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How an MMA promotion harboured an anti-Maidan militia in Ukraine

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Karim Zidan delves into the OPLOT MMA promotion that harboured a deadly militia in Ukraine.

In 2014, a strange video surfaced on YouTube depicting the inside of a small night club in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Unlike other night clubs in the North Eastern city, this one masqueraded as a mixed martial arts promotion known as OPLOT ('StrongHold' in English). The video, 12 minutes in length, carefully captured the chaos; wood planks laid bare where an MMA cage once stood, shattered liquor bottles peppered the jet black floor mats that once hosted VIP guests, and menacing gasoline tanks circled the destruction, nozzles pointed inwards at the destruction.

In a matter of moments, flames would engulf the entire club.

The smoky inferno was a symbolic gesture—a purification of the alleged fascism housed within the night club's walls. OPLOT was much more than a fight club. It was a Pro-Russian militia that fiercely opposed the Euromaidan movement and the anti-government protests that began in 2013. Some of the fighters who competed under the Oplot banner were eventually ousted as enforcers and militants who attacked civilians and activists alike.

Oplot is a prime example of the often unsavoury linkages between MMA and politics in the former Soviet bloc. Disguised as professional athletes and entertainment sports, militants and violent insurgencies have found safe haven across the region in what appear to be innocuous MMA promotions. Almost more troubling, however, is the lack of awareness among combat sports fans blissfully unaware that politically charged entities can operate publicly as a sports event and broadcast internationally to unsuspecting viewers.

Founded in 2010 by Yevhen Zhilin, a retired police captain and former Interior Minister officer who openly professed his loyalty to the Russian government and Ukraine's Soviet heritage, Oplot was more than just an MMA promotion. The 'Stronghold' organization included a security agency, a charity, a law firm, and even a supermarket.

The following year, Zhilin brought in Alexey Oleinik, currently contracted to fight for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), as a team leader for their MMA promotion, Oplot Challenge, from within the confines of a little-used night club in Kharkiv. The promotion's mission statement was to create a platform for Ukrainian fighters and host national MMA events that showcased its finest talents. However, Oplot's socio-political ideals were present within its official mandate:

"We believe in the healthy upbringing of the youth, for them to distinguish strong from weak, worthy from the unworthy, imaginary from the real. We are for healthy nationalism, for the development of the Ukrainian people to landmarks in the life of the people were not money, glamor, parties and imaginary. Benchmarks should be the honor, dignity and a healthy lifestyle, patriotism, respect to the exploits of our ancestors, the well-being of our society have been the cornerstone of our actions."

Between March 25, 2012 and February 15, 2014, Oplot Challenge hosted 100 events in Kharkiv. During that two year-stint, the promotion garnered a cult following on social media and gained notoriety among hardcore fans in the United States, most of whom were blissfully unaware that the promotion was really a violent militia masquerading as a fight club.

Zhilin, who spent four years in prison on assassination charges, regularly made appearances at Euromaidan protests and offered to fight activists in his fight club and "solve our problems with fists." The example he set resonated with the rest of his team, including athletes like Oleinik, who challenged former heavyweight boxing champion and soon-to-be mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, to a fight as well.

Oplot's thirst for violence was notorious.

Oplot fighters, the vast majority of whom resided in Eastern Ukraine, were regularly accused of shadowing Kharkiv's pro-Russian mayor as enforcers. They attacked the opposition, threatened journalists and caused unrest at Euromaidan gatherings. Zhilin even promised to "smash the Maidan to pieces." True to his word, nearly 300 Oplot affiliates stormed a protest in Maidan and destroyed the erected tents a few weeks later.

Questioned about his actions, Zhilin immediately flashed his Russian allegiance, "Let's just say, I was born in the Soviet Union. [Ukraine] is my land, for which I am ready to fight."

By 2014, Oplot was notoriously known as a vicious militia. Their fight club headquarters was burned down and many were arrested and charged with various criminal offences. The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic at the time, Alexander Zakharchenko, acknowledged that OPLOT was involved in attacks on civilians, and condemned their approach. With little support from either side, the organization began to lose influence, though those who were a part of it remained notable figures.

Oleinik was even deemed a "threat to national security" and banned from entering the Ukraine.

"Actually, I only have one sentence about what happened: it is absurd," Oleinik told Russian outlet MK. "Power in the Ukraine has been illegally invaded by criminals, and now they're doing what they want."

Zhilin, who still operated as the head of the OPLOT pro-Russian militant group in eastern Ukraine, was shot dead at an elite restaurant in the Moscow suburbs on September 19, 2016. While it remains unclear why Zhilin was targeted in Russia, reports have alluded to business conflicts with Ukrainian oligarchs and the Donetsk People's Republic.

Nevertheless, the rise and fall of Oplot accentuated a troubling connection between sports and politics in the former Soviet Union. Oplot's turbulent tenure highlights a distressing trend of violent political figures who happen to be MMA hobbyists. Their pseudo promotions provide a rich, violent setting to operate in plain sight. What appeared to be a cult promotion for hardcore mixed martial arts fans proved to be a ferocious power struggle fuelled by radicals.

Thanks to @Imntbldustman for his help with the feature.