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Political Pugilism: Understanding boxing’s role as a tool for sports diplomacy in authoritarian regimes

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Karim Zidan delves into the recent trend of authoritarian regimes investing in boxing to enhance social relations with other controversial nations. 

For the second time during a six-month period, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov played host to one of the most successful boxers of all time, Floyd Mayweather. Their encounter — much like their equally bizarre first meeting — appears to have taken place in Kadyrov’s palace in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.

A short video strategically posted on Kadyrov’s social media account showed the retired boxer jest with the dictator before signing a pair of gloves for him. The controversial figures then appeared to break bread and exchange pleasantries over dinner. Kadyrov later revealed that Mayweather even expressed interest in obtaining Russian citizenship.

“If I get citizenship, I have a place to live in Moscow, but I would like to have a home in Grozny,” Mayweather allegedly told Kadyrov.

Much like their first meeting in March 2017, the two figures discussed plans for Mayweather to establish a boxing relationship with Kadyrov’s infamous Akhmat Fight Club. According to Kadyrov, Mayweather “promised” to return to Grozny in 2018 with a “large group of famous boxers to support our athletes.” This latest encounter between the two figures suggests that a working relationship could come to fruition between Chechnya’s state-sponsored Akhmat fighters and Mayweather’s network of coaches and talent in the United States.

Я принимал в Грозном дорогого гостя, многократного чемпиона мира по боксу, обладателя поясов в четырёх версиях, непобедимого @floydmayweather Флойда Мейвезера. Это – легендарный человек, который достиг в жизни недостижимых высот. У нас состоялась тёплая беседа о боксе, тенденциях его развития в Чечне, России и во всём мире. Пятьдесят побед в пятидесяти боях стоят многого. Но самое главное – Мейвезер сообщил о своём желании получить гражданство России. «Надеюсь, что так и будет», ответил Мейвезер на вопрос о его планах на получение гражданства. «Если получу гражданство, у меня есть место, где жить в Москве, но хотел бы иметь дом в Грозном», сказал он. При этом Мейвезер сообщил, что много путешествует между Россией и США, и по всему миру, имея намерение способствовать миру и сотрудничеству между народами. У нас есть много совместных планов. Мейвезер обещал после Нового года приехать в Грозный с большой группой известных боксёров, чтобы поддержать наших спортсменов. Уверен, что этот и другие проекты будут полезны и интересны и полезны всем любителям спорта. Ну а мы запланировали спарринги. #Кадыров #Россия #Чечня #Мейвезер

A post shared by Ramzan Kadyrov (@kadyrov_95) on Dec 9, 2017 at 8:36am PST

Kadyrov’s interactions with Mayweather are an example of Chechen fight diplomacy, where the president of one of Russia’s republics was able to secure a legitimate working relationship with one of the greatest boxers of the generation. It also highlights how Kadyrov uses sports like boxing to raise his own republic’s profile.

Over the past couple of years, boxing has regained its position as a tool for sports diplomacy. While combat sports such as mixed martial arts and kickboxing overshadowed boxing over the past decade, there appears to be a growing trend for boxing to regain its historical influence in the sports realm. This trend is particularly noticeable among authoritarian regimes with a keen interest in using the sport for political gain. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Chechnya are just a few of the countries who have recently invested in boxing in the hopes of enhancing their tarnished reputations abroad.

Boxing in Jeddah

Back in October 2017, the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) announced that the WBSS Cruiserweight Final will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia the following year. The announcement, which was made following an agreement between The General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia and WBSS organizer and owner Comosa AG, took the combat sports community by surprise, as the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation had never shown exceptional interest in boxing.

The event, which takes place in May 2018, will serve as the conclusion of the first season of the WBSS. The inaugural Muhammad Ali trophy will awarded to the winner of the final. The venue for the final is yet to be determined.

“This agreement is part of our broader commitment and work to develop the sport of boxing in Saudi Arabia,” said Turki Al-Sheikh, President of The General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia (h/t boxingscene.com). “Having the first final of such a high profile and groundbreaking tournament take place in Saudi Arabia is a key milestone for us, and will be one of many major sports events to take place in the Kingdom next year.

“The interest in boxing amongst the young generation is there and growing rapidly, which is why the GSA is also working to form a grassroots partnership with one of the largest international boxing federations to promote the sport. Our involvement in the Muhammad Ali trophy is the perfect way to step up our engagement in boxing, given how popular and well respected this great sporting athlete has always been.”

Roberto Dalmiglio & his Excellency Mr. Al-Sheikh

The decision to host the country’s first high level boxing event comes in the midst of the ultra-conservative kingdom’s ambitious reforms at the hands of its recently-named Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. The WBSS event was announced shortly following the kingdom’s landmark decision to allow women to drive from June 2018, and was followed up with the announcement that women will be allowed to enter the previously male-only sports stadiums across the country.

