On May 30, 2018, scores of fans made their way towards Vegas City Hall, a concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow. While the 1,500-capacity hall is usually home to international circus acts, recitals, and musical performances, on that day it played host to the inaugural event for Russia’s newest combat sports promotion run by actor Steven Seagal and Emin Agalarov, the Russian pop star known for his role in the Trump-Russia scandal.
The aforementioned promotion is know as Zhara Fight Show. Unlike the majority of its counterparts, this combat sports promotion incorporates boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts into their events, highlighting athletes from each of the disciplines. The first Zhara Fight Show event featured local stars such as Sergey Kharitanov, former GLORY champion Artem Levin, and WBC Muay Thai champion Zabit Samedov, all of whom emerged victorious.
However, while the newfound promotion is one of many well-funded fight sports organizations within the Russian Federation, it is primarily distinguished by its association to Steven Seagal and Emin Agalarov, the pop star who, according to the New York Times, had a leading role in arranging Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer believed to have “damaging information about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Given Zhara Fight Show’s strange link to a scandal involving U.S. President Donald Trump, Russia, and the 2016 presidential campaign, it is worth looking deeper into the upstart promotion to understand how it came into existence.
The Pop Star and the Russian Lawyer
Zhara Fight Show’s existence and its link to the Trump-Russia affair begins with Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian pop singer and businessman who performs his music in both English and Russian. Agalarov — known in Russia by the single name, Emin — is the son of oligarch Aras Agalarov, the president of Crocus Group, a real estate company that owns a chain of retail-entertainment complexes, restaurants, sea resorts, concert venues, and a luxury shopping centre.
Educated in Switzerland and the U.S, Emin was given the position of Commercial Director of Crocus Group upon his return to Moscow. In 2014, he was promoted to Executive Vice President of the Crocus Group, a position he currently maintains while overseeing Zhara Fight Show and pursuing his career as a pop star.
Though popular in his native countries, Emin did not became a household name in the United States until his became synonymous with the Russia scandal following the 2016 presidential elections. While this is due to a meeting he helped arrange between Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, his connection to Trump does not end there. Emin’s father, Aras Agalarov, has had past business interactions with Trump, the most notable of which was to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Russia in 2013. They also initiated plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, though that eventually fell through.
When the Miss Universe pageant came to Moscow in 2013, Trump came along. The pageant, as well as the president’s statements about his relationship to Russian president Vladimir Putin, have become the subject of several investigations into Trump’s links to Russia by special counsel Robert Muller.
During the pageant, Trump’s relationship with the Agalarov family was cemented. During media interviews, Trump was reportedly complimentary about his new business associates. “He clapped me on the shoulder, gave a thumbs up, and started shouting, ‘Look who’s come to see me! It’s the richest man in Russia!’,” Agalarov told snob.ru (h/t The Guardian). Since then, Trump has booked Emin to perform for one of his golf course openings. Emin also included Trump’s Apprentice catchphrase “You’re fired” in a music video for his song “In Another Life.” The two have also interacted on social media.
Though Emin and his family’s association with Trump highlights how politics and entertainment intertwine across the world — Emin was also married to Leila Aliyeva, the daughter of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev, until 2015 — their recent comments have raised concerns about whether the president of the United States is still affiliated to the Russian real-estate tycoons.
“Now that he ran and was elected, he does not forget his friends,” Emin told Forbes in March 2017.
While Trump is not involved in Agalarov’s combat sports project, Emin has managed to find several other controversial figures to associate with.
In May 2018, it was announced that Steven Seagal would become involved in the budding Zhara Fight Show. The actor was expected to take on a role as the figurehead of the promotion — a recognizable face for fans and media to interact with. He spent the following few weeks on a media campaign to promote the event before appearing alongside Emin at photoshoots, fighter workouts, the official weigh-in ceremony, and the actual event.
Dressed in a black kimono with matching trousers — his trademark look over the past few years — Seagal hovered over the proceedings and posed for pictures during the inaugural show. And while Seagal’s involvement may appear strange for those unfamiliar with his recent ventures, it fits into his continued affinity with the post-Soviet space.
