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Are MMA Gyms Run by the Far Right Hiding in Plain Sight?

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed combat-sports gyms and fight clubs being used by men to spread racist hate. What happens when those same men attempt to transition away from violence — and their past?

Jason Tankersley first entered the public spotlight in the 2007 documentary American Skinheads. The National Geographic investigation highlighted how Tankersley, the leader of the racist hate group Maryland Skinheads (MDS), used his small gym to recruit and train white supremacists in mixed martial arts. In one clip, we see a motivated, charismatic Tankersley extolling the benefits of learning a Muay Thai clinch and throwing knees. “This is devastating, in the ring or in the street. Especially devastating in the street,” he barks. 

Behind the boxing ring is a sign that reads “WHITE PRIDE WORLDWIDE.” On Tankersley’s chest is an intricately decorated swastika, a Nazi SS shield and three small words: “Born to Hate.” 

His flock then was about a dozen men — a small crew, but one that ran tightly with larger outfits like Keystone United, expanding a network of white-power extremists with an explicit taste for personal violence as moral courage. And he stayed involved for years: In various photos through the early 2010s, a larger, heavily bearded Tankersley is seen hanging out with avowed white supremacists such as KU co-founder Steve Smith and neo-Nazi agitator Matthew Heimbach, who helped organize the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.  

Tankersley is reportedly 40 years old today, and he hasn’t stopped pursuing MMA, training at Exile Fitness in the Baltimore suburb of Rosedale, Maryland. He is listed as the manager of the facility, where he teaches the art of striking and grappling to classes of children and adults. The issue is that there’s no actual evidence that Tankersley, who once swore by the ethos and code of racist white-power skinheads, has officially walked away from that world. 

He’s worked to clean the most offensive bits of himself from public view, covering up his swastika, SS symbol and “Born to Hate” tattoos — but in 2017, he was outed while attempting to rent a VFW hall in tiny Joppatowne, Maryland for an MDS gathering. Tankersley had apparently rented the space for a decade without anyone realizing the group’s identity, and the blowup demonstrated that he was still involved in the active organizing of Maryland Skinheads and their sympathizers. 

Tankersley (center) with Steve Smith (left), co-founder of the white supremacist skinhead group Keystone United, and KU member Joe Phy. From Facebook.
Tankersley with white supremacist organizer Matthew Heimbach and KU co-founder Steve Smith, in a photo uncovered by antifascists in Philadelphia. 
A Facebook photo of Tankersley in 2016. Note his Nazi tattoos are covered, but there is a prominent “MDS” outlined on his torso.

His continued involvement in MDS activities through that same time period raises questions about his ideological beliefs, even to the present. (Tankersley didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls left at Exile Fitness.) 

Again and again, we’ve seen a link between the worlds of organized fighting and the violent far-right. In Eastern Europe, Denis Nikitin has built up a fist-fighting fiefdom with his promotion White Rex, which collaborates with neo-Nazis and traffics in white-nationalist propaganda. Far-right extremists have built up the “fight club” La Phalange in Canada, blending fascist philosophies and the tenets of “Traditionalism” with the adrenaline of bloody fights. The Trump era in America saw the rapid growth of the white supremacist Rise Above Movement (RAM) in Southern California, which was fueled by anti-Semetic conspiracies and an agenda of training hard to enact violence toward opponents.

Naturally, organizing between these groups and leaders has been a problem. Robert Rundo, leader of RAM, went on the lam in Eastern Europe after being charged stateside for protest violence. He’s since grown close to Nikitin, boosting White Rex and building his own media network, Will2Rise (they host a podcast together). Now, part of Rundo’s current agenda is to build a network of MMA “Active Clubs,” for those who want to “awake the racial bonds between kin” through literal blood, sweat and tears. 

Tankersley doesn’t appear to be running a far-right fight club, at least not at Exile, but his past presents a conundrum for any community that wants to avoid the spread of racist hatred — and wants to see accountability from those who participated in hate groups. Martial arts can be a vehicle for personal improvement, a meditative way to consider self-defense and a path for mentorship. It can also be used explicitly as a way to recruit men who have a taste for exacting violence, and wish to do so for a purpose greater than themselves. 

Tankersley sold that philosophy at his own gym, urging his students to hone their bodies so that they could more efficiently destroy opponents of white power, one head stomp at a time. Even as time passes from his time as an outed extremist leader, his unclear relationship to that past taints the integrity of the training he espouses today. 

That’s also true if you choose to rub elbows with white supremacists, and get outed as a potential ally. Justin “J.T.” Laks, a 42-year-old who lives and works in Vancouver, Washington, became the target of antifascist researchers in the Pacific Northwest when he was spotted in close company with members of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a “neo-Volkish” group designated as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Laks’ friends were wearing matching shirts promoting his training program, JT’s Jiu Jitsu. The shirt displayed his logo prominently: A yin-yang of wolves, with a moon on one side and a sonnenrad symbol on the other. 

Antifascist groups released two anonymous reports in January, detailing his criminal past and current associations. Laks served 22 years in prison for his part in a robbery-turned-murder when he was just 16, and was paroled in 2018. But it appears that, as soon as he got out of prison, he began associating with local white nationalist groups in small but meaningful ways.  