According to Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, better known as MBS in mainstream media, his vision is to restore Saudi Arabia into a “country of moderate Islam that is tolerant of all religions and to the world.” The prince has presented himself as a reformist in a country that has long pivoted towards the exportation of extremist teachings. Therefore, the ambitious changes made to Saudi society emphasize the importance the Saudi government — MBS in particular — places on sports as one means of espousing his liberal reforms.

Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports, a pattern that contrasts the nation’s longstanding limitations on such activity. In 2016, the country set up a Sports Development Fund to support sports clubs and bolster sports activity in the kingdom. The decision was taken by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who presided over the meeting. The objectives of the fund were to privatize football clubs to increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace.

Saudi women allowed to attend football matches in certain stadiums

While Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s recent policy shift has presented him as a moderate leader with liberal qualities, his shift in women’s rights and sports activity distract from his various aggressive stances on foreign policy in the Middle East region. This includes Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war with Yemen, which constitutes what UN leaders consider to be a humanitarian crisis. In an attempt to enhance his image and distract from the ongoing rights abuse, the 32-year-old crown prince has turned to sports, entertainment, and the gradual strengthening of women’s rights in Saudi.

As a result, the kingdom’s decision to host a high-level boxing event highlights MBS’s interest in using sports as a tool to promote the country’s reputation and image internationally as well as domestically. The increase in sports activity leads to positive developments in the ultra-conservative kingdom and diverts the country’s attention from the various concerns that ail it.

KHK Boxing

Two years following the creation of the Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa Sports (KHK Sports) and its subsequent MMA promotion Brave Combat Federation, the sports entity announced the launch of KHK Boxing. The aim behind the new endeavour is to offer a platform and promote aspiring Bahraini and international boxers who represent the KHK brand.

“The success that we achieved in the sport of mixed martial arts pushed us to support boxing. This step comes in line with our strategy to promote combat sports,” Sheikh Khalid stated during the inaugural KHK Boxing press conference. “We all saw what happened in the fourth edition of the World Amateur Championship hosted by the kingdom, where Bahrain achieved an historic achievement by gaining second place in the overall team rankings. Today, we aim to develop and improve boxing in order to gain achievements in the near future.”

Sheikh Khalid, the patron and founder of KHK Sports, primarily serves as first lieutenant in Bahrain’s Armed Forces. Apart from being the deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth Sports and President of the Bahrain Athletics Association, he has personally competed in a pair of amateur MMA fights and regularly trains at the KHK facility. Yet despite his down-to-earth image, Sheikh Khalid is a member of a monarchy that accused of continuing to commit shocking human rights violations against its Shia minority. While Sheikh Khalid’s goal may be to bring Bahrain to the forefront of global competition, sports also serve as a prime distraction from the violent domestic policies.


khalidbinhamad.info
Sheikh Khaild meeting Lorenzo Fertitta in Las Vegas

“We drew the plan, where we began by launching the team aimed at participating in foreign tournaments and confirm the presence of Bahrain on the continental and international arenas,” Sheikh Khalid continued. “We will then work according to this plan by holding local competitions in which we will enhance the culture of this sport and support the young Bahrainis pursuing the game.”

The decision to go forward with this new boxing venture highlights the importance of combat sports to the Bahraini government and its political agenda. In order to fabricate an image of peace and prosperity within the Island kingdom following the 2011 uprising, Bahrain began to invest in sports as way to garner state prestige on an international stage. To date, Bahrain has used the Formula-1 Grand Prix event, the Olympic Games, cycling, and MMA in its plans to cement legitimacy and enhance their image abroad. Prestigious events like the F-1 race helped turn Bahrain from an unknown island into a tourist destination in the Middle East, while simultaneously distracting from ongoing human rights abuse.

In December 2017, KHK Boxing announced that its inaugural event will take place on December 9 at the Gimno Desportivo arena in Praia, Cape Verde. The main event featured a African Heavyweight Title bout between KHK Boxing’s Faisal Arrami and Tshibuabua Kalonga. Ahead of the bout, KHK Sports posted a short video of legendary heavyweight Mike Tyson wishing Arrami luck in his fight. Tyson’s comments made national news in Bahrain, where outlets claimed “Tyson has signalled a global response from the sports community” and that the “initiative…is currently receiving overwhelming response from the Middle East and North Africa region due to the immense success of providing a global platform.”

That’s right! The all time legend @miketyson wishing the best of luck to #khkboxing @faisal_arrami on his upcoming fight this Saturday at the African Heavyweight Boxing Champion. . #miketyson #boxing #champion #khksports

A post shared by KHK Sports (@khksports) on Dec 7, 2017 at 4:23am PST

Arrami would go on to lose the African heavyweight title bout via majority decision. The results of the inaugural KHK Boxing event — which was heavily promoted ahead of the show — are unavailable on the promotion’s social media or official website.

