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The UFC can help stop Ramzan Kadyrov’s MMA influence, if it cared to

Through a series of proactive measures and common sense decision making, the UFC could effectively put an end to Kadyrov’s sphere of influence within MMA.

Chad Stanhope

The RPG-7 is one of the most widely used anti-armor weapons in the world. Manufactured in Russia, the rocket-propelled grenade launcher was first used by Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day-War but remains a popular weapon of warfare to this day. One such weapon was filmed firing a warhead at a shooting range in Chechnya several months ago. The projectile whirred through the air, propelled by a rocket motor, before thudding into its distant target. The operator turned to the camera and laughed as he flexed his muscles beneath a checkered shirt. It was former UFC interim champion Justin Gaethje and the weapon he fired belonged to one of the world’s most brutal warlords.

In November 2022, Gaethje accompanied former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and former flyweight champion Henry Cejudo on a trip to Chechnya at the behest of the republic’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Footage showed the trio of former champions testing out grenade launchers and assault rifles at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya—a facility used to train Russia’s special forces units preparing to take part in the country’s invasion of Ukraine, which has so far led to more than than 300,000 casualties on both sides.

“From the first days of the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, the Russian University of Special Forces has become a real forge of professional soldiers,” Kadyrov said in a social media post accompanying a montage of the UFC fighters firing guns at the facility.

The former champions later attended a birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s teenage sons, whom weeks earlier had been sent to Mariupol, the occupied Ukrainian port city destroyed by Russian forces, to take part in propaganda photo-ops with his brothers while dressed as soldiers. The three brothers later returned to Chechnya with Ukrainian prisoners of war that they handed to Kadyrov as a “gift.”

While the strange trip marked the first time that Cejudo and Gaethje visited Chechnya, it was Usman’s third trip overall, and his second since the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions targeting Kadyrov’s mixed martial arts empire.

A picture of three former UFC champions—Justin Gaethje, Kamaru Usman, and Henry Cejudo—standing at the shooting range at the Russian University of Special Forces while an unknown man sets up guns for them to fire.
Former UFC champions Justin Gaethje, Henry Cejudo, and Kamaru Usman testing out guns at the Russian University of Special Forces.

The trip did not go unnoticed. Several mainstream outlets posted the controversial pictures and footage, while The New York Times reported it as an example of Kadyrov’s increased “visibility and propaganda fodder” within the UFC. Even the U.S. State Department confirmed for the first time that it was aware of the apparent ties between UFC fighters and the Chechen dictator in a statement provided to Kevin Draper and myself for The New York Times.

Despite the recent scandal and mounting government pressure, Kadyrov’s influence continues to loom large over the UFC. In turn, the organization has done little to prevent fighters from interacting with a warlord accused of brutal human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that it is entirely within the UFC’s capabilities to hinder the dictator’s influence over the sport.

Acknowledging U.S. Sanctions

Over the past 16 years, Kadyrov has ruled the semi-autonomous republic of Chechnya with an iron fist. During that time, he has been routinely accused of orchestrating human rights abuses including assassinations, abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and purges targeting the local LGBTQ+ community. Despite his harrowing human rights record, Kadyrov has managed to expand his sphere of influence through his patronage in combat sports

In 2015, Kadyrov launched his own gym franchise and fight league, which he named Akhmat MMA. The fight club, which consists of an MMA organization and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other neighboring states, is sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget and bears the name of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs and travel fees in exchange for them representing the club wherever they compete.

Through his fight club, Kadyrov was able to establish relationships with a seemingly endless list of celebrities, including the likes of former martial artist turned D-list actor Steven Seagal and boxing legends like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. He has also invited more than half-a-dozen past and current UFC champions to visit and train at Akhmat MMA. These associations serve the dictator’s soft power strategy to enhance his public image as a benevolent patron of sports.

A picture showing Ramzan Kadyrov being gifted a brander t-shirt by UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Ramzan Kadyrov standing alongside Khabib Nurmagomedov.

