A Fellow Traveler Enters the Moscow Cage Match

American MMA fighter Jeff Monson is a posterboy for the Russian Communist Party's propaganda push. But he may be a pawn in a larger game.

MOSCOW — Jeff Monson’s left eye was a shiny blue-back and his mouth bloody and swollen, having been knocked into a Mike Tyson-like lisp. The American fighter had endured a tough beating for the three-round fight, but it was the repeated kicks from Fedor Emelianenko, Russia’s most decorated MMA fighter, to the back of his knee where the sciatic nerve is closest to the skin that ultimately stopped Monson, known as the “the Snowman” in the fighting circles, from taking the Russian champion down to the ground in front of thousands of cheering fans on Nov. 20, 2011, in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium. Emelianenko kicked and kicked and eventually shattered Monson’s lower right leg, but the Minnesota native fought through the pain, completing the match — utterly brutalized by one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.

“Americans wouldn’t have cheered on a foreigner like that,” he remembers, oddly comfortable with the decisive loss that was broadcast around the world and made him a household name in Russia. The Moscow crowd cheered relentlessly for Emelianenko but shouted their support for the limping Monson as he left the ring. “I fought Fedor, and the stars lined up for me.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (then the country’s prime minister) was one of the many VIP audience members who lined up that night to watch the headliner fight from the front row. But despite the viciousness of the fight, the two fighters respected one another, and Monson bonded with Emelianenko backstage afterward. Putin later called to tell the defeated American and longtime political anarchist that he admired his courage, saying Monson had a “Russian heart.”

And although that fight may have broken his body, it was ultimately the event that set Monson on the path to what he sees as a kind of higher calling. Now — five years after the match with Emelianenko and 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union — Monson, an American Midwesterner who spent his youth striving to be an All-American wrestler, abandoned his native country’s ideas of democracy and capitalism for the ideals of communism and now finds himself at an odd intersection of the macho nationalism and flashy theatrics that define modern Russian politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (then prime minister) congratulates Fedor Emelianenko after his victory over Jeff Monson in Moscow, on November 20, 2011. (Photo Credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

On a pleasant morning in late August, the 45-year-old Monson was being ferried in a private car to the Kremlin-funded television channel RT’s studios in Moscow. The American skyrocketed to fame in Russia after his famous bout in 2011 and then moved most of his fights to the region (in part because he can no longer get medical clearance to fight in the United States). Following that fateful fight, his career in martial arts increasingly shifted toward Russia. But in recent years Monson began to see loss after loss sullying his fighting career in Russia, and his new manager steered him toward a major publicity push to gain wider appeal — leading to an appearance on Russia’s version of Dancing With the Stars and the opportunity for him to host his own program on RT featuring street vox pops, skits, and political interviews, scheduled to premiere in late September. The show is part of what he calls “the transition” — a deliberate and very publically coordinated shift from a fading career as an MMA fighter to one as a TV personality, philanthropist, businessman, and aspiring politician with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

This new life in Russia has made the heavily tattooed and amiable Monson into the perfect poster boy for the Communist Party as it tries to modernize and rebrand itself to capture the youth vote in the lead-up to upcoming parliamentary elections set for Sept. 18.

With growing fanfare, the MMA fighter is campaigning with Communist Party politicians and speaking at rallies. The upcoming vote comes at an important juncture for the country, with the economic crisis sparked by low oil prices and Western sanctions grinding on, labor unrest in the provinces, two open-ended wars in Ukraine and Syria, and a recent shake-up in the Kremlin. The Communist Party, currently the second-largest in the legislature with around 20 percent of the seats, is expected to make further inroads to United Russia, headed by Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The Communists, traditionally a party of pensioners since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been in the middle of a major public relations push, hoping to appeal to new voters and cement their status as leaders of the tolerated opposition in modern Russian politics. This effort has treaded into the farcical at times, such as with its reimagining of popular figures as 21st-century youths: Vladimir Lenin in blue jeans, Joseph Stalin using a vaporizer, Karl Marx in a leather jacket. And Monson is the latest centerpiece in this rebranding campaign.

