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Foreign Affairs reports on Russia's MMA diplomacy

Reputable foreign relations website ‘Foreign Affairs’ recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that the Kremlin was using MMA as a tool for international diplomacy.

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While Russian MMA continues to grow with the recent influx of talent from the region, few assumed it could be used by the Kremlin as a tool for international diplomacy.

Foreign Affairs writer Ilan Berman, in his feature ‘Kremlin Fight Club: Russia's Martial Arts Diplomacy,' suggests that the Russian government is strategically using the "fastest growing sport in the world" as their latest sporting tool for international diplomacy. His inspiration for the topic was the recent MMA event in Grozny, Chechnya, which featured guests of honour such as UFC champs Chris Weidman and Fabricio Werdum, as well as former champ Frank Mir. Others in attendance included kickboxing talent Badr Hari.

According to Berman's assumption, the fighters were present with the approval of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, which means the Kremlin was also in full agreement with the decision.

In mid-March, however, Grozny saw a different sort of fighting, as it played host to some of the most recognizable faces in mixed martial arts, a sport that combines multiple disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, jujitsu, and submission grappling. Among them were Chris Weidman, the reigning middleweight champion of the sport's premier franchise, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and heavyweight contenders Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum. They had arrived for the inaugural fight show put on by the "Akhmat MMA" promotion, named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the former president of the Chechen Republic, who was assassinated in 2004. Not much is known about the company outside of Russia. But given its name—and the prominence of the sports personalities it managed to attract—it's safe to assume that it operates with the knowledge and approval of the current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad's son—and, by extension, of the Kremlin itself.

While there is no actual proof as to Kadyrov's involvement with MMA, maybe Berman saw a clear connection in our series of articles covering the UFC stars while in Chechnya.

Given that Russia has isolated itself from the West with the recent political unrest due to the war in Ukraine. Sanctions continue to impact the country, yet Berman suggests that the Kremlin is now using MMA as a way to "interact with the rest of the world." While he does not offer much in the way of evidence, he gave an example of Steven Seagal, who was recently a guest at Kadyrov's palace as well. He believes Seagal became a sort of intermediary between Russia and the U.S. congress.

Now, Berman feels Russia is attempting a similar sort of approach with MMA.

In this atmosphere, sports have once again emerged as a tool of diplomacy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used sports in general, and hockey in particular, to interact with the world despite its global isolation. (So formidable was the Soviet Union's talent that the U.S. Olympic team's victory over their Soviet counterparts in the medal-round men's hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics became known in American popular culture as the "Miracle on Ice.") This time, the language is mixed martial arts, the planet's fastest-growing sport, and the message is clear: despite Western sanctions, Russia is still very much a global contender.