Following in Ali’s Footsteps

Mike Tyson’s friendly message to KHK Boxing was far from the former champion’s only recent incident with a repressive regime and its sports entities. Earlier this month, Tyson returned to Grozny, Chechnya, where he met with Ramzan Kadyrov for the first time in over a decade.

Tyson’s inaugural visit to Chechnya occurred in 2005, at a time when Kadyrov had yet to ascend to the presidency or amass his alleged wealth and influence. The boxing champion represented the first celebrity athlete that Kadyrov was able to host in Chechnya shortly following the conclusion of the Second Chechen War. Kadyrov’s publicity around Tyson’s visit was one of the first public displays in what appeared to be an effort to strengthen the leader’s public and political image.

Speaking to his 3.2 million followers on Instagram, Kadyrov revealed that he hosted Tyson — whom he referred to as Malik Abdul Aziz — in his Grozny palace, where, according to Kadyrov’s instagram post, discussed islam and developments in boxing. If true, it appears that Kadyrov used the opportunity to promote the virtues of islam. To be seen discussing religion with a high profile boxer like Tyson enhanced Kadyrov’s image by making him appear both pious and powerful.

“After the adoption of Islam, he was constantly harassed by provocations, but no one was able to break the spirit and will of Mike Tyson,” Kadyrov stated on Instagram.

Ассаламу алайкум! Я всегда восхищался легендарным боксером современности Маликом Абдул Азизом. Конечно, вы сразу догадались, что речь идёт о @miketyson Майке Тайсоне. Мы познакомились в сентябре 2005 года. Майк Тайсон тогда приехал в Чечню. Мы вместе встретились с молодежью Чечни на небольшом стадионе Гудермеса. Я рассказал тогда, что по-настоящему полюбил бокс, просматривая поединки Майка Тайсона. После принятия ислама его постоянно преследовали провокации, но сломить дух и волю Майка Тайсона не удалось никому. Накануне у нас произошла новая и радостная встреча. Мы много говорили о боксе, современных тенденциях его развития, вспоминали встречи двенадцатилетней давности. Несмотря на то, что Майк Тайсон оставил большой бокс, он пользуется большой популярностью и уважением во всём мире. Мы выразили уверенность, что наша дружба получит новое дыхание и продолжение! #Кадыров #Россия #Чечня #Тайсон

A post shared by Ramzan Kadyrov (@kadyrov_95) on Dec 1, 2017 at 11:15am PST

Kadyrov’s statements on Tyson are in keeping with the broader narrative of Chechen masculinity that Kadyrov propagates amongst his people. He regularly posts videos of himself wearing a Putin t-shirt and working out in the gym, or training with MMA fighters and boxers. He promotes Chechen manhood, though a version that suits his political needs. His sports socialization tactic allows Kadyrov to assimilate Chechens en masse into combat sports programs. Associating with famed fighters only serves to enhance his personal image as the embodiment of Chechen ideals and traditional masculinity, and thus, secures his reign over the Chechen Republic.

Therefore, Kadyrov’s association with a host of UFC fighters, as well as legendary boxing champions like Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson, serves the overarching goal of cementing his version of Chechen society. Other benefits such as sports diplomacy with various other regimes, and the ability to spark nationalist fervour through sports are secondary conveniences that Kadyrov also takes advantage of.

Kadyrov’s plans for combat sports diplomacy should concern sports fans, as it is applicable across a host of repressive regimes in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia. However, while the Chechen dictator may have engineered the modern blueprint as it applies to MMA on a global scale, controversial political figures have long used boxers to strengthen their tarnished image.

Ahead of the historic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout, Muhammad Ali spent five weeks living and training in Nsele, a luxurious palace belonging to the then military dictator and president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mubuto Sese Seko. The boxer considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time rubbed shoulders with one of the most horrific despots of his time. Seko was notorious for corruption, embezzlement, and human rights violations like defiling virgins.

Mubuto Sese Seko offered to host and finance the Ali-Foreman bout as an attempt to garner any positive publicity for himself and his regime. The prospect of hosting two strong African-American fighters in the heart of Africa was too much to resist. It was the first time that Ali’s paycheque was signed by foreign dictator, but it also wasn’t the last time. In 1975, the Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos offered Ali and Frazier millions to take part in the “Thrilla in Manila’ bout.

While the developments in boxing are relatively new progressions in the Middle East, there is already significant precedent for this sort of political showmanship. Ultimately, it is not the ongoing changes, but the political entities responsible for those changes, that make the trends so troubling.




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