One piece of evidence, documented in photos, was his relationship with local Asatru members, including “apprentice” Mason Johnson. Another was that his jiu-jitsu training services, aimed primarily toward kids and women, were promoted on the site of the Pacific Northwest Wolfpack Kindreds, also deemed a Washington hate group by the SPLC. It’s also closely associated with Asatru Folk Assembly

Asatru and Odin as spiritual concepts aren’t inherently white supremacist, being a tradition rooted in historical Pagan movements. But neo-Nazis and white supremacists have co-opted Pagan and Nordic iconography, themes and references to lend their movements a folk-mythology air. Conveniently, it also gives them cover as cultural organizations, rather than hubs of extremist thought and action. This “Neo-Volkish” ideology can be seen everywhere in the fringe right, including in references to “natural order” and affirmations of “European values.” 

The sonnenrad (or “Black sun”) used in Laks’ logo fits neatly into this iconography, especially because it fits the definition in the Anti-Defamation League’s catalog of hate symbols: “One sonnenrad version in particular is popular among white supremacists: two concentric circles with crooked rays emanating from the inner circle to the outer circle.” 

Laks attracted concern from activists because of his work with children and his role as the president of the “Re-entry Club” to help formerly incarcerated students at Clark College, a private institution in Vancouver. Looking for clarity, I reached Laks by phone, where he initially declined to talk and claimed the report about his participation in a white-nationalist network was “a smear campaign” driven by “cancel culture.”

But over the course of the next 10 minutes, Laks tried to explain and defend his associations. He confirmed that he knew people in groups like PNW Wolfpack and Asatru Folk Assembly: “I know people in those groups because yes, I did time. And when you do time in the prison system, doesn’t matter what state you’re in… Doesn’t matter if you’re in Oregon and you’re messing around with the [European Kindred] boys, doesn’t matter if you’re down in Texas and you’re messing around with the Aryan Brotherhood boys. When you do time in a prison system, you’re going to run into people of all kinds of walks of life,” he explains. 

He also claimed that his jiu-jitsu business was started to help at-risk youth. “I was raised in foster homes, but I was able to keep my sanity through martial arts,” he tells me. “I don’t just feed them martial arts. I feed them morals. I feed them concepts. I feed them education. I talk about [things like] what Gracie used to preach about Machiavellianism… put some history in their head, man. Put some knowledge in their minds. Don’t just let ‘em flex their muscles.”

Laks denied he was a white supremacist, but he did confirm that he had his business listing put up on the Wolfpack’s site, taking it down once he “realized” what the group represented. But why did he choose to still hang around people he knew were involved in white supremacist activity, if he was so adamant about not being an associate? Why would he give them his own custom T-shirts to rep? 

“If [those groups] are doing hateful stuff, that’s their choice,” Laks replied. “I have… made many, many bad choices in life. But if my friends are like, ‘Hey, let us promote your business,’ I’m trying to get as many clients as I can. And I’m like, ‘Cool, if you guys are willing to promote me, I don’t give a fuck what race, creed, religious, whatever it is.’” 

Laks exemplifies the liminal space between personal expression and organized extremism, which serves as the perfect intersection of deniability and purpose. Laks is adamant that he has good intentions, but those only go so far when you wade in questionable waters, aided by a network formed in prison and used upon release. Experts have long studied the path to radicalization, organization and violent action, and one of the key takeaways is that you don’t need to be a full believer to end up in morally questionable company.

Research on white supremacist movements in Sweden has found that participation in far-right groups is largely related to masculine rites of passage and environmental factors, rather than a “serious commitment to racist and militant ideologies.” Elsewhere, examination of far-right movements in Portugal suggests that individuals tend to first join violent groups, then develop radical views, not the other way around. It’s what makes the “soft” recruitment power of local white supremacist circles into such a social challenge: There’s a spectrum of organizations that network together, but with varying levels of ideology and violent thought, providing pathways for people to be recruited and assimilated. 

“They start with selling camaraderie and friendship, and then you bring someone in and once there’s kind of a bond, you start bringing in the ideology,” says Carolyn Gallaher, an expert on the far-right who has written books on American militias and organizing. “I saw it with militia groups in the 1990s trying to go mainstream — they would organize with front groups called things like ‘Citizens for Constitutional’ whatever. They were attracting people through a common language, but it was all about camaraderie. Prior ideology isn’t required to bring people in.” 

It’s also why questions linger around Tankersley — experts in de-radicalization have long noted that successful disengagement from extremist movements requires purposefully leaving behind networks and toxic spaces, and finding new forms of purpose in the “non-extremist environment.” Involvement in hate groups creates a “phantom community” for a person, researcher Daniel Kohler notes, defined as the “formation of feelings that linger on after leaving a white supremacist movement.” Because of this, deradicalization experts suggest that people need to go through a public break with their extremist history, lest they face the risk of, as researcher Tore Bjørgå puts it, “skeletons and setbacks.” 

It’s also important to remember that American extremism, and the pipeline of young men into hate groups, is about more than just Proud Boys and Patriot Front in the streets, nor merely racists organizing quietly in private. Men who were involved with white supremacist groups want to walk between two worlds; where they ultimately land, and who they influence on the way, remains opaque.