On Monday night, fighters representing the Russian Copper Company (RMK) Martial Arts Academy attempted to violently disperse a group of protestors who opposed the construction of a new church in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
According to Russian investigative outlet Novaya Gazeta, the protestors were gathered in a public garden near the construction site, where they objected to the deforestation required for the construction of St. Catherine’s Church. The protestors allegedly tore through the fencing that separated the garden from the construction area and occupied the site, which is when dozens of athletes from the academy arrived on the scene.
The representatives of the RMK Martial Arts Academy reportedly intimidated the protestors, including the journalist on scene for Novaya Gazeta. They mocked, swore, and pushed through the crowds, dispersing them in a matter of minutes. One of the athletes reportedly attacked a woman in the crowd and another allegedly used pepper spray to break up the protest. Among the fighters involved in the attack were WBO light-middleweight champion boxer Magomed Kurbanov and recently signed UFC heavyweight Ivan Shtyrkov.
Though it may seem strange that a protest over the construction of a church would be overrun by fighters who proceeded to violently disperse the crowd, there is a clear correlation between the church’s ongoing construction and the MMA fighters who came to defend it, and that is copper tycoon Igor Altushkin.
While the vast majority of MMA fans remain unaware of Altushkin’s existence, this feature will attempt to explain his significance in the Russian MMA sphere and why several fighters affiliated to his fight club tried to break up the protests in Yekaterinburg.
MMA’s Copper Tycoon
Igor Altushkin is one of the richest men in the Russian Federation. He began his career as a scrap metal trader in the early 1990’s before founding the Russian Copper Company (RMK), an organization that would go on to become Russia’s third-largest copper producer over the course of two decades. According to Forbes, Altushkin’s net worth in 2018 is $4.3 billion, the majority of which he earned through the gradual growth of RMK.
Altushkin, a native of Yekaterinburg, Russia, took an interest in combat sports in 2016. The billionaire’s RMK company co-founded the RCC Boxing Promotions (formerly known as Titov Boxing Promotion), which continues to host events across a variety of combat sports. Their first significant championship fight took place in November 2016 when renowned Russian light-heavyweight Sergei Kovalev won his WBA, IBF, and WBO titles against Isaac Chilemba. The event aired live on HBO. Following the Kovalev fight, RCC Boxing brought in the likes of former UFC fighters Jeff Monson, Antonio Silva, and Gabriel Gonzaga to headline their shows against Ivan Shtyrkov, the poster boy for the promotion. While some of the events garnered attention from hardcore MMA fans, others were shrouded in controversy.
In May 2016, former UFC fighter Jeff Monson was scheduled to face Ivan Shtyrkov in the main event of an RCC Boxing event. Monson tore his right bicep ahead of the fight and attempted to withdraw from the event. Alexi Titov, the promoter at the time, insisted to fly Monson out to Ekaterinburg so that he could take part in an exhibition performance against Shtyrkov instead. Monson agreed to the stipulation but began to feel suspicious of the promoter over the next few days, particularly when he was not allowed to talk to Shtyrkov ahead of the exhibition.
Concerned that he was being set up, Monson attempted to pack his bags and leave. He was stopped by Altushkin, who, according to Monson, guaranteed that the fight would be nothing more than a simple exhibition bout. However, when the bell sounded for the opening round of the main event, Shtyrkov sent Monson tumbling to the canvas, targeted his injured arm, and forced him to tap in particularly violent fashion. The exhibition bout was added as an official loss on Monson’s record.
“I held on five seconds longer than I would have in a real fight,” Monson told Bloody Elbow in 2016. “I was just expecting him to let go. He didn’t.
By 2017, Altushkin founded a separate MMA promotion named Russian Cagefighting Championships (RCC), which debuted in November with Shtyrkov in the headlining slot. Since then, the promotion has hosted a dozen shows, most recently on May 8, 2019. Some of the events took place at the RCC Martial Arts Academy, which is the training facility that Altushkin founded in 2018. The academy was designed as a training ground for combat sports such as sambo, wrestling, and boxing. Shtyrkov was named president of the academy.
