Last week, investigative reporting outlet SpyTalk revealed that former U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell helped UFC fighter Abu Azaitar secure a waiver to enter the United States despite his violent criminal past.
Azaitar, 34, had previously been denied a visa on three separate occasions by the State Department’s Bureau of Consular affairs due to his criminal record, which included a jail sentence for extortion, as well as several cases of assault. Even the fighter’s budding friendship with King Mohammed VI of Morocco did not help him secure the necessary travel documents.
Following his third visa denial, Azaitar appealed to Grenell — a fierce loyalist for U.S. President Donald Trump who now serves as acting director of National Intelligence— whom, according to SpyTalk, was able to secure the waiver in a few weeks.
Despite the Trump administration announcing visa restrictions for foreign workers, suspending entry of “aliens who present a risk to U.S. labour market” and limiting permanent visas to nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, the administration was seemingly willing to make an exception for a friend, even if that friend has a violent criminal past. This article will attempt to address Azaitar’s criminal past and how the favouritism shown towards him emphasizes the political advantages afforded to the UFC and select fighters due to their relationship with the Trump administration.
A Criminal Past
In November 2003, Abu Azaitar and his brother Omar, appeared in juvenile court in Cologne, Germany, where the former faced charges of inflicting dangerous bodily harm and the latter for gang theft. The two brothers had become infamous for their exploits and were known as the ‘brutal twins’ because of their violent crimes and how difficult it was to distinguish between the brothers.
Abu Azaitar, who was 17 years old and recently graduated, was accused of brutally attacking a businessman, threatening his life by dousing him in gasoline, and stealing his Ferrari. He was sentenced in June 2004 to two years and three months in prison. His brother, Omar, however, was given 20 months on probation.
According to reports, Abu Azaitar served his sentence and was released in 2006. However, his trouble with the law did not come to an end. That same year, Abu and Omar Azaitar were accused of participating in a brawl at a martial arts gym, where they violently beat a man until they broke his nose. Abu Azaitar also faced accusation of assaulting his girlfriend at a Christmas market and punching her repeatedly until her ear drum burst.
By 2007, Abu Azaitar had dedicated himself to mixed martial arts. Over the course of the next decade, Azaitar competed for some of the most notable promotions in Europe, including Cage Warriors, KSW, and Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA - formerly ACB). He then signed with manager Ali Abdelaziz and made his debut for World Series of Fighting (WSOF) before signing with the UFC in 2017. To date, he has only competed once for the promotion — a unanimous decision victory against Vitor Miranda at UFC Hamburg in 2018.
Apart from a flourishing MMA career, Abu Azaitar has also developed a friendship with King Mohammed VI of Morocco — a relationship that has since helped him become an influential figure in his native Morocco.
In Service to the King
On November 6, 2019, Morocco hosted a football gala match at the Sheikh Mohamed Laghdaf Stadium in Laayoune, Western Sahara as part of the celebrations marking the 44th anniversary of the Green March in Morocco.
Those who participated at the Green March celebration, which commemorates the 1975 movement when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans marched into the Sahara to protest Spanish occupation of the desert, included international football stars such as Luis Figo, Rivaldo, and Rafael Marquez. The event also featured UFC fighters Justin Gaethje, as well as Moroccan natives Abu and Ottman Azaitar.
The event — a case study in sportswashing due to the kingdom’s ongoing occupation of the Western Sahara — was reportedly set up by Abu Azaitar, who served as president of the Green march organizing association. While at the event, he posed alongside his brother Ottman, Luis Figo, Samuel Eto’o, and Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan as they arrived in Marrakech, and later with UFC fighter Justin Gaethje and trainer Trevor Wittman.
Abu Azaitar’s influential role in the football gala and Green march celebrations is due to his relationship with King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Over the past couple of years, the UFC fighter has posted several pictures of himself spending time with the king. He attended Friday prayer service with the King and his family and even stayed at one of the palaces, where he completed a portion of his training camp ahead of his UFC debut.
Abu Azaitar has since posted several pictures of himself alongside the Moroccan king. One of them carried the caption: “Your Majesty, Our dear King Mohamed VI .. I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done for us. He is one exceptional role model for all of us. We incredibly respect and appreciate him as a great personage. Both the realest sportsman himself and a one of the biggest supporter of sports! My beloved King, may Allah take you and your family under his protection and always keep you healthy! What a pleasure and honor to be side by side with our king, who we love so much.”
