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MMA’s Latest Oligarch: Why a Russian copper tycoon is investing in combat sports

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Karim Zidan looks at the reasons behind copper mining tycoon Igor Altushkin’s investment in combat sports

On Saturday, May 5, 2018, a large scale mixed martial arts event featuring a former UFC fighter took place in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The event — an offshoot of the RCC Boxing Promotions — was an impressive spectacle filled with expensive lighting, seamless production quality, and an unprecedented display of mixed martial arts in the Ural region.

Dubbed Russian Cagefighting Championships (RCC), the event took place at the Uralets Sports Complex and featured a wide selection of MMA fighters from across the globe. The main event featured a heavyweight bout between former UFC fighter Gabriel Gonzaga and Alexander Emelianenko, a convicted rapist also known as the brother of legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. The co-main event showcased Ivan Shtyrkov, an undefeated fighter and native of Yekaterinburg, against Brazilian striker Geronimo “Mondragon” Dos Santos.

The event was attended by the Governor of the Sverdlovsk Region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, as well as Soviet-born Australian boxer Kostya Tszyu and UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. In the case of the athletes, their public appearances were paid for by the promotion.

While the rise of another MMA promotion is understandable in Russia, where the sport has grown in popularity since its legalization in 2012, RCC in particular is funded by one of the richest oligarchs in the country. This article will attempt to explain the oligarch’s involvement in MMA, his reasons for investing in the sport, and what his endgame could be.

A Copper Tycoon’s Love for Combat Sports

The man behind RCC Boxing is Igor Altushkin, one of the richest men in the Russian Federation. The oligarch began his career as a scrap metal trader in the early 1990’s before founding the Russian Copper Company (RMK), an organization that would go on to become Russia’s third-largest copper producer.

Over the course of 20 years, Altushkin helped develop Russia’s metal industry. According to Forbes, Altushkin’s net worth in 2018 is $3.1 billion, the majority of which he earned through the gradual growth of RMK. As of 2017, the holding includes 13 mining and metallurgical enterprises in four regions across Russia, and employs over 8,300 employees.

Igor Altushkin

In 2017, Altushkin was awarded the Order of Friendship by Russian president Vladimir Putin. During the ceremony, Putin revealed that the award was an act of recognition for the oligarch’s achievements. However, while the Kremlin’s recognition of Altushkin is beneficial to his ventures across the post-Soviet space, it also led to him being noticed by the United States government.

The U.S. Treasury Department released a list — dubbed the ‘Putin list’ or ‘Kremlin list’ — with the names of 210 influential figures in Russia with close ties to the Russian leader. The list includes 96 oligarchs, one of whom is Altushkin. The Putin list was believed to be a guideline for the Trump administration to use when considering more sanctions for Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections. However, while the US government did sanction several oligarchs and their companies in April 2018, Altushkin was not included.

Altushkin, a native of Yekaterinburg, Russia, took an interest in combat sports in 2016. The oligarch’s RMK company co-founded the RCC Boxing Promotions (formerly known as Titov Boxing Promotion), which continues to host events across a variety of combat sports. Their first significant championship fight took place in November 2016 when renowned Russian light-heavyweight Sergei Kovalev won his WBA, IBF, and WBO titles against Isaac Chilemba. The event aired live on HBO.

Kovalev vs. Chilemba

Following the Kovalev fight, RCC Boxing brought in the likes of former UFC fighters Jeff Monson, Antonio Silva, and Gabriel Gonzaga to headline their shows. Silva was reportedly paid $500,000 for his one-off fight in 2017.

Altushkin’s overall ambition is similar to that of Ziyavudin Magomedov, the Dagestani oligarch who used his exorbitant wealth to invest in the Fight Nights MMA promotion and float the cost of promoting Russian heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko in 2016. In return, Magomedov managed to negotiate a deal with the Kremlin to bring Elon Musk’s Hyerloop One tube transportation system to Russia. One correctly timed combat sports event around the St. Petersburg Economic Forum helped Magomedov entrench his influence. However, his success lasted a little less than two years, as the oligarch was arrested in March 2018 on embezzlement and organized crime charges. Despite Magomedov’s fall, Altushkin is likely looking to use the Dagestani mogul’s blueprint for using combat sports as a means to an end.

For example, Altushkin timed the Kovalev fight around the opening of the International Industrial Exhibition “Innoprom 2016” in Ekaterinburg so that they he could use the event as an opportunity to network with businessmen and politicians visiting the region. His long term goal is likely to use combat sports events like boxing tournaments to attract major Russian figures to his region for political and economic gains. Using this model, Altushkin was able to use the stars he funded to help promote economic improvement in the Ural region of Russia.

While Altushkin’s ambitions are not unique in Russian sports, there are several variables, including questionable activity within the RCC Boxing Promotion, that should be considered when analyzing the oligarch’s ongoing combat sports venture.

Questionable Business Practices

In May 2016, former UFC fighter Jeff Monson was scheduled to compete against Ivan Shtyrkov, the undefeated Russian MMA posterboy for the RCC Boxing promotion. Ahead of the bout, Monson tore his right bicep and attempted to withdraw from the event. Promoter and co-founder Alexi Titov insisted that Monson fly out to Ekaterinburg, where negotiations would commence to ensure Monson’s participation in something other than an MMA fight. Monson obliged and ventured across the continent to renegotiate.

