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 Henze, 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. Henze relentlessly pounds away at his opponent, quickly drawing blood. Assistants attend to the fighters’ eye and nose injuries. The audience is enthusiastic. A group of fans starts chanting “Hoo-Na-Ra.” It sounds like a loud “hurrah,” but its meaning is far from benign: It is an abbreviation for “hooligans-Nazis-racists,” a battle cry right-wing extremist fans use to spur on the fighters.
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.”
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