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I wish a very Happy Birthday to the greatest King of world, my king Mohamed VI . May Allah always protect him and bless him in this life and the hereafter! He is a very important role model for all of us, not only sportive but also as a human being. A real personage who we highly respect and appreciate. Our majesty, we love you ❤الله يبارك فعمر سيدي
The king reportedly took a particular interest in the Azaitar brothers after he divorced Princess Lalla Salma in 2018. He has since taken them on vacations, and has even allowed them to renovate one of the unused palaces in Tangiers into a sports club. According to SpyTalk, the king was also upset that Abu Azaitar was having trouble entering the United States and may have potentially intervened to help secure the visa.
However, the pivotal support came from Grenell, who helped secure the waiver that allowed Azaitar to enter the United States. It is the latest example of how the UFC’s friendly ties to the Trump administration has helped the promotion (and select fighters) reap political favours.
Trump’s UFC Favouritism
Abu Azaitar’s relationship with Grenell dates back to at least August 2019, when the fighter posted a photo on his Instagram page with his arm around the man who was then U.S. ambassador to Germany. The caption read, ““Amazing time with Mr ambassador @richardgrenell. Great hospitality and what a great experience. Thank you for opening to door for me.”
While Azaitar did not specify which door was opened for him exactly, it is likely that he is referencing Grenell’s reportedly pivotal role in securing him a waiver into the United States. As reported by SpyTalk, such exemptions are difficult to obtain and would likely have required Grenell to use his personal friendship with Trump and other senior officials to secure it.
Following in the Trump administration’s footsteps of maintaining relationships with the UFC and select fighters, Grenell has since tweeted statements such as “MMA athletes and fans are overwhelmingly for @realDonaldTrump. They know what a fighter looks like.” He has even posed alongside Justin Gaethje, Henry Cejudo, and controversial MMA manager Ali Abdelaziz, himself a former undercover informant who was recruited by the New York Police Department to help investigate an extremist Islamist group in 2002. He eventually lost favour with the FBI and NYPD for being “deceitful.”
I want to thank my brother @RichardGrenell for being the beautiful person that he is. He reintroduced me to my American dream once again. I love you Richard. @Justin_Gaethje @HenryCejudo pic.twitter.com/BILBhUBx6U— Ali Abdelaziz (@AliAbdelaziz00) September 15, 2020
Grenell is far from the only Trump loyalist to have reportedly helped the UFC or one of its fighters over the past few years. Several notable figures have also suggested that Trump and his administration were instrumental in getting a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against the UFC dismissed.
The complaint was filed by Leslie Smith, a former UFC bantamweight fighter who competed for the promotion between 2014-18. Ahead of her final fight in April 2018, Smith’s opponent Aspen Ladd missed weight and Smith declined to fight her at a catchweight, which prompted the UFC to pay her her full show and win purses — a sum of $62,000. Yet when Smith attempted to extend her contract, the UFC declined her counter-offer and released her unceremoniously. At the time, Smith had already founded Project Spearhead, a fighter-led MMA association that advocated for collective action.
Smith filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) arguing that the UFC’s decision not to re-sign her was retaliation for her organizing effort. Attorney Lucas Middlebrook, who has been advising Project Spearhead, was initially informed that a regional NLRB office found merit in Smith’s case. However, when the case was sent to Washington, D.C, it was dismissed.
At the time, Middlebrook accused the UFC of pulling “political strings” to get the case dismissed.
In September 2018, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted that “UFC fighters are getting totally screwed” and that “one fighter tried to stand up, got fired, and now Trump is involved in blocking her petition.” He posted a video explaining the incident and Trump’s alleged involvement.
The NLRB incident is part of Trump’s wider anti-labour, big business approach to government, which is something the UFC has taken advantage of. Another such example is the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla) proposed legislation for in 2016 that would have extended it to encompass all combat sports, including MMA. The Ali Act provides boxers with protections from exploitative and anti-competitive practices used by promoters, which if extended to MMA would have a significant impact on how the UFC operates as a business. As such, the promotion has continued to lobby against the act, which has also received minimal support during Trump’s tenure in office.
While Azaitar’s entry into the United States does not constitute an illegal act, it emphasizes the advantages of having close ties to the Trump administration — something which the UFC continues to take advantage of as it navigates its various labour-related obstacles.