Over the past few years, there has been a clear trend of Central Asian migrants turning to mixed martial arts in the hopes of achieving a better life in Russia. Some of these migrants train with the ambition of becoming UFC fighters, while others do so in search of a sense of community in a foreign land. Dozens of underground fight clubs sprouted in near-abandoned buildings throughout Moscow, offering migrants a sanctuary to hone their craft, and to exercise as part of a community in a safe space. However, a new documentary now claims that these underground facilities also reportedly helped establish criminal networks throughout the Russian Federation.
According to NTV.ru, Central Asian migrants — many of whom train in boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) — are gaining increasingly prominent roles in the criminal underworld. The outlet estimated in a recent documentary that there are over 50 illegal fighting facilities throughout Moscow that specialize in training Central Asian migrants. The documentary claimed that some of the groups who frequent these facilities are not petty thieves or hooligans but an established network of criminal gangs with a cache of firearms at their disposal.
“There may be many such gangs that we don’t know yet and that haven’t shown themselves,” Mikhail Ignatov, a former operational officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, told NTV, a Russian news channel owned by state gas company Gazprom. “The hour may come, and all these organized groups will come out simultaneously in different places and different areas of the city of Moscow. You see, this is an organized serious group.”
UFC heavyweight Alexey Oleynik also shared his thoughts on the matter in the documentary, explaining that many of these underground fight clubs are simply cover-ups for insidious interests.
“You can make some kind of group consisting of the dregs of society, from those who have not found a place in life, from migrants or from someone else. You can teach skills, but, as a rule, they do not teach sports skills, as a rule, they learn how to pick locks, shoot some firearms, use a knife, and so on.”
As the largest country in the world with over 143 million residents, Russia is naturally one of the largest havens for labor migrants from across the world. In fact, the Russian Federation is only second behind the United States in terms of immigration rates. Despite an inconsistent Russian economy and political climate, a significant percentage of those migrants arrive from fellow post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, in the hopes of ensuring better lives for their families.
While migrating to Russia provides higher wages and an improved standard of living, it comes at a price. From restrictive laws and limited legal rights to blatant racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, a migrant’s life in Russia is a difficult existence. Despite the aforementioned issues, countless migrants continue to seek out opportunities in Russia. Some of them turn to MMA as a way to mitigate the racial and socio-economic problems that occupy their lives. Example of this are Bakeet, a Kyrgz pickpocket who earns extra money by competing in the cage, and Urnud-Bek, who works in construction by day while training with the ambition of becoming a UFC fighter.
It should be noted that the documentary does not explain how such a criminal network was established among underground fight clubs, or which of the clubs are the primary culprits.
Update: The documentary published by NTV.ru has been criticized for stoking ethnic tensions within the Russian Federation. Despite the claims made in the documentary, there is little to suggest that the proliferation of underground fight clubs is a concerning trend in Russia.