The UFC welterweight champion smiled at the camera with his left fist raised and recited the phrase, which translates to “Akhmat Power.” As the camera panned around the gym, every fighter present joined in the chant – committing themselves to the propaganda slogan used by Kadyrov and his cronies.
The video is among a handful of pictures and videos of Usman’s recent trip to Grozny, Chechnya, where he met with several fighters, the vice-president of the Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA) – an organization funded and controlled by the Chechen dictator himself – and even participated in a light sparring session with one of Kadyrov’s sons.
By associating himself with Kadyrov’s cronies, Usman became the latest in a long line of UFC fighters and champions who have helped whitewash the Chechen despot’s tyrannical regime – a regime responsible for countless human rights atrocities, including numerous anti-gay purges targeting the local LGBTQ+ community.
Kadyrov, 44, has ruled over Chechnya with an iron fist for more than 13 years. He is the son of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May 2004 while attending a football match at a local stadium. He was then appointed Deputy Prime Minister and later took part in several violent struggles for overall military control and political authority before being made Chechen president in February 2007 following a presidential decree from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
As the result of the wide autonomy and hefty budget granted to him by the Kremlin in exchange for the pacification of the rebellious Chechnya, a republic which had undergone two wars with Russia in the span of a decade, Kadyrov operates Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom.
Over the years, Kadyrov built a cult of personality around himself, which includes massive, everpresent portraits of himself and his late father. He transformed Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, into a miniature Dubai, complete with sparkly buildings and fancy restaurants, and put an end to the insurgencies that plagued the republic throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Kadyrov’s rule brought peace to the region, but at the cost of tyranny. Human rights and basic freedoms are considered unattainable luxuries, all while the dictator’s power and influence in Russian politics continues to grow.
Kadyrov has branded himself as a sports fanatic and uses his love of combat sports to market himself as the ideal interpretation of masculinity in Chechnya. He popularized combat sports in Chechnya by elevating Chechen fighters to elite social status, creating structured facilities and gyms, and propagating the idea that proficiency in combat sports such as MMA is part of Chechen manhood. Kadyrov has also embraced mixed martial arts and boxing as tools for diplomacy, even going so far as to start his own promotion and fight club known as Akhmat MMA.
Founded in 2015, the Akhmat MMA fight club consists of an MMA promotion and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other post-Soviet states. The fight club is sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget and bears the name of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs, and travel fees. Depending on the level of success achieved, fighters are also gifted with expensive cars and other ostentatious goods.
Over the years, Kadyrov has met with a wide range of UFC fighters and champions, including Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum (who was also an ambassador for the Akhmat fight club), Frankie Edgar, Alexander Gustafsson, Ilir Latifi, Makwan Akirkhani, and Khamzat Chimaev. He has also met with notable combat sports athletes like Renzo Gracie, Badr Hari, Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones Jr., and Mike Tyson.
By associating with some of the most popular figures in combat sports, Kadyrov presents an image of a benevolent, sports-loving leader rather than a cruel tyrant. This tactic is known as sportswashing — a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to whitewash their human rights records — and has been especially useful in cementing his rule in Chechnya.
While it has been a while since the last time a UFC champion visited Chechnya, Usman’s recent trip highlights Kadyrov’s continued interest in using combat sports athletes as a soft power strategy within his republic.
Kadyrov has also used the UFC as a platform for his sportswashing tactics. Over the past few years, a handful of the fighters from the Kadyrov-backed Akhmat MMA fight club have signed UFC contracts and competed for the world’s leading promotion. Currently, the three Kadyrov-affiliated fighters are Liana Jojua, Magomed Ankhalaev, and Said Nurmagomedov.
The UFC has also welcomed Kadyrov to their events on two separate occasions, dating back to the UFC’s inaugural show in Moscow in 2018. Kadyrov attended the UFC Russia show on September 15, 2018, surrounded by some of his most loyal henchmen, one of whom has been accused of torture and another of plotting an assassination.
Beyond MMA, Kadyrov has also attempted to rub shoulders with actors, celebrities, and athletes from major sports like soccer. During the 2018 World Cup, the tyrant hosted the Egyptian national team and posed in a photo-op with celebrated striker Mohamed Salah in front of a large orchestrated crowd.
The United States Department of State recently sanctioned Kadyrov for “gross violations of human rights.”
“Today’s action serves to notify Mr. Kadyrov that his involvement in gross violations of human rights has consequences, both for him and his family, and that the United States is committed to using all the tools at our disposal to ensure accountability for those who engage in this abhorrent behavior,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
This is not the first time that the United States has used sanctions to punish Kadyrov and his associates. In 2017, the U.S Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) enforced economic sanctions under the Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses ranging from “torture” to “extrajudicial killings.”
Despite the sanctions placed on Kadyrov by the U.S. Department of State, Usman, an American UFC champion had no qualms about accepting his invitation to visit Chechnya and take part in local appearances.
The UFC has not responded to a request for comment.