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Chad Stanhope

The Dictator’s Dilemma: How U.S. sanctions will impact Ramzan Kadyrov’s MMA aspirations

Karim Zidan delves into the OFAC’s sanctions on Ramzan Kadydrov’s combat sports entities and the significant impact it will have on a wide range of stakeholders within the sport. 

More than five years have passed since a trio of former UFC champions —Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, and Frank Mir—visited Grozny, Chechnya to attend the inaugural Akhmat MMA event as the honoured guests of Ramzan Kadyrov.

The UFC invitees toured the city, fired military-style rifles, feasted at the presidential palace, and did their best impressions of the lezginka, the national dance of the North Caucasus region, while Kadyrov—the tyrannical despot who rules over the Russian republic of Chechnya with an iron-fist—watched in delight.

When the fighters returned to the presidential palace following the event, they stopped for pictures with Kadyrov, including one where Mir and Werdum dressed in traditional North Caucasus attire and posed as his bodyguards.

The event drew attention from international media, who criticized the UFC champions’ decision to attend the fight show despite the well-documented human rights atrocities taking place within Chechnya. And yet, the UFC guests served their purpose, adding a layer of prestige and public relations to a government-funded mixed martial arts showcase that was the first of its kind within the Chechen Republic. It also helped present Kadyrov as a magnanimous and philanthropic leader who has taken a keen interest in the development of his war-torn republic.

Kadyrov would continue to use this tactic for years to come. He invited boxing greats like Floyd Mayweather, controversial jiu-jitsu figures such as Renzo Gracie, and dozens of UFC fighters, most recently UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. This soft power strategy—now known as sportswashing—allowed Kadyrov to manipulate sports to distract from his ongoing human rights abuses and to cement his authority within Chechnya.

Yet after five years of successfully applying this soft power strategy, a new round of sanctions imposed by the United States government all but ensures that the stream of power and influence that Kadyrov had acquired within the sport will run dry.

The Tyrant’s Fight Club

On December 10, 2020 – a date recognized as International Human Rights Day – the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued its latest round of sanctions against the Chechen dictator for “serious violations of human rights.”

Following up on Kadyrov’s previous designation on December 20, 2017, where the OFAC sanctioned the Head of the Chechen Republic for “being responsible for extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals,” the OFAC designated Kadyrov pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Executive Order for leading an entity accused of “illegal abductions, torture, extrajudicial executions, and other abuses, including the detention of journalists and activists.”

In addition to Kadyrov, the OFAC also sanctioned six companies that provide the Chechen tyrant “pride and profit,” including Kadyrov’s infamous Akhmat fight club, and his mixed martial arts promotion, Absolute Championship Akhmat – a decision that is expected to have significant ramifications that will reverberate across the sport.

Ever since his ascent to power in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov has branded himself as a patron of sports. His passion for sports ranges from his love of equestrianism to soccer and combat sports such as boxing and MMA. His primary focus over the past few years has been his love of combat sports, which he uses to promote an idealized interpretation of masculinity. 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 soft power, even going so far as to start his own promotion and fight club known as Akhmat MMA.

Akhmat MMA GP via AKhmat MMA
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 incentives.

The Akhmat MMA fight club is operated by Abuzayed Vismuradov, a colonel considered to be one of the most powerful men in Chechnya. Known by his nom de guerre ‘Patriot’, Vismuradov once fought in the Chechen wars against Russia alongside Kadyrov himself, before being elevated to commander of Chechnya’s Special Forces, the ‘Terek’ Chechen SWAT unit, as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail. Kadyrov’s decision to place one of his most influential security figures in charge of his MMA promotion and fight club suggests that the Akhmat fight club is an extension of Kadyrov’s own government.

Dating back to 2015, Kadyrov’s fight club has hosted over 60 events under the World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) banner. Local events took place at the Colosseum Sports Complex in Grozny, where Kadyrov sat on a raised dais surrounded by his closest henchmen and celebrities paid for their appearance. The crowd in attendance wore Akhmat MMA shirts emblazoned with pictures of Kadyrov’s late father, while chants of “Akhmat Sila” (which translates to Akhmat Power) reverberated through the arena. The scene was a perfect encapsulation of the hyper-masculine society that Kadyrov has gradually imposed on his people – a sports socialization strategy that was years in the making.

dpa-Story Chechnya Photo by Emile Alain Ducke/picture alliance via Getty Images

In October 2016, WFCA hosted three child MMA fights that featured Kadyrov’s own sons, all of whom ranged between eight and 11 years of age. The underage fights — illegal under Russian law — were heavily promoted and took place in featured slots during a nationally televised broadcast in the Russian Federation. The scandalous event drew heavy criticism from the Russian media, as well as from legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, who referred to it as “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable”. Nevertheless, it reflected the fact that Kadyrov had managed to weave his own children into his fabricated model of Chechen machismo, which further cemented his dynastic rule over Chechnya.

