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Ramzan Kadyrov Photo by Kadyrov Press Office/Getty Images

Kadyrov’s investment: The concerning relationship between soldiers and athletes in Chechnya

Karim Zidan delves into Chechnya’s plans to open an International Special Forces Training Centre, which highlights the link between athletic instruction and military training. 

On May 21, 2017, scores of Chechen citizens gathered in Grozny before marching towards the Colosseum, carrying flags emblazoned with a picture of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmat Kadyrov. Thousands of men flooded into the arena, where the latest World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) event was scheduled to begin. Ranging from pre-teen boys to old men, the crowd took their seats, prepared for the violence ahead. Women, dominated by patriarchal traditions, were not present within the building. Fighting, as well as its spectacle, was reserved for men.

While the sounds within the arena ranged from incoherent shouts to musicians waxing poetic while strumming the phandar, a three-string instrument native to the region, once the welterweight title fight was announced as the upcoming bout, the crowd settled down and began to chant a single word in unison: “Beslan! Beslan! Beslan!” Even Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, who sat on a throne-like dais surrounded by his favourite fighters and loyal servants, joined in the chant.

The cries of support from the crowd reached the ears of Beslan Ushukov, the WFCA welterweight champion and member of the Special Chechen Forces unit. He entered the cage and emerged 15 minutes later with a majority decision victory. He was awarded Fight of the Night honours, a gold trophy, and a cheque worth $17,000 USD. However, his true reward came moments later, when he was greeted by Kadyrov himself and celebrated for his victory.

“After the fight, the happiest moment is when you go, head held high, and hug our older brother, Ramzan Akhmadovich [Kadyrov],” Ushukov told HBO Real Sports when asked about his brightest memory from the fight.

While Ushukov has earned the respect and adoration of his fellow Chechens for his gritty performances, he is also viewed by Kadyrov as a blueprint for Chechen men in a hyper-masculine society. Ushukov, who represents Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA Fight Club and won the welterweight title in the process, is not only a talented fighter but is also a soldier in the Special Chechen Forces unit. As a Chechen who fights both inside the cage and on the battlefield, Ushukov has come to represent the embodiment of the perfect Chechen fighter — someone willing to fight for his country and his leader on any given platform.

Ushukov’s rise to stardom in Chechnya raises some concerns about the role of combat sports within Kaydrov’s government, and whether it is simply an extension of his regime. Since then, Kadyrov has continued to blur the lines between militarism and athletics, including in the development of Chechnya’s International Special Forces Training Centre.

Investing in Chechnya’s International Special Forces Training Centre

According to the Chechnya-specific investment guide published by PwC Russia, an organization that provides industry-focused assurance, tax, legal and advisory services, the Chechen government plans to complete an “unprecedented project” called the International Special Forces Training Centre. The investment guide suggested that the project will encompass “all currently feasible areas of professional, tactical, special training and athletic instruction.”

Located in Gudermes, the Centre is projected to be a multifunctional complex of 95 buildings and facilities over a landmass of 400 hectares. Construction began in 2016, with the official launch set for 2018. The final version of the complex will include an open weapons training space within “one of the largest indoor shooting galleries in the world.” An aerodynamics complex will be added to the Centre for vertical wind tunnel training, as well as an airfield heliport and a drop zone.

The Centre also claims it will be home to a variety of miscellaneous training programs, including one for journalists preparing to enter a conflict zone, ones for security or senior government officials, and ones that cover medical and technical necessities.

While the investment guide suggests that the Centre is still a work in progress, reports reveal that foreign governments have already expressed interest in training their military forces at the Chechen training centre. In July 2016, a delegation of Chinese officials visited Grozny and were shown demonstrations presented by commandos. They later expressed interest in beginning a cooperative training regimen.

“Practically all CIS countries want to send their personnel to train at our center in how to combat terrorism. Interest has also been expressed by military and diplomatic representatives from Argentina, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Pakistan and many others. With China, this work has a more specific shape as our delegations have already exchanged visits,” said Kadyrov.

The Centre will also hire instructors from the UK and various other Western countries (apart from the United States, according to Kadyrov) to train special-purpose troops and Russian private security companies. It remains unclear which foreign states will get to train their commandos and military units in the military facility.

