and to promote them to others,” Rundo wrote on his Active Club Telegram channel. “The active lifestyle is the counter to the left’s culture of apathy, addiction, and vice. Get active today in your area and be the change you want to see.”
Rundo later started the “Active Club Podcast” with Denis Nikitin, a Russian neo-Nazi considered to be the godfather of the extreme-right MMA scene, where they teach fellow nationalists how to form their own hate groups. Nikitin, who rose to infamy after launching the neo-Nazi MMA organization and clothing brand known as White Rex, has also been banned from entering any Schengen-area European countries. However, while Rundo boasted on the podcast about the “perks” of living in Eastern Europe, the extremist was expelled from Serbia after Bellingcat outed his location in Serbia. The Serbian daily Blic reported that on Feb. 11, 2021, Serbian police escorted Rundo to the Trbušnica-Šepak border pass, which connects Serbia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Rundo’s luck in avoiding prosecution, however, may soon come to an end. On 4 March, 2021, the LA Times reported that a US Federal Appeals Court had reinstated rioting charges against Rundo and three accomplices from RAM, ruling that they could be tried for their roles in riots in California in 2017. Despite facing potential arrest, Rundo remains active on Telegram, the social media platform popular among the extreme right, where continues to espouse his vision for the evolution of white supremacy.
“White Nationalism 3.0”
In a December 2020 essay entitled “The Idea Behind ‘Active Club,’” Robert Rundo laid out his argument for why his fellow angry white men should start their own neighborhood fight clubs.
“As most institutions give little or no regard for white youth today, Active Clubs’ role will fill that gap,” Rundo wrote, adding that active clubs promote camaraderie, identity formation, and “awaken racial bonds between kin” as they engage in fitness activities, combat sports training, and the “thrill and excitement” of spreading right-wing propaganda in the form of flyers, stickers, and graffiti. Rundo theorized that by spreading their message through propaganda posters and stickers, it will serve as a “critical revelation,” letting “our own know the fight is not over.”
Rundo also dictated that the clubs must remain small and local, explaining that it will make it more difficult for the media and law enforcement officials to shut down the entire operation. “Even if the system and their dogs manage to put out one fire, it will lead to minimal results,” he wrote.
Rundo’s guidelines suggest he has learned from his mistakes with RAM. Initially, the white nationalist group, the first prominent example of an active club in North America, had 50 members and was active on mainstream social media, which made it easy for researchers to identify its members. The modern iteration of the active club, which Rundo sometimes refers to as “white nationalism 3.0,” is different. The groups are local, self-contained, and are careful about the images they publish online. They take part in fitness activities together and focus on local activism—spreading stickers, posters, and banner drops—instead of taking part in rallies and demonstrations where they may be identified.
Rundo also launched a media outlet called Media2Rise, which he claimed would “counter” liberal narratives. Over the past few months, the former MMA fighter has used this platform to publish “Sons of the Founders,” described as a “documentary” about Patriot Front—an offshoot of the white supremacist Vanguard group that trains in “hand-to-hand combat.” The propaganda film, which follows Patriot Front members during their demonstrations held this year on the Fourth of July in Pennsylvania, underscores the growing (and highly concerning) ties between like-minded extremists such as Rundo and Patriot Front.
To date, Rundo’s active clubs have formed across the United States, including in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. An active club has even launched in Quebec and Ontario, the latter of which was recently renamed to “Action 14,” a reference to the 14-word neo-Nazi slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The rebranding leaves no doubt that the group is more than a fitness club for like-minded individuals but rather a white nationalist propaganda outfit that indoctrinates white men into the nationalist cause.
When prospective members questioned Action 14’s decision to rebrand in the public chat, arguing that it was “setting up the group to be targeted,” the club’s leadership shrugged off the concerns. “The name gives us a new look, and a clear signal to those on our side as to what we are about. It allows us to go national without splintering into 13 different groups, one for each province. We are a National Active Club now. Action 14 is the banner we all organize under,” the administrator said. However, the group eventually rebranded to “Active Club Canada” after what the administrator said was a “detailed discussion” among the founders.
“Tell your friends, wherever they are in Canada, that we are organizing workouts near them! If we don’t have one set up already in your area, you can rest assured that we will soon! This is the place to reach out to us. If you are a White man, looking to meet other Pro-White Brothers in a fitness setting, Active Club Canada is the place for you!” the group’s administrator posted on Telegram.
While Rundo would likely disagree with the Ontario active club’s decision to go national, he is no doubt delighted to know that his propaganda outfit masquerading as a fitness and martial arts counter culture group is spreading. The extremist organizer had previously written about the importance of combat sports as a “weapon” for white supremacists, as well as a way of building a community of like-minded individuals. “The nationalist movement was never built on idle talk but on those with iron will who didn’t back down,” he wrote in a 2020 essay. “In a time of weak men it only takes some effort to rise above all. Combat sports is that way up.”
Indeed, MMA and combat sports’ idolization of hypermasculinity, its penchant for violence, and its emphasis on wellness based lifestyles is well suited to far-right groups whose members object to progressive society’s supposed decadence and degeneration. Many white nationalist and far-right groups espouse “straight-edge” lifestyles focused on clean eating, a disciplined physical fitness regimen, and abstention from drugs and alcohol. Many such groups lionize white, muscular, male bodies, using them as models for future generations. MMA’s training regimen is also appealing to members of far-right groups because it offers them structured tutelage that they believe is necessary to defend their homeland.
Writing in her acclaimed book “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right,” Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss stated that “MMA becomes a powerful incubator for the far right when these ideas of masculinity—the notion that being a man is achieved through violent confrontation, domination, and physical intimidation of opponents—are layered onto far-right ideology about immigrant invasions and defense of the nation.”
This is exactly what Rundo hopes to achieve with his active club initiative. And as his fascist fight clubs continue to spread across the United States, so does his message of hate.
Originally published by Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, a program of Open Society Foundations, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.