By December 2018, WFCA had merged with fellow Chechen promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) to form Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA). By securing a merger with an organization that had established itself as a hotbed for talented fighters from across Europe and Russia, Kadyrov was able to strengthen his MMA infrastructure and expand his influence across the sport.

The Sanctions’ Body Blow

“The new sanctions are sheer discrimination.”

This was the statement that ACA President Alexei Yatsenko used when describing the OFAC’s newly imposed sanctions to Russian state media outlet Tass.ru. “What do ACA athletes have to do with politics?” he added.

Kadyrov followed up by stating on his Telegram channel that the “shameful sanctions will haunt the U.S.” & is a “black page in the history of the country.” His statement was later repeated by Akhmat MMA president AbuZayed Vismuradov, who added that the “completely unfounded attacks of these countries on athletes, politicians and, most importantly, a charitable organization are a sign of a lack of intelligence and a complete lack of moral and ethical values…”

“As for the fact that the Akhmat fight club was included in the sanctions list, I can confidently say that the club’s fighters are neither hot nor cold from this,” Vismuradov added. “You can declare sanctions [on us] every day but your attempts cause nothing but contempt in us!

“Akhmat Power!”

While the figureheads behind the ACA and Akhmat MMA have attempted to present themselves as victims of American imperialism, it is clear that the sanctions have struck a nerve. While previous sanctions targeted Kadyrov and his family, none of whom have any assets in the United States, the latest round of sanctions was far more specific, and targeted entities that have established relationships with American athletes and interests.

According to the OFAC, the sanctions’ implications extend to “all property and interests in property of the persons above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or otherwise exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons. The prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.”

Based on the above statement, the OFAC sanctions will prevent any American or U.S. based athletes or officials (referees etc.) from participating in ACA events, and will also prevent American athletes from accepting invitations to visit Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club. The sanctions may also limit American promotions such as the UFC from signing fighters affiliated to Akhmat MMA. At the very least, Kadyrov-affiliated fighters in the UFC will no longer be able to wear any Akhmat MMA branded gear, walk out to songs that represent the dictator’s fight club, or shout the ‘Akhmat Power’ slogan during their in-cage interviews. It is also possible that the Akhmat MMA and ACA social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube will be at risk, especially since the social media companies have already de-platformed Kadyrov in the past.

However, it should be noted that the exact implications of the sanctions remain unclear at this time.

It is worth noting that the OFAC considers non-compliance with sanctions to be a serious threat to national security. A breach in OFAC sanctions without obtaining the proper license can lead to severe legal repercussions, including fines up to $20 million, depending the offence, and prison sentences as lengthy as 30 years.

While the OFAC’s sanctions may seem small-scale relative to how the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has been applied in the past, the overall implications and negative impact to Kadyrov’s interest should not be understated.

Through his fight club, Kadyrov has been able to establish an indirect relationship with the UFC, a globally recognized sports brand, and its athletes. 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 Amirkhani, and Khamzat Chimaev.

Former UFC champions Frankie Edgar and Khabib Nurmagomedov in Chechnya dressed in Akhmat MMA gear

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 four Kadyrov-affiliated fighters are Liana Jojua, Magomed Ankhalaev, Maxim Grishin, and Said Nurmagomedov. It is possible that all four of those fighters will be released unless they disassociate from Kadyrov’s fight club.

There is reason to believe that Kadyrov’s MMA fight club is on good terms with the UFC’s matchmakers. In 2018, Vismuradov posed for a picture with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby and claimed that the UFC and Akhmat MMA had reached a new agreement to continue signing fighters from the Chechen club. The UFC also welcomed Kadyrov to its 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.

Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com

Assuming the sanctions are followed, Kadyrov will no longer be able to associate with the UFC, which, in turn, limits his ability to use MMA as a tool for sportswashing. It will also have a significant impact on one MMA manager who has acted as a mediator between the UFC and Kadyrov over the past five years: Ali Abdelaziz.

