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Perpetual Power Cycle: Why Russian politicians gift UFC fighters luxury cars

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Karim Zidan delves into the trend of politicians and oligarchs bestowing gifts on athletes, and what that represents in the longterm.

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There's an emerging trend in MMA: pictures of Russian and North Caucasian fighters standing awkwardly in front of luxurious vehicles with captions that show their appreciation for the "gift" they have just received. Fighters publicly thanking unsavory politicians and shady oligarchs; rich men funding extravagant gifts for star national athletes.

Most recently, UFC lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov was gifted a Mercedes AMG GT by one of the wealthiest men in Russia: Dagestani billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov, who was once interested in purchasing a stake in the UFC.

"At my arrival to Moscow, I was hosted by Ziyavudin Magomedov," Khabib said in an Instagram post showing off the vehicle. "He congratulated me and made this present. Thank you very much Ziyavudin Gadzhievich for everything you doing for this sport. It's a big pleasure."

Khabib wasn't the only fighter who was bestowed with a new luxury vehicle this week. Fellow UFC fighter Mairbek Taisumov, who hails from the neighboring Chechnya, was also gifted a brand new Mercedes by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The somewhat infamous head of the Chechen republic often spoke of Taisumov in Instagram posts, and it was a matter of time before he gifted his fellow countryman for his sporting achievements in the UFC.

Yet why do politicians and oligarchs feel the need to shower fighters with expensive cars?

It appears to be an informal reward-based system, where top athletes receive bonuses for their achievements. It is particularly common in the North Caucasus, where masculinity and combative success is marketed as essential traits. Sambo specialists, wrestlers, and boxers are considered some of the greatest representatives of the nation, and were elevated to stardom through their international victories.

Some like 2000 Olympic gold medalist wrestler Sagid Murtazaliev, have been elevated to the political sphere. Murtazaliev became the director of Dagestan's pension fund and a United Russia party deputy in the legislative assembly.

Kadyrov is a self-proclaimed MMA hobbyist and founder of the Akhmat MMA fight club and promotion. His habitual gift-giving is taken from his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated by separatists in 2004. IN 2000, Akhmad met with the local athletes who had just returned from the Sydney Olympics. Ramzan personally went to retrieve the legendary Saitiev brothers, Adam and Buvaisar.

"Akhmad Kadyrov greeted them with lavish gifts. Buvaisar got a television, while Adam, who had just returned from Sydney with a gold medal in the 85-kg (187 lb.) division, was handed the keys to a new car. The gifts were tokens of the Saitievs' role in the new Chechen elite forming around Kadyrov. "This was part of his social policy," says Buvaysar. "Socialization through sport." As Chechens and Olympic champions, the brothers were asked to apply this policy and help the Russians who had just conquered their homeland." (h/t TIME)

Buvaisar Saitiev, the first Chechen to win a gold medal at the Olympics, is considered a national hero and arguably the greatest freestyle wrestler in history. His path is one of a nationally recognized athlete who eventually found his way into Russia's elite, first through sports, and then through politics. He was on the coaching staff for the Russian wrestling head ahead of the London Games in 2012 and is now a personal advisor to Ramzan Kadyrov and a driving force behind the Akhamt MMA organization.

However, his pivot to politics has been an interesting endeavor. According to TIME, "Buvaysar served as one of the "trusted faces," or campaign reps, for Putin during the presidential race, which gave Putin another term in office."

It feels like inevitable proof that there will always be a time when the athlete bestowed with a gift will be called upon to return the service in some other form.

It's something to keep in mind, considering the specific provider of the gift. Magomedov, the Dagestani billionaire who wanted to purchase the UFC, is also one of the major investors in Fight Nights Global, the promotion that will host the Fedor vs. Maldonado match-up in June. Magomedov could call upon Khabib to help promote the event and attend it to help legitimize the promotion and elevate its status among competitors in the region.

Recently, Kadyrov has used gift-giving to regularly elevates the status of local MMA fighters from his MMA team, as well as his republic. He has given vehicles to UFC heavyweight Ruslan Magomedov - who called Kadyrov his "older brother" -- after he joined the Akhmat MMA gym. World Series of Fighting flyweight champion Magomed Bibulatov was given a Mercedes Benz ML 63 AMG following his title victory last year, while Shamil Zavurov and Maxim Grishin also received their respective Mercedes after leaving the Fight Nights promotion to move over to Akhmat MMA.

During one of the more recent Akhmat events, an entire photo gallery was published by the promotion that showed the fighter arrive at the pre-fight weigh-ins in their Mercedes', as well as Bentleys and Lamborghinis. Swarms of fans welcomed them as though they were mainstream celebrities.

To cement their elevated status as local heroes, Kadyrov also takes his favorite fighters out hunting and for meals in the wilderness. By posting these occasions on his Instagram account - -the main source for his propaganda with over a million followers - the Chechen population associates the fighters with power, prestige, and impressive connections.

It is no surprise that those same fighters are the ones who vocally support the Chechen leader and advocate for him during public protests and rising tension.

The trend is not limited to North Caucasians. Following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian athletes who won gold medals were each rewarded with a Mercedes GL-Class SUV worth $146,500. Silver medalists were given the keys to Mercedes ML-Class, worth $99,500, and bronze medalists will take home a Mercedes GLK-Class, worth $59,500.

The Olympians received their gifts at an official ceremony attended by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Fighters and athletes lavished in gifts find themselves on the first steps of the ladder to the Russian elite. Russia prides itself on publicly supporting successful athletes who represent their nation admirably. That leverage is greatly beneficial to any athlete who is interested in social mobility, class elevation, fame, or even political influence. Saitiev, Bibulatov and others are simply products of that dated structure.

The allegiances that fighters form now are very likely to be the bedrock of their future political and socio-economic platforms.