Right Hook: Neo-Nazis Seek New Blood among Cage Fighters

By and Maximilian Popp

The brutal combat sport known as free fighting is enjoying growing popularity in Germany. Neo-Nazis are infiltrating the world and using it to spread propaganda and recruit new blood.

Tattooed fighters in hoodies are escorted into the arena, while scantily clad women hold up signs with numbers announcing the next round. The air is thick inside the sold-out Volkshaus arena in Schildau, a town near the eastern German city of Leipzig, and rock music is blaring from loudspeakers. An advertising poster reads: "Saxony Fights." Before the event, two police officers inspected the venue and then left again. Everything is in order, or so it seems.

Several hundred fans hoot when Christopher H., a star in the free-fighting world, enters the ring. The 23-year-old has made a name for himself in mixed martial arts, a combat discipline so brutal that it has been banned from German television. He relentlessly pounds away at his opponent, quickly drawing blood. Assistants attend to the fighters' eye and nose injuries.

Brutal combat matches like the one in Schildau, also known as "free fights" among fans, have become very popular all across Germany. Neo-Nazis take advantage of growing interest in the sport to recruit members of the audience for their radical right-wing ideology and appeal to potential sympathizers.

"We note with great concern the penetration of neo-Nazis into the free-fighting community," says Gordian Meyer-Plath, the head of Saxony's state branch of the

Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which is tasked with monitoring neo-Nazi activities. "Anyone who believes that free fighting is merely about a few crazy people hitting each other in the head underestimate the scope of the problem. Neo-Nazis are deliberately using free fighting for their propaganda."

'Life Means Combat'

The sport seems tailor-made for radical right-wing ideologues. For many fighters, their self-image is about blood and honor, and about wrestling down those who, in their eyes, are weak and unworthy. The free-fighting community also offers a relatively safe place for neo-Nazis to express themselves, largely unhampered by the critical press and radical leftist opponents. Intelligence officials in several German states have identified three recruitment tactics. The neo-Nazis:

meet at supposedly harmless competitions organized by martial arts clubs, where they search for potential "comrades";

use sham companies and clubs to act directly as fight organizers; and

organize illegal fights and training camps, where their own fighters are built up as heroes, so as to impress young visitors.

It isn't just a matter of sports and propaganda. The fighters are also being trained for violent conflicts with political enemies. According to a video with which neo-Nazis advertised "National Martial Arts Days" last year: "A fight as a physical showdown represents more than just an athletic contest between young men. It is the expression of an inner urge, a perception that sets us apart from other people." When 200 right-wing extremists came together in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany, the motto of their meeting was: "Life Means Combat."

Neo-Nazis find opportunities almost every weekend to recruit sympathizers at free-fighting events, such as the "Fourth Greifswald Fight Night," held on the Baltic Sea at Easter. A "Battle of Gladiators" is planned at a venue near the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, and fights are also held in Berlin, Hamburg, Osnabrück in the northwest and Halle in eastern Germany.

"The mixture of rituals of masculinity, camaraderie and violence is extremely appealing," says Winfriede Schreiber, the state intelligence chief in the eastern state of Brandenburg. She and her staff were the first to study the phenomenon.

Schreiber doesn't shy away from unorthodox methods. When she found out that neo-Nazis were planning a combat training camp in the Brandenburg Forest, she had officers disguised as hunters sit on raised hunting towers for several days, while other officers, dressed as forest rangers, drove through the forest in SUVs. This allowed them to document how neo-Nazis were practicing their right hooks in the undergrowth.

Neo-Nazi Connections

The line between the right-wing extremists' glorification of violence and apolitical martial arts isn't always clear right away. For example, the boxing club BC Vorwärts Leipzig is a member of the state sports association in Saxony. According to the bylaws, the association promotes the "pursuit of tolerance, camaraderie, a sense of community and a health-conscious lifestyle," and the group is "strictly neutral, from a political and religious standpoint."

But Thomas P., the association's chairman, is considered an important figure in the neo-Nazi community in Saxony. He ran the neo-Nazi mail-order company Front Records and, for a time, sold an album called "Adolf Hitler Lives," which, in 2010, celebrated the series of murders committed by the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terror cell accused of 10 murders, most of them racially motivated. More than anything, P. has established himself as an important promoter of the free-fighting community in Saxony.

In 2005, the businessman supported the "Fighting Fellas 28 Wurzen," reports the Network for Democratic Culture based in Wurzen, near Leipzig. P. says today that he has no recollection of the connection. He and his business partner Benjamin B., a Leipzig neo-Nazi, run a sports-management and clothes-trading company. The firm operated the Aryan Brotherhood website until 2012 and, for a time, advertised security services on the site.

B., a muscular 23-year-old with a shaved head, is one of the most successful German free-fighting athletes. He calls himself "The Hooligan," he also manages other fighters, and he was one of the founding members of the supposedly apolitical BC Vorwärts Leipzig. B. denies being a member of the right-wing extremist community. Nevertheless, he was involved in Scenario Lok, a right-wing extremist hooligan fan club for the football club Lokomotive Leipzig. In the past, Scenario Lok has repeatedly attracted attention with its "Sieg Heil" chants and attacks on police officers, and it is also being observed by German domestic intelligence.

Anti-fascist activists have published a photo online supposedly showing B. at a neo-Nazi demonstration. In another photo, he appears to be posing behind a banner that reads: "Ultras Lok National Resistance."

Efforts to Keep a Low Profile

At the event at the Volkshaus arena in Schildau, Thomas P. and Benjamin B. also played a role. B. appeared in ads for the free-fighting tournament last fall. The network surrounding Thomas P. included two sponsors. The violent show was so popular at the time that it has now entered a second round.

In addition to having political appeal, the fights also seem to be worthwhile from a business standpoint. At the new version of "Saxony Fights" on March 2, standing-room-only tickets cost €14 ($18), while €75 paid for a seat in the ringside VIP section. To get drinks at the bar, fans had to buy drink tickets for at least €10.

The advertisers included a well-known furniture retailer, a local attorney, a tiling business and an escort service. There were also neo-Nazi sponsors, such as the Staffbull Department, an online mail-order company for clothing popular among right-wing extremists.

During an intermission at "Saxony Fights," the organizer stood outside in the cold in front of the Schildau arena and chatted with a few fans who want to see a bigger arena in the future -- a more prominent place for the cage set up for the fights.

But the organizer had good reasons for his choice of venue. In bigger cities, there is always the possibility that resistance develops, he says, and many new rules are imposed on the event at the last minute, leading them to be cancelled.

He would rather stay in Schildau, a small city that rarely attracts attention. He feels welcome there, says the organizer, and notes that "Saxony Fights" is in better hands there.

But the man also had a word of consolation for fans unwilling to resign themselves to the public suspicions about their favorite sport. According to the organizer, negotiations are already underway with a private broadcaster in Russia, where TV executives are apparently not as anxious as their counterparts in Germany. The Russians, they say, have a great interest in seeing the fights transmitted live on TV.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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