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5-min read

It's Not Like Trump Should Have to 'Watch Very Boring Sports'

Donald Trump’s half-day visit to New York to attend the Ultimate Fighting Championship 244 was as unusual a presidential trip as it was conveniently timed.

New York Times

Updated:November 4, 2019, 11:00 AM IST
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It's Not Like Trump Should Have to 'Watch Very Boring Sports'
US President Donald Trump waves to the crowd at the UFC 244 mixed martial arts fight at Madison Square Garden in New York on November 2, 2019. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)

New York: President Donald Trump walked onto the floor of Madison Square Garden on Saturday night from the same corner that the mixed martial arts fighters did, his own fighters at his sides.

Just before 10 pm, Trump squeezed into a row of folding chairs below the metal-fenced octagon accompanied by the men who do his battles on Twitter and in Congress — his sons Donald Jr. and Eric and Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Mark Meadows — and found a new kind of release at a moment of high tension in his presidency: a real, blood-soaked, stitches-requiring fight.

His half-day visit to New York to attend the Ultimate Fighting Championship 244 was as unusual a presidential trip as it was conveniently timed, converting his metaphorical political fights into literal ones. His appearance came a year from Election Day 2020, roughly 24 hours after a raucous campaign rally and just days after the House formally endorsed an impeachment inquiry of him.

It also came shortly after news that Trump had formally declared Palm Beach, Florida, his permanent residence.

The conflicts and betrayals gave this visit important symbolism, said Michael D’Antonio, who wrote a biography of Trump.

“He feels embattled and threatened. He probably identified with the fighters,” D’Antonio said. “He’s spoiling for a fight. He wants to punch somebody, but he doesn’t have that person before him.”

Trump may have anticipated a friendlier welcome from the fans of a sport whose champions have visited him at the White House, where others have declined to do so. But within seconds of Trump’s entrance, the room was a cocktail of boos, roars and cheers, a din that Trump was eager to spin in his favor. From his seat, he retweeted his son Eric, who claimed that the arena had been chanting his father’s name (words that were not audible to the reporters traveling with Trump and sitting nearby), and Donald Jr., who said the reaction was “overwhelmingly positive.” On Sunday morning, Trump said reports of the booing were “fake news.”

At times, the arena felt like an island in the middle of a city that voted heavily against Trump in 2016. Some in the crowd wore “Make America Great Again” caps and “TRUMP 2020” shirts, applauding him and giving thumbs-up. At various points, Trump waved and pointed at followers near his ringside side seats.

“He should be a man of the people. He should come and watch them fight,” said Anthony Whealy, who was sitting near Trump. “You don’t want your president to go and sit around and watch very boring sports.

Perhaps anticipating a sour response, event organizers at Madison Square Garden didn’t display Trump’s image on the large screens dotting the arena, a move that prompted boos and taunts at the World Series game in Washington last Sunday.

Minutes after the president appeared, a young man just yards from Trump flashed both middle fingers as the president turned to wave at those cheering him. Just on the other side of the octagon, another man did the same. Outside the arena, a protester carried a sign: “Headlock Him Up.”

Among those who booed was Adam Abdalla, a publicist from New York who called Trump’s appearance “a big distraction.”

“For him to expect New Yorkers to embrace him for basically leaving the state to dodge the law is kind of laughable,” Abdalla said, discussing Trump’s reported interest in changing his official residence to avoid New York income taxes.

“There are too many people in the industry who are immigrants, who are from the slums, who are from everywhere” for the setting to have been entirely pro-Trump, said Gabriella Bain, a UFC fan who was sitting close to the octagon.

As the crowd Saturday night thrilled to the most violent kicks and punches, Trump, who was wearing a suit and red tie, sat mostly stone-faced, his arms crossed, but watching intently.

“He loves to reduce everything to a kind of elemental blood level,” said D’Antonio, the Trump biographer. “If there’s blood that’s spilled and it’s not his, it’s thrilling to him.”

Trump is no stranger to fight nights. When mixed martial arts were struggling to find an audience, Trump hosted a UFC event at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In 2007, he appeared at a World Wrestling Entertainment event, where he preened for the crowd by the ring. In 2008, Trump partnered with Affliction Entertainment, a mixed martial arts company, to host pay-per-view fights in the United States and a reality television show in Russia.

The trip this weekend was the kind of brief escape that Trump may have imagined would be routine before his presidency, before he realized the traffic trouble it causes. For a president who marvels at the perks of the job — a red button that summons a butler and a Diet Coke, the custom-branded pens that Sharpie designed for him — his trip to New York displayed the apparatus he has savored as a head of state: Osprey helicopters and large police escorts that followed Trump down a fenced-off 34th Street.

On Saturday, the seats reserved for the president and his entourage were close enough to hear the kicks land and the thuds of bodies hitting the floor.

“Put him in a body bag, Johnny!” one fan shouted nearby during one match.

“Finish him!” another shouted near the end of a final round in one match.

The night’s premier match ended in a knockout: One fighter had such a large gash above his eye that a doctor ordered the competition over.

For a president who now jokes about behaving more presidentially, the event featured the brand of pageantry kitsch that Trump once used on television and his own live entertainment projects: tuxedo-clad announcers, bikini-clad women who circled the octagon and elaborate entrance routines by the fighters.

“This,” said Anthony Alvarez, a fan who drove from Rhode Island to see the fight, “is an American sport. This is as American as it gets.”

Noah Weiland c.2019 The New York Times Company

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