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How the ACB/Akhmat merger expands Kadyrov’s influence in MMA

Karim Zidan delves into the recent merger between Chechen promotions ACB and Akhmat MMA.

Several weeks ago, Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that his MMA promotion, World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFCA), would merge with fellow Chechen promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) in the coming months. According to the dictator, the goal behind the amalgamation is to secure a larger percentage of the sport’s global market share.

Speaking to local journalists, Kadyrov explained that the merger “is a very good indicator for our region and for Russia as a whole. We want to unite with Berkut. We will unite the two leagues. If we succeed, we will be second in the world. We will even bypass Bellator.”

While Kadyrov’s goal to usurp Bellator as the most prominent promotion behind the UFC is an ambitious one, his statement sheds some light on his primary intention: to advance his promotion onto the world stage, and to expand his influence over the sport. By joining forces with ACB — a promotion that has spent the last four years marketing itself to a Western audience instead of a domestic one — Kadyrov is one step closer to reaching those goals.

By merging two of the most notable MMA promotions in Russia – and renaming it Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA) – Kadyrov has consolidated his power within the sport and imposed himself as one of the most influential promoters in Russia. This article will attempt to explain the significance of Kadyrov’s decision to expand his MMA promotion and how he will use his newfound oligopoly as a means to an end in his political administration.

A Tale of Two Promotions

Founded in 2014 by Mairbek Khasiev, ACB started as a regional show in Grozny, Chechnya before gradually expanding beyond the republic’s borders. During its genesis, Khasiev claimed that his promotion would challenge the UFC’s dominance on the global stage, a statement that was met with skepticism at the time.

Over the course of the next four years, ACB developed into one of the top regional promotions in Russia, as well as one of the most popular promotions within the sport on an international scale. They cultivated impressive talent, many of whom later signed with the UFC, and showcased enthralling fights that captured the imagination. By 2017, ACB expanded into the international market, hosting events in the United States, Austria, Poland, Belarus, Canada, Germany, Slovakia, and Dubai.

However, despite ACB’s expansion and painstaking marketing efforts to become a premier organization, the promotion began to cancel events in July 2018, which emphasized the promotion’s financial struggles at the time. In a statement released after ACB cancelled four consecutive events during the summer, the promotion revealed that it plans to go through a “restructuring process to work more efficiently from a financial standpoint.” Within a matter of months, reports began to emerge that ACB planned to join forces with Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA promotion.

Formed less than a year after ACB came into existence, the Akhmat MMA fight club and World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFSA) promotion is the brainchild of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s strongman leader who’s been at the helm of the republic since 2007. Spanning 8000 square meters, the Akhmat MMA fight club is the largest combat sports complex in the North Caucasus. The club pays fighters on its roster a monthly stipend and covers their medical expenses, training costs, and travel fees.

(photo Courtesy HBO)

Over the course of three years, the promotion has held 58 in Russia and the neighbouring post-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan. Most recently, Akhmat MMA held a co-promoted event in Bahrain with Brave FC, the promotion founded by Prince Khalid bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. Shortly following the event, Kadyrov announced that his promotion would be merging with ACB.

It should be noted that the exact details regarding the merger remain scarce. On Monday, December 3rd, both Akhmat MMA and ACB released separate, differing statements announcing the merger. Interestingly, ACB avoided any mention of Kadyrov and claimed that the promotion would not see any significant changes. The entire statement, which was posted on the ACB website, can be viewed below:

I want to proudly announce that ACB bought WFCA. We’ve been planning to merge two promotions for two years and now it’s finally determined. We’re officially announcing it and starting to put our plans into action. We’ve also bought TECH-Krep FC this year. And now WFCA. Maybe it’s not our last purchase. I think it’s time for us to merge multiple promotions into one big Russian MMA league, which will be able to compete with the biggest MMA promotions in the world.

I want to emphasize that with purchasing WFCA we’re not going to create new organization, there will be no changing of ownership and no structural changes. Alexey Yacenko is appointed president. There will be a small change in the name of organization: ACA (ABSOLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP AKHMAT). We were debating the renaming for a while, choosing different options and thinking of keeping the old name. But I’m sure we’ve made the right decision with picking a new name as a mark of a new milestone in Russian MMA.

The biggest goal of ACA - is to become the best MMA promotion in the world by merging disparate group of organizations together.

However, while ACB’s statement makes no mention of Kadyrov and suggest no notable changes in leadership, the Akhmat MMA statement revealed that the Chechen dictator is behind the merger and will continue to be an omnipresent figure.

