In October 2017, notable Chechen light-heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev announced that he had signed a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The fighter posed for a picture alongside Abuzayed Vismuradov — commander of Chechnya’s Special Forces and president of the Akhmat MMA fight club founded by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — and declared his intent to represent his team on the world stage.
”I wish him to adequately represent the club” Akhmat “on the world stage of MMA,” Ankalaev told Chechen state media.
Ankalaev — who was awarded a brand new Mercedes as a gift for joining the UFC — was the fifth member of the Akhmat fight club to secure a spot in the global promotion, which highlighted the UFC’s willingness to do business with fighters linked to a Chechen dictator with a horrific record of human rights abuses.
The light-heavyweight talent went on to debut at UFC: London in March 2018, losing to Paul Craig via second round submission. Keen to rebound from the loss, Ankalaev was selected as one of the fighters to compete on the UFC’s inaugural event in Moscow, Russia. And while Ankalaev is one of 10 fighters on the UFC:Moscow card who hail from the Russian Federation, his specific involvement on the card could bring about Kadyrov’s presence at a UFC show for the first time in the promotion’s history.
Given the dictator’s harrowing human rights record — which includes the alleged purge of gay men in Chechnya and the recently reported arrest of 200 children on the suspicion of being radical Islamists — Kadyrov’s potential presence at the UFC’s inaugural show in Russia is a public relations disaster waiting to occur.
They Came For the Children
The Chechen Republic faced a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in August 2018 that were carried out by children and teenagers, the youngest of whom was reportedly 11 years old. The attacks included an attempted stabbing, a botched suicide bombing, and an attempted assault on a police station. At the time of reporting, several police officers were injured while four of the five assailants were shot and killed during the attack. The fifth assailant was hospitalized after surviving an attempt to blow himself up.
Despite the Chechen authorities clamping down on religious extremists in the region, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the various attacks, which was later validated by Kadyrov himself, who took to social media to explain that the teenage militants had been recruited and “confused” by IS recruiters. The Chechen leader was in Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage ahead of Eid Al-Adha when the terrorist attack took place.
The attacks, though limited in fatalities, is a cause for concern for Chechen authorities, as the militants were teenagers and pre-teens who had grown up in post-war Chechnya, as opposed to militants who fought during the Chechen wars and in Syria. This highlights a growing trend of youth in the region being radicalized by the Islamic State. As a result, the Chechen government reportedly detained dozens of teenagers suspected of being radicalized by the militant group. The Chechen authorities have since denied the report, despite local residents claiming that up to 200 children had been taken for interrogation in one of the locations that the attack had occurred.
The reported detention of dozens of youth marks the Chechen authorities’ latest crackdown on citizens of the republic. In February 2017, opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that over 100 Chechen men had been rounded up, interrogated, and tortured on suspicion of being gay. Three of these victims allegedly died in extrajudicial killings during interrogation. The Chechen government, as well as the Kremlin, denied the reported persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the republic. Kadyrov himself denied the existence of gay men in Chechnya to HBO Real Sports in July 2017 before adding that if any do exist in his republic, they should be sent to “Canada” to “purify our blood.”
Kadyrov, the regional strongman leader positioned by Vladimir Putin and backed by the Kremlin, had allegedly committed widespread atrocities throughout the Chechen Republic in an attempt to stabilize the region. HIs security forces — known as the Kadyrovtsy — have been accused of human rights abuses, torture, and forced disappearances during his reign, which began in 2007.
The warlord turned Head of the Chechen Republic has also been known to use sports to whitewash his legacy of human rights abuses, distract from ongoing crackdowns, and to cement his legitimacy and rule over his subjects. He has placed some of the most dangerous men in Chechnya at the helm of his football club and MMA promotion, effectively transforming the sports institutions into an extension of his government.
Apart from showing a vested interest in sports organizations in Chechnya, Kadyrov has been known to rub shoulders with celebrities and athletes whenever possible, including actors such as Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Hilary Swank, football legends such as Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Mohamed Salah, as well as former UFC champions such as Frankie Edgar, Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, among others. Positioning himself alongside such notable athletes has helped cement his tyrannical rule by presenting him as a benevolent, sports-loving ruler, and bolstering his cult of personality.
Given Kadyrov’s well-documented attempts to use sports diplomacy to camouflage his harrowing crimes against his own people, the UFC’s decision to continue to allow combatants who represent the dictator to fight in their promotion is a significant cause for concern.
The UFC’s Kadyrov Dilemma
On August 31, 2018, Human Rights Watch revealed that 15 countries had taken the rare step to pressure Russia to end the human rights abuses taking place in Chechnya. As members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom invoked the Vienna Mechanism, allowing member states to “raise questions” about human rights concerns in other OSCE countries.
“Our countries have raised well-documented accounts that suggest that Chechen authorities have been involved in arresting, detaining, torturing and killing people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as in suppressing information about these violations and abuses,” said Ambassador Natasha Cayer, Permanent Representative of Canada to the OSCE to the Permanent Council. “Furthermore, Chechen authorities have condoned violence against these individuals and reportedly encouraged families to commit “honor killings”. At the same time, journalists and human rights defenders face threats and reprisals by local Chechen authorities for documenting these and other violations and supporting the survivors.”
While countries continue to pressure the Russian Federation to act on the reported abuses in one of its republics in the North Caucasus, the UFC continues to indirectly do business with the Chechen dictator by associating with his roster of fighters. Of the 27 Russian fighters currently under contract with the UFC, five happen to represent Kadyrov’s fight club. These include Ruslan Magomedov, Abdul-Kerim Edilov, Magomed Ankalaev, Said Nurmagomedov, and Magomed Bibulatov. Former UFC champion Fabricio Werdum also represents Kadyrov’s team as an “ambassador.”
As of the time of reporting, the UFC has declined BloodyElbow’s request for comment on their indirect relationship with the strongman leader. It should be noted that the last statement offered by the UFC with regards to Kadyrov took place in 2015, when Dave Sholler, then head of Public Relations, commented on Werdum’s association with the Chechen dictator.
However, while the UFC opted not to comment on Kadyrov, a source close to the promotion revealed that “UFC has worked with venue officials and local authorities to ensure the highest security standards are in place for the event.”
”It is important to note that UFC fighters operate as independent business partners, not employees, and that subject to their contractual commitments to UFC they are free to conduct business and to participate in activities as they choose,” the UFC told Karim Zidan in a statement to Sports on Earth. “We do expect, however, all fighters to be mindful that their actions reflect well on themselves, the sport and the UFC organization.”
Despite the UFC’s concerning silence, Kadyrov’s shadow continues to loom over the promotion. While his involvement with the UFC has been though his associated fighters, the strongman leader has been known to attend notable combat sports events across the Russian Federation, especially if one of his fighters is scheduled to compete on the card.
In May 2015, Kadyrov attended the Povetkin vs. Perez boxing event at the Luzhniki Arena in Moscow. While the strongman was there to watch one of his fighters, Ramzan Baisarov, compete on the show, he also appeared on Russian state television as a guest analyst during the event.
While Kadyrov’s harrowing reputation precedes him, his presence at combat sports events in Russia is seen as a normal occurrence. Given that one of his fighters is scheduled to compete on the UFC’s inaugural show in Moscow, it is reasonable to assume that Kadyrov could be in attendance that night. If so, the UFC will have to answer for why they allowed a vicious tyrant who reportedly purged a portion of his citizens based on their sexual preferences and continues to torment his people to attend their show.