Over the course of the next few days, Titov convinced Monson to commit to an “entertainment” bout against Shtyrkov that would serve as a prelude to the actual fight several months later. Monson was required to do nothing more than an exhibition performance this time around. He agreed to the stipulation, though noted that the promoter’s behaviour was suspicious as best.

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”He wouldn’t let me see his guy,” Monson told BloodyElbow in 2016. “He kept making excuses. During the weigh-in, we met with my opponent for a few minutes and that was when he said that he wasn’t really in agreement with doing this. I told him that I don’t have any experience doing an entertainment thing but we would just show some positions and stuff for the crowd. He said he was not comfortable doing this. So we talked to the organizer, who continued to put it off.”

Aware of the risk that he was being set up, Monson attempted to pack his bags and leave. He was stopped by Altushkin. According to Monson, the oligarch “said what was going to happen and that we would go out for a couple of rounds and show some stuff.” Both agreed to the stipulation.

However, when the bell sounded for the opening round of the main event, Shtyrkov sent Monson tumbling to the canvas, targeted his injured arm, and forced him to tap in particularly violent fashion.

”I held on five seconds longer than I would have in a real fight. I was just expecting him to let go. He didn’t.”

The fight — an exhibition bout, according to Monson — was immediately added as an official loss on his record. It should also be noted that while Monson was willing to share his side of the story with BloodElbow, RCC Boxing Promotion did not respond to a request for comment when requested in 2016.

Despite Monson allegedly being taken advantage of by RCC Boxing, the promotion has since had two more former UFC fighters compete under its banner. In both cases, the UFC fighters were defeated by the same fighter that Monson lost to.

Strengthening Ties to the North Caucasus

Another interesting variable to keep in mind when considering the copper oligarch is his relationship to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, whom he is reportedly close friends with.

The two began working together in 2011 when Altushkin funded the construction of a Russian Orthodox church in Naurskaya, a village in the Chechen Republic. The church, which was built on the site of an old wooden one destroyed in 1936, was part of an ongoing project to increase access to alternative places of worship in the muslim-dominated North Caucasus region.

“The construction is to begin this week in symbolic commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Naura District,” Kadyrov told reporters in 2011. “The construction will be funded by the Russian Copper Company owner Igor Altushkin,”

(photo Courtesy HBO)

The project was an ambitious one and lasted nearly five years before the church opened its doors to worshippers. Altushkin imported the resources for the construction from Yekaterinburg and other regions in Russia, giving it architectural features atypical for the North Caucasus. The church — officially the Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ — had polished tile floors made from seven types of granite and covered with gold leaf. The icons were painted by nuns from the Novo-Tikhvin Convent in Yekaterinburg, and were modelled after fifth-century Byzantine icons.

While Kadyrov visited the opening in 2016, he later used the church’s construction to question the Russian government’s resistance to building mosques in Moscow.

“We build churches in Naur, Sunzha and Gudermes Districts, in Grozny,” said Kadyrov. “We organize all kinds of events for Republic’s Christians, we create all the conditions for them. Muslims clear Christian cemeteries and look after them. Why don’t Christians respond to us with the same?”

Altushkin and Kadyrov would once again cross paths in 2018. This time, however, their business dealing were not over the construction of a church but over a mixed martial arts event that took place in Yekaterinburg.

On May 5th, 2018, RCC Boxing Promotion hosted a main event between former UFC fighter Gabriel Gonzaga and Russian heavyweight Alexander Emelianenko, a convicted rapist who is also sponsored by Kadyrov and his Akhmat MMA promotion. The event not only showcased one of Kadyrov’s top fighters in an event funded by Altushkin, but it also emphasized how Altushkin and Kadyrov are two of the most influential financial backers in Russian MMA.

While Kadyrov has already positioned himself as a significant figure in Russian MMA after founding the Akhmat MMA fight club and the World Fight Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) promotion in 2015, Altushkin is trying to become the latest wealthy figure to involve himself in combat sports. Apart from co-founding and funding the RCC promotions, Altushkin is beginning to associate himself with notable fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov, whose popularity continues to grow with each passing day.

Altushkin invited Khabib and his father, Abdulmanap, to attend RCC 2 and tour the new RMK Combat Academy, a new sports complex dedicated to 12 types of martial arts. The UFC lightweight champion was later pictured signing fight gloves and posing for pictures with various athletes.

RCC Promotions

Though Khabib’s attendance at the RCC 2 event does help legitimize the show as a high-level MMA event in the Russian Federation, it could also be seen as a strategy for the copper oligarch to form a working relationship with the UFC champion.

Since Magomedov is currently facing a lengthy jail sentence for embezzlement charges, Khabib has lost a significant portion of his financial support. Magomedov was responsible for funding Fight Nights Global, the Eagles MMA fight team, and also paid the majority of Khabib’s medical and travel expenses, along with the fighter’s salary as president of Eagles MMA. As a result, Magomedov’s fall from grace leaves an opening for another oligarch to step in and support the UFC champion. This would, in turn, help improve Altushkin’s image in the North Caucasus and likely open up future business opportunities.

Given that sports cane be used as a means to an end in Putin’s Russia, it is not surprising that yet another oligarch has decided to venture into the world of combat sports as tool to expand his popularity and influence. However, it remains to be seen whether the copper mining tycoon will succeed, or whether he is destined for the same fate as the last oligarch who decided to invest in MMA.

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