Dominance MMA’s Failed Gambit

Standing in a room marked with camouflage wallpaper and an endless array of heavy bags, Kamaru Usman sparred with Ramzan Kadyrov’s 13-year-old son, Adam. The two sparred for several minutes, surrounded by a handful of Chechen fighters who filmed the event for social media.

After a short training session with the young princeling, the UFC welterweight champion turned to the camera, smiled with his left fist raised, and recited the phrase, “Akhmat Sila”. 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 ACA vice-president, and several other Kadyrov cronies. Pictures later emerged of the UFC champion wearing Akhmat MMA branded clothing, including a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Akhmat Sila slogan.

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. He is also the latest fighter represented by controversial manager Ali Abdelaziz to be invited to visit Kadyrov’s fight club.

In fact, the vast majority of the UFC fighters who have visited Kadyrov over the past five years have been managed by Abdelaziz – a trend that emphasizes the working relationship between the manager and the Chechen dictator.

Abdelaziz, who founded the Dominance MMA management company that has represented several UFC champions over the years, first made contact with Kadyrov’s fight club in 2015, when — along with Rizvan Magomedov, President of Dominance MMA in Russia — he secured a lucrative deal for then-UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum to become the “ambassador” for Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club. Abdelaziz told MMAJunkie that “Fabricio was happy to accept what ultimately was a very lucrative offer, but this deal is not just a financial arrangement. He was in Chechnya earlier this year, and he was treated like a king.”

Then, in an interview with BloodyElbow in 2015, Abdelaziz stated that he “would not mind going to Chechnya and putting on a World Series of Fighting event there, even co-promote with Akhmat MMA.” Despite Kadyrov’s harrowing human rights abuses, Abdelaziz explained that the “fact that [Kadyrov] will go and train with these fighters is something remarkable; a leader of a country supporting our sport of MMA and investing in it is great.”

Abdelaziz has maintained a working relationship with the Akhmat fight club, which included sending several of his clients to meet with the Chechen despot and attend his events. These include former UFC champion Frankie Edgar, Ilir Latifi, Abu Azaitar, Khamzat Chimaev, Zubaira Tukhugov, Islam Makhachev, Abukar Nurmagomedov and Khabib Nurmagomedov . He also facilitated trips for the likes of jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie.

Abdelaziz also represents a handful of Chechen and Dagestani fighters who are linked to Kadyrov through his Akhmat MMA gyms, including former UFC fighters Magomed Bibulatov, Abdul-Kerim Edilov, Ruslan Magomedov, and current UFC fighters Said Nurmagomedov, Maxim Grishin, and Magomed Ankhalaev.

It should be noted that Edilov, a light-heavyweight prospect who moonlights as Kadyrov’s babysitter for his three young sons, reportedly threatened an HBO journalist in Chechnya in 2017.

When confronted about his relationship with Kadyrov in the wake of the tyrant’s harrowing anti-gay purges, Abdelaziz denied the news, stating that he “doesn’t believe anything the media says.”

“A lot of people say a lot of shit. Right? I don’t know what this man in Chechnya thinks about gay, not gay,” Abdelaziz said during an in-studio interview with Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour in 2019. “But the whole thing is, I don’t know nothing about it, because I don’t believe anything the media says. I don’t see it with my eyes, I don’t believe it.”

MMA manager Ali Abdelaziz Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

As a result of Abdelaziz’s public support and established relationship with Kadyrov’s fight club, he remains the sole representative of the fighters linked to Kadyrov that currently compete in the UFC — a relationship now at risk due to the OFAC’s sanctions.

Abdelaziz isn’t the only stakeholder in MMA who will likely have to alter his approach over the coming months. Any entities that have established relationships with the Akhmat MMA fight club or the ACA promotion will likely have to limit those interactions for the foreseeable future. This applies to American fighters, officials, and promotions alike.

Some changes have already begun to take place since the sanctions took effect. Renowned American referee, Herb Dean, was unable to assume his usual role at ACA 115, which took place a few days after the sanctions were announced. While Dean has not responded to BloodyElbow’s request for comment, it would appear that his decision not to participate in the event was due to the OFAC’s sanctions, making it the first of many changes that will take place across the MMA landscape over the coming months.

In the end, the OFAC sanctions will serve their purpose, which is to ensure that Kadyrov is no longer able to profit or gain publicity from mixed martial arts. While that may come at the expense of some difficult changes, it is a price worth paying to ensure that a tyrannical despot is no longer able to manipulate the sport for personal gain.

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