By 2017, the U.S. Treasury had issued sanctions that blocked U.S. citizens and people present in the United States from doing business with Kadyrov after reports emerged that the dictator was purging Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community. Yet despite the prohibitions placed on Kadyrov, the tyrant was still able to attend his first UFC event when the organization hosted its debut event in Russia in 2018. The UFC opted to stay silent about Kadyrov’s presence at the time.

On Dec. 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued its latest round of sanctions targeting Kadyrov for “serious violations of human rights.” Additionally, the OFAC sanctioned Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club for providing the dictator with “pride and profit.”

According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the measures against Kadyrov and Akhmat MMA are broadly designed to prohibit “any contribution or provision of funds, goods or services by, to or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods or services from any such person.”

Yet despite the fact that several fighters from Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club currently compete in the UFC, the organization argued in a statement to The New York Times that its fighters were independent contractors and that it entered into contracts with them directly, without intermediaries. The organization also said it had no affiliation with Akhmat MMA and that it was in compliance with all laws and regulations.

The UFC’s inaction towards Kadyrov has allowed the dictator to increase his sway over some of the organization’s top fighters. This is particularly evident with Khamzat Chimaev, the Chechen-born Swedish superstar whom Kadyrov transformed into a glorified babysitter dedicated to accompanying the dictator’s teenage sons on trips to Dubai or training them to become professional fighters.

A picture of UFC fighter Khamzat Chimaev warming up for a training session alongside Ramzan Kadyrov’s 16-year-old son, Ali.
Khamzat Chimaev training alongside Kadyrov’s son, Ali, at Tiger Muay Thai in Thailand.

Last year, Chimaev attended UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi alongside Kadyrov’s 16-year-old son, Ali. Chimaev paraded the 16-year-old Ali Kadyrov around the arena, posing for photos from their cage-side seats and introducing him to fellow fighters. The teenager even posed for a selfie with UFC President Dana White that was later published on Kadyrov’s Instagram channel that boasts more than 8.6 million followers.

Though there is an argument to be made that the UFC is not directly violating U.S. sanctions because it does not have any official commercial dealings or contractual relationships with Kadyrov, the organization continues to allow itself to be used as a platform for Kadyrov’s propaganda.

The James Krause Precedent

Last year, the UFC found itself embroiled in a betting scandal that threatened the organization’s professional integrity.

The incident took place on Nov. 5, 2022 in Las Vegas, where Shayilan Nuerdanbieke defeated Darrick Minner in a fight that was later flagged by US Integrity for betting-related fraud. Within a couple of weeks, it became clear that the primary suspect was Minner’s coach, James Krause—a self-proclaimed betting tout who ran a now-infamous Discord server and YouTube show known as the 1% Club.

On Nov. 18, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Krause’s corner license as it underwent its own investigation into the fight. The following day, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement prohibited its licensed sportsbooks from taking wagers on any fight in which Krause is involved “as a coach, trainer, promoter or fighter.”

By early December, the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Alberta announced that they would halt wagers on UFC bouts due to concerns about wagering integrity. This prompted the UFC—now faced with a potential public relations nightmare and possible questions about its integrity as a legitimate sport—to announce the following day that “fighters who choose to continue to be coached by Krause or who continue to train in his gym, will not be permitted to participate in UFC events pending the outcome of the aforementioned government investigations.”

The UFC’s emphatic and rapid response to the betting scandal proves that the organization is more than willing to prohibit fighters from working or being affiliated with certain people or businesses if it serves the company’s interests. Therefore, that same precedent can be applied to Kadyrov and his Akhmat MMA-affiliated fighters.

Ramzan Kadyrov flanked by UFC star Khamzat Chimaev and light-heavyweight contender Magomed Ankalaev at a banquet in Chechnya.
Kadyrov flanked by UFC star Khamzat Chimaev and LHW contender Magomed Ankalaev

For example, the UFC could ban fighters who train at Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA training facilities from participating at UFC events. This would only impact half-a-dozen UFC fighters but would serve to hinder Kadyrov’s ability to use the UFC as a platform to push his political agenda and distract from ongoing human rights abuses. It would also deny him the possibility of having a homegrown UFC champion—a feat he almost achieved when Magomed Ankalaev challenged for the vacant light-heavyweight title at UFC 282 last December.