“The value of Monson in Russian politics is quite significant, although he is not a politician,” says Gennady Zyuganov, the 72-year-old politician and leader of Russia’s Communist Party since its founding in 1993. “It’s the fact that an American is openly and purposefully expressing sympathy for the Soviet Union, socialism, [and] Russia.”

But Monson isn’t the first foreign celebrity to make a public home in Russia and cause a splash in the country’s politics. According to a June 2015 survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, a Moscow-based research center, about 90 percent of Russians get their news from television. Due to their massive reach, the networks are under tight government control, serving as a stitched-together representation of Russia’s former Soviet ideals and government-sanctioned viewpoints. So, it’s been on TV where masculine Western celebrities, such as action star Steven Seagal and French actor Gérard Depardieu, have become regime favorites to represent their love for Russia, tying in handsomely with the narrative of a strong, independent Russia rising from its knees. And in many respects, Monson fits in perfectly with this model; he is instantly recognizable and possesses all the right attributes — especially as an American who’d rather be in Russia.

His injuries may have healed since that pivotal fight in 2011, but Monson’s battle scars still show: His ears appear permanently swollen, his nose has been beaten from a peak into a range, and his left eye is forever glazed over as he was literally blinded from repeated blows. At 5 feet 9 inches, he’s solidly built, with muscles that strain around each other, as if jostling for space. He walks with a permanent limp, his left leg lumbering like a rollercoaster heaving up to the crescendo. (Any pain? “Just some aches,” Monson remarks.) And though fans love his eccentricity — his wild tattoos and blunt talk — this career shift to politics has left some scratching their heads. “His legacy in MMA is a physically tough, durable fighter who was incredible on the ground,” says Felix Biederman, a sports writer who covers MMA and co-hosts a left-leaning podcast called Chapo Trap House, which examines the bizarre nexus of extreme politics and MMA fighters. “His contradictions will make you mad, but I think his heart is in the right place.”

Jeff Monson (right) attends a flower laying ceremony at Vladimir Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square with Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Jeff Monson attends a ceremony outside Vladimir Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow with Communist Party brass. (Photo Credit: Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images)

Jeff Monson holds a picture of Lenin and Stalin as he meets with the public in Red Square. (Photo Credit: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

For a man who devoted 20 years of his life to training and fighting, Monson speaks with a surprising lack of passion when discussing MMA. A no-nonsense type of guy in an increasingly theatrical sport, Monson has little adoration left for MMA, in part due to his passion for leftist politics that are anathema to a ruthlessly capitalistic sport where the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship recently sold for more than $4 billion. Even the recent move among MMA fighters to unionize elicits a mild response from the communist. Monson thinks the development is a positive step but has chosen not to become involved because, as he puts it, he doesn’t really care about the sport anymore. “But I am a member of the Wobblies,” he adds with pride to note his credentials, using the nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World, a broad militant union founded in Chicago in 1905 that has been plagued by declining membership since the 1920s.

This proclivity for the workingman comes from his modest upbringing in the heartland of America. Monson grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, a truck driver, died in a work accident when Monson was only 2 years old. His mother remarried soon after his father’s death to a man for whom Monson says nothing was ever good enough. “I don’t blame her.… He was what she needed, someone to pay the bills on time and all that,” he says matter-of-factly, before mentioning the impact of his stepfather’s verbal and emotional abuse. Studying at college, his athletic ability found him on the wrestling team — good but never good enough for his own satisfaction. Monson saw cutting pounds to a new weight class as an avenue for greater success, but it eventually led to him being hospitalized for bulimia. After recovering and graduating from college, Monson practiced as a psychologist for five years, specializing in abnormal psychology, while training in Brazilian jiujitsu to branch into MMA.

Old high school friends who spoke to Foreign Policy say Monson was obsessed with the politics of anti-capitalism and pacifism even when he was a teenager. During his fighting career, he stayed political, serving three months of work release in 2009 for defacing a government building with anti-Iraq War slogans, including the anarchist symbol, with an ESPN camera crew in tow in Olympia, Washington. Monson, who is waiting for his Russian citizenship application to be finalized, is officially a member of the Communist Party and hopes to one day run for office as a deputy in the Russian parliament. But despite being a ball of energy when discussing the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Monson admits that he hasn’t “really followed” the Russian political system he wants to jump into.