“We made RMK Martial Arts Academy so that professionals and amateur fighters could train and compete in cutting-edge conditions, so that a passion for martial arts can become a real trend for the next generation,” the academy’s founder, RMK head Igor Altushkin, said at the facility’s opening. “I’m sure that Ivan [Shtyrkov] and his victories can set an example and inspire beginning athletes to work diligently and achieve great things.”
The Church and the Fighters
When activists appeared at the construction site for St. Catherine’s Church in Yekaterinburg, few expected it would lead to a national scandal involving a copper tycoon and his team of professional fighters turned hired muscle.
Altushkin is one of the founders of the St. Catherine Foundation. It was created in 2017 in preparation for the 300th anniversary of Yekaterinburg and to fund a new church named after the patron saint of Yekaterinburg to be built in time for the anniversary celebrations in 2023. The decision was taken to construct the church in a green zone within the city that featured a beautiful pond and a park filled with trees, all of which would have been removed during the construction process. However, a 2018 poll conducted by the Socium Foundation revealed that 42% of local residents did not support the construction, and only 22% reacted positively to the suggestion.
Despite the mixed response, Yekaterinburg officials decided to move ahead with the construction process, referring to the decision as “non-negotiable.” This led to activists gathering in the nearby public garden to protest against the deforestation required to build the church. As a result, Altushkin — one of the primary sponsors of the church’s construction — used a group of fighters from the fight club he founded to disperse the crowds in reportedly aggressive fashion.
Among the fighters that took part in the incident was UFC heavyweight Ivan Shtyrkov, who withdrew from his UFC debut in April. While Shtyrkov’s management declined to comment to BloodyElbow.com, Shtyrkov has since released a statement to Russian press.
”We came to help the guards raise the fence. There were no conflicts or threats from our team towards the residents. There were none. There were other people besides us. Someone is in favor of building a temple, who is against, and we should not forget about respect for someone else’s opinion - this is the basis of a normal society. All discussions should be in a peaceful way, and what happened at night is fundamentally wrong and should not be repeated.”
It should be noted that St. Catherine’s Church is not the first church that Altushkin has sponsored. In 2011, Altushkin funded the construction of a Russian Orthodox church in Naurskaya, a village in the Chechen Republic. The project was an ambitious one and lasted nearly five years before the church opened its doors to worshippers. Altushkin imported the resources for the construction from Yekaterinburg and other regions in Russia, giving it architectural features atypical for the North Caucasus. The success of the venture strengthened relations between Altushkin and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, as the two would later collaborate on a MMA event in 2018.
Given Altushkin’s past experience with religious architecture, it appears that the copper tycoon has an affinity for the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2018, Altushkin allocated a budget worth more than $25 million to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church. His generosity, however, is not limited to his christian faith. Altushkin also founded a martial arts academy and several combat sports promotions in order to help athletes from the Ural region. Without his patronage, promotions such as RCC Boxing and Russian Cagefighting Championships would suffer greatly.
This is far from the first time that shady activity has taken place at a martial arts gym sponsored by a Russian billionaire. Dagestani oligarch Ziyavudinn Magomedov, who is currently awaiting trial on embezzlement and organized crime charges, also owned both an MMA promotion (Fight Nights Global) and a gym (Eagles MMA fight team). The gym came under fire in 2018 after it was reported that one its executives, Denis Klopnev, was arrested in absentia for the attempted murder of sambo fighter Shamil Kuramagomedov, a bronze medalist in the 2017 Russian Combat Sambo Championship.
The accusations against Klopnev come several months after a group of fighters affiliated to Eagles MMA and Summa Group attacked Kuramagomedov and beat him within an inch of his life. The fighter was hospitalized with a concussion, a traumatic brain injury, and a broken nose but opted not to report his assault to the police. According to the report, Kuramagomedov and the suspects all trained at the same gym, which was also owned by Summa Group, Magomedov’s investment company.
While the two situations differ significantly, they both shed light on the concerning activity taking place in martial arts gyms and fight clubs funded by Russian tycoons.
The UFC did not respond to a request for comment.