Meanwhile, UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno was forced to cut all communications with Krause, his head coach, ahead of his title fight against rival Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 283 in January 2023. Moreno was already in his training camp with Krause when he was informed of the UFC’s ultimatum.

The UFC could also limit managers from signing fighters affiliated to Kadyrov. This would impact Swedish manager Majdi Shammas, who represents Chimaev, and Egyptian manager Ali Abdelaziz, a U.S. resident who represents the vast majority of Kadyrov-affiliated fighters in the UFC. By prohibiting Abdelaziz from signing more of Kadyrov’s fighters, the UFC will have effectively neutered one of the dictator’s primary middlemen.

Abdelaziz also manages the trio of American former UFC champions who visited Chechnya to attend a birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s sons. The UFC could have taken action against those fighters (at least the two currently employed by the organization) by issuing fines or suspensions to discourage future jaunts to a dictator’s fiefdom. Instead, the UFC ignored the recent controversy and offered Usman and Gaethje headlining roles at the upcoming UFC 286 pay-per-view in London.

While the UFC has long argued that it has limited control over fighters due to their status as independent contractors—workers retained to provide services without becoming employees of a company)—that assertion is simply not true.

Over the years, the UFC has been responsible for enforcing rules and regulations, scheduling events, dictating pay scales, and disciplining fighters at their discretion. The organization offers one-sided and restrictive contracts, controls fighter likeness, and enforces clothing and sponsor policies without any negotiation with fighters. None of this is reflective of a legitimate independent contractor relationship, which is partly determined by the employer’s level of control over the worker’s activities.

A picture of Ramzan Kadyrov posing behind UFC star Khamzat Chimaev, who is dressed in a fur coat with a statue of a wolf behind him
Ramzan Kadyrov posing behind UFC star Khamzat Chimaev

Even so, the misleading classification of UFC fighters as independent contractors is a useful tool for the UFC to distance itself from any obligations concerning U.S. sanctions. It also means the organization can wash its hands of having to discipline fighters for associating with Kadyrov.

So why doesn’t the UFC choose to take action against Krause and not Kadyrov-affiliated fighters? The answer, in short, is capitalism.

While the UFC was willing to prohibit fighters from associating with Krause, the primary reason the organization likely did so was to ensure that its bottom line and integrity were not permanently impacted. Until the UFC’s relationship with Kadyrov begins to cost it, whether in the form of hefty fines from the U.S. Treasury for breaking sanctions or as sticking points with sponsors and broadcast partners, the sad truth is that the organization is unlikely to take any action to limit its ties to the brutal warlord.

Through a series of proactive measures and common sense decision making, the UFC could effectively put an end to Kadyrov’s sphere of influence within the sport on an international stage. The organization would arguably also be protecting its fighters, some of whom come from Chechnya and neighboring republics that are forced to comply with Kadyrov’s whims for personal safety.

By denying Kadyrov the chance to parade Chechen fighters like Chimaev for personal glory and political gain, the UFC would effectively be alleviating those same fighters of the onus of taking a stand against a dictator who could threaten action against them. And by denying Kadyrov the chance to have a homegrown UFC champion or photo-ops with his favorite fighters, the UFC would be signalling to the tyrant that he ought to find another sport to weaponize instead. In the past, Kadyrov has rubbed shoulders with football players like Mo Salah and Ronaldinho, and also has a stable full of prize-winning horses.

The UFC may not be able to put an end to Kadyrov’s MMA empire, especially as it continues to expand within the Russian Federation, but the organization is in a unique position to obstruct the dictator’s ascendancy on the international stage—if only it cared enough to do so.

About the author: Karim Zidan is an investigative reporter for Bloody Elbow focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. His is also a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian. (full bio)

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