In discussing Putin, Monson refers to him as a “nice guy” but also the “biggest hypocrite of all,” referring to the corruption that has become a hallmark of the Russian leader’s regime. “He’s worth, like, $43 billion,” he adds, noting Putin’s disputed and impossible to prove alleged personal fortune amassed over his years in office. But Monson has few other specifics to offer on Russia’s political scene; instead, the fighter-turned-aspiring politician talks at length about the ideals of elected office and how he hopes to help the disenfranchised and break down the power structures of the world. Already he’s tried to do his part, recently opening his first of a number of planned wrestling schools for youths across Russia.

“I don’t want to die known as an MMA fighter,” he says hastily. “Not to be grandiose, but I want to use this as a vehicle to make change. I’ve seen naked kids walking around collecting bottles, people whose whole existence is based on survival — and this is happening out of our consciousness.”

Despite a lack of fluency on the ins and outs of Russian politics, Monson’s idealism has prompted frequent visits to war-torn eastern Ukraine, making him the first American to receive citizenship from the Luhansk People’s Republic, one of the pro-Russian separatist entities. “I just want to show the humanity of the people there,” he says of his recent trips to the city of Luhansk, hoping that his celebrity will highlight the plight of those affected by the war. But Monson also allowed himself to be escorted into the territory by the Night Wolves, a biker gang and favorite of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The group has become known for its pro-Putin views and unabashed nationalism — such as retracing the Red Army’s steps across Europe — its anti-LGBT marches in Moscow, and is believed to have helped in the Kremlin’s recent bout of foreign adventurism, assisting pro-Russian militants in the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. The visit to Luhansk with the Night Wolves was highly publicized in Russia and picked up by nearly every major media organization in the country.

Jeff Monson poses for a photoshoot for his new show in RT's studios. Photo Credit: Elle Hardy

Monson also has strong feelings about Russia’s relationship with the United States; he believes that the two countries are slipping back into Cold War mentality, something that his studio handlers appear to be keenly aware of on the set preparing for his show. Back at the RT studio, Monson is doing a promotional shoot for his new program. Occasionally, he looks sheepish at the scene he finds himself in — a studio packed with executives in suits barking directions at a half-naked, heavily tattooed man covered in oil. “Now, you just have to say three lines for an ad,” they tell him in English before carefully annunciating the Russian phrases: chto (what), sloosha sooda (listen here), and nyet parmimo (I don’t get it) — well-known language from Russian mob films that will help tie Monson to the country’s ethos of tough-guy politics. Monson rehearses off camera but can’t get the words right, the absurdity of the project lit up under 750-watt halogen bulbs.

Nyet parrno!” the producers yell, their words clipped into typically rolling Russian.

Net porno!” Monson shouts at the camera.

“OK … maybe a bit more confused. Ni-yet parrrno. Parrrnnno.”

Net porno!”

“Maybe a little angry. Give me angry. You’re confused — ‘I don’t get it’ — you’re a little angry.”

Net porno!”

The suits watching agree to settle with what they’ve got. Monson steps in and suggests it would be really cool if he did it with the Russian flag draped over his shoulders. Artur, the head producer, offers some excuses about not being able to find one, but an assistant foils the ruse and says there’s one upstairs. Artur finally explains: In Russia, we don’t use our flag like that.

To many Americans, Monson will undoubtedly be seen as an envelope for anti-Americanism, a distinct vision prized by RT and the Communist Party for his utility in a country where political ideas are largely forged by expediency. Monson is even beginning to get that feeling, too. “[The Communist Party] reached out to me. They wanted to be affiliated with me,” he emphasizes. “I don’t want to be a poster boy — I want to make changes and decisions.”

“I’m disappointed with the Communist Party,” Monson admits, looking tired after a day of filming and sprawled out across the back seat of the studio car driving him around Moscow. “I don’t know if they have the same idealistic desire for what they want [as I do]. They’re living in the past but enjoying the spoils of today.”

He takes a rare pause. “I don’t know,” he finally says, “but I feel like they’re distancing themselves from me in the lead-up to the election, as a foreigner.”

Photo credit: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Elle Hardy is a writer and photographer specializing in politics and culture in the former Soviet Union and the United States.