Assalamu Alaikum, dear friends! We officially announce the merger between Akhmat World Fight Championship and the Absolute Championship Berkut. The new league will be called ACA (Absolute Championship Akhmat). By order of the Head of the Chechen Republic, the Hero of Russia and Dear Brother Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov, it was decided that we shouldcombine our forces and develop further together. I am sure that now the organization will become stronger and we will see a lot of interesting fights. Ramzan Akhmatovich set the task to bring the League to the leading position in the global MMA and the potential of the ACA allows us to bring it to life. The fun is just beginning. AHMAT POWER!

The disparate statements could potentially shed some light on the internal conflict present in this merger. ACB spent several years developing its brand as a high quality MMA promotion without the controversy of being directly affiliated to Kadyrov. A merger puts an end to that distinction and allows Kadyrov to focus on expanding his MMA infrastructure within Russia.

It should be noted that ACA president Alexei Yatsenko revealed during a recent interview that ACA’s management will be similar to that of ACB, though he added that Kadyrov would “continue to monitor the successes and shortcomings of the league.”

Kadyrov’s MMA Infrastructure

On the surface, ACB and Akhmat MMA could be viewed as two sides of the same coin. They are both combat sports promotions founded and based in the Chechen Republic. Both began as fight clubs and have dedicated rosters and fanbases throughout Russia. However, while the two entities share some similarities, it is their differences that distinguish them.

For the most part, ACB operated like a full-fledged MMA promotion attempting to carve itself a larger share of the market share in the sport. Akhmat MMA, on the other hand, is a strategic project designed to enhance Kadyrov’s cult of personality and serve as a means to an end in his government.

When Kadyrov founded Akhmat MMA — a fight club he named after his father Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated during a soccer match in 2004 — he placed colonel Abuzayed Vismuradov as the promotion’s president. Known by his nom de guerre, Patriot, Vismuradov is one of the most powerful figures in the Chechen Republic. He is the Special Forces commander in Chechnya, the commander of a special Chechen SWAT unit known as ‘Terek,’ as well as Kadyrov’s head of security. This trifecta of positions makes him indispensable to the Chechen leader.

The decision to place Vismuradov as the president of Kadyrov’s MMA organization emphasizes the correlation between sports and politics in Kadyrov’s Chechnya. Vismuradov, who is responsible for some of the most significant military units in the republic, is also in charge of the professional fighters on Kadyrov’s roster. Vismuradov’s involvement in the promotion became even more concerning when it became clear that some Akhmat MMA fighters were also soldiers in the Special Forces unit. An example of this is Beslan Ushukov, who was the Akhmat welterweight champion while serving in the ‘Terek’ unit. As a result, it became evidently clear that Akhmat MMA was more than just an MMA promotion, it was also serving as a farming system for Kadyrov’s army and therefore an extension of his government.

Werdum/Kadyrov

Apart from its benefits as a source of training his soldiers, Kadyrov has also used Akhmat MMA as a tool for propaganda within Chechnya. During WFCA events, Kadyrov has been seen seated on a raised dais surrounded by notable athletes such as Floyd Mayweather and former UFC champions such as Chris Wedidman, Frank Mir, Frankie Edgar, and Fabricio Werdum. By appearing alongside foreign athletes and celebrities, Kadyrov is bolstering his cult of personality and presenting himself as a benevolent and popular leader instead of a tyrant and warlord.

Kadyrov has also used Akhmat MMA as a tool for diplomacy with other countries. The co-promoted event between Akhmat MMA and Brave FC, the promotion founded by Bahrain’s Prince Khalid bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, is a primary example of this sort of diplomatic measure. The co-promoted event took place on the same weekend as the 2018 IMMAF World Championships and drew a large crowd in attendance, as well as guests such as UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Kadyrov and Sheikh Khalid sat side-by-side for the duration of the event and took in the spectacle. The two politicians have bonded over MMA since 2017 when Kadyrov first visited Bahrain as the Kremlin’s Muslim envoy. Ever since then, the two men have used their shared interest in the sport as a way to enhance bilateral relations between Chechnya and Bahrain.

By merging with ACB, Kadyrov will now have the resources of two separate promotions at his disposal, including an expanded fight roster and staff. The merger also means that the resulting Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA) promotion will become the largest MMA entity in the Russian Federation and a competitive promotion on the world stage. This significant expansion of Kadyrov’s influence in combat sports will only make it easier for him to use the sport as a tool for propaganda and diplomacy with other authoritarian regimes.

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