While the Centre will primarily serve as a military and counter-terrorism facility, it will also feature a host of sports-related projects. A two-storey sports centre for cross-fit, wrestling, and fitness workouts will be present, along with space for open-air competitive sports such as soccer, tennis, and volleyball. An aquatic centre with two indoor pools and a “tactical water pond” will also be on the premise.

Part of the International Special Forces Training Centre

Chechnya’s new military facility will also likely impact Akhmat MMA, Kadyrov’s personally-funded fight club which also operates as an extension of his government. The development of sports facilities within the Centre will further merge the two entities.

MMA as a Farming System for Kadyrov’s Army

Over the past few years, it has become evidently clear that Kadyrov is using combat sports to fuel his private army with military manpower. A July 2017 documentary by HBO Real Sports (which I was featured in) detailed how Kadyrov continues to use the Akhmat MMA Fight Club and other combat sports as a farming system for his commando forces. The success of fighters like Ushukov, who serves as both a soldier and an MMA fighter, only cement this insidious strategy. However, Ushukov is merely a single piece of the puzzle.

Since his rise to power in 2007, Kadyrov has stationed allies and fellow clansmen in leadership positions within local sports governing bodies.These appointments include Abuzayed Vismuradov, Kadyrov’s chief of security and special forces commander, who also functions as the president and promoter of the Chechen leader’s MMA promotion. Referred to by his nom de guerre, Patriot, Vismuradov is considered to be one of the three most powerful men in Chechnya. His position of influence was attained through fierce loyalty to Kadyrov. Vismuradov, a member of Kadyrov’s clan (via paternal blood tie), went to the same school as Kadyrov and later fought alongside him during the Chechen wars. Since Ramzan’s rise to power, Patriot commands Chechnya’s Special Forces, a special Chechen SWAT team known as ‘Terek’, as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail – a national security trifecta that makes him practically indispensable to Kadyrov’s government.

Kadyrov and Vismuradov posing

Yet despite Vismuradov’s prominent position as protector of the Chechen Republic’s leader, he was also dealt the responsibility of overseeing Kadyrov’s fight club. He is present at all World Fight Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) events, either seated alongside Kadyrov or looming over officials during the broadcast. This raises the interesting question of why such an important military figure in Chechnya would be placed in charge of a combat sports team. The answer is simple — Akhmat MMA has the potential to be much more than just another fight club.

Over 10,000 Chechens, including the children of high-ranking officials within his government, are currently enrolled in Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club. Only a handful of those boys and men go on to become full-time fighters representing their republic. This leaves a vacuum for thousands of well-trained fighters without an outlet for their specialized skill set. As a result, many go on to join the Terek SWAT forces, commando units, and other military regiments within the republic. Others go on to fight in battlefields outside of Chechnya, including places like Syria.

The connections between Kadyrov’s combat sports hobby and his government do not end there. Adam Delimkhanov, a statesman who served as deputy prime minister of the Chechen Republic until 2007 and is currently a deputy in Russian parliament, is regularly present at Akhmat MMA despite not holding an official position with the organization. Delimkhanov, who is considered to be Kadyrov’s right-hand man and potential successor, is regularly visible at the WFCA events and even took on the responsibility of driving Floyd Mayweather around Grozny during the retired boxer’s first visit to Chechnya at Kadyrov’s invitation. He also called for the arrest of Murad Amriev, an MMA fighter who fled Chechnya after being allegedly tortured by Chechen police.

Outside of competition, Akhmat MMA fighters are given other useful roles. Khusein and Khasan Khaliev, identical twins who compete in MMA and kickboxing respectively, took part in a military demonstration in front of Gulf State royalty during a state visit to the Chechen Republic. Others, like UFC fighter Abdel-Kerim Edilov, are holding a series of masterclasses around Chechnya to promote combat sports to youth groups. This form of sports socialization is useful to Kadyrov, who uses sports as a form of distraction from ongoing human rights abuse, as well as an instrument to maintain his authority. Ultimately, this helps Kadyrov cement his iron-fisted rule over the Chechen population.

In conclusion, it is increasingly difficult to separate Kadyrov’s sports ventures from his government objectives or his political ideology. Based on the dangerous officials he has placed in important roles within sports institutions, activities mixed martial arts, boxing, and soccer, are clear extensions of the Chechen dictator’s regime, and an arm of his highly controversial government.

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