Over the past few years, Seagal has undergone a transformation from American martial artist turned actor to the puppet for dictators such as Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. He was personally awarded Russian citizenship by Putin in 2016 during a publicized television broadcast and has since made several appearances alongside the incumbent president.
Putin made use of Seagal during public appearances that propagated Kremlin interests. An example of this was when Putin and Seagal were photographed at the Sambo-70 school, a renowned Moscow martial arts academy that dates back generations. Seagal’s appearance brought the attention and media coverage needed for the president to promote the relaunch a nationwide physical training program originally introduced in the 1930s under Stalin.
Seagal’s role in the day’s events were choreographed. When Putin was surrounded by swarms of children trying to pose with him, Seagal rushed into the crowd and pulled the president out, as though playing the role of Putin’s security detail.
Putin’s relationship with Seagal has been mutually beneficial. While Putin propagates his political agenda, Seagal has been able to maintain his reputation as a respectable and successful actor in the post-Soviet sphere, despite his decline in the United States. He has also been able to take on roles ranging from a celebrated guest of honor at fight shows to close confidants to ruthless tyrants. Being involved in a combat sports promotion is a natural step forward, according to Seagal:
“I have long dreamed about running a promotion,” Seagal told rsports.ria. “If you ask who I am, I will immediately answer that first of all I am a fighter. Cinema, sport, self-development are the things that I dedicated myself to. And here in Russia, my dream came true. I was lucky to have friends who are such creative and caring people.”
Seagal’s role as the martial arts envoy and figurehead of Zhara Fight Show is his latest attempt to integrate into life outside of the United States, where his reputation has continued to plummet after several actresses, including Jenny McCarthy and Portia De Rossi, accused him of sexual harassment. The accusations have had little effect on his lifestyle abroad and have not tarnished his reputation in Russia. This was evidently clear during the inaugural Zhara Fight Show, where fans and athletes lined up to take pictures with the actor.
As the figurehead of Zhara Fight Show, Seagal also had the opportunity to reestablish ties with one of the dictators he visited back in 2014.
Kadyrov is Watching
One of the featured bouts scheduled for the inaugural Zhara Fight Show was a kickboxing match-up between Zabit Samedov and three-time French heavyweight champion Freddy Kemayo. Samedov, a representative of the Akhmat Flight Club founded by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, earned a hard-fought unanimous decision to claim the King of Kings (KOK) European championship.
Following Samedov’s victory, he posed with select members from the Akhmat Fight Club, while holding a flag embroiled with the Chechen gym’s logo, as well as a t-shirt sporting the phrase known to be Kadyrov’s unofficial slogan: “Akhmat Power.” A second teammate brought out a Chechen flag with Kadyrov’s face emblazoned on it. Thereafter, the fighters were joined in the ring by Adam Delimkhanov, a politician, State Duma (Russia’s lower parliament) representative, and one of Kadyrov’s closest associates.
Cousin to Kadyrov, Delimkhanov is considered to be one of the most powerful men in the Chechen Republic. He has been accused of a host of atrocities, including allegedly ordering the assassination of former Chechen warlord and Russian military commander Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai. As a result, he was placed on an international wanted list at the request of the United Arab Emirates, before Kadyrov visited the UAE and had the charges dropped in July 2012.
Delimkhanov also took part in an infamous fistfight in the State Duma building that ended with a gun made of gold falling out of the Chechen politician’s pocket.
Given his reputation, Delimkhanov does not make regular appearances at sporting events outside the Chechen Republic. However, he appeared in Moscow for the inaugural Zhara Fitght Show, posing alongside the members of Akhmat Fight Club, including Samedov. This not only emphasizes Kadyrov’s patronage in combat sports, but highlights his influence across multiple promotions throughout the Russian Federation.
Seagal, who visited Grozny in 2014 and spent time with Kadyrov, posed for pictures alongside Delimkhanov, the Akhmat Fight Club members, and the Chechen flag with Kadyrov’s face adorned on it.
Not only is Zhara Fight Show owned and operated by a pop star linked to the Trump-Russia scandal, it has also placed an actor accused of sexual harassment as its figurehead, and allowed a dangerous Chechen politician to participate in the proceedings. While it is difficult to gauge the promotion’s potential success based on a single event, it is evidently clear that they have kindled a significant amount of controversy within a few short months.