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MMA fighter dons separatist flag on UFC broadcast, causes international incident

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Edmen Shahbazyan’s decision to enter the Octagon with the separatist Artsakh flag has led to backlash from Turkish and Azerbaijani embassies around the world. 

A 20-year-old UFC employee was reportedly fired for allowing a UFC fighter to appear on the UFC Vegas 5 broadcast with a separatist flag.

UFC middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan donned an Artsakh flag ahead of his UFC Vegas 5 main event bout against Derek Brunson — an aesthetic choice that caused international backlash from Turkish and Azerbaijani embassies around the world.

The Republic of Artsakh, formerly known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, is a breakaway state in the South Caucasus. It operates as a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority established on the basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Though it has an overwhelming Armenian population and governance, it is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.

Artsakh (previously known as Nagorno-Karabakh) exists in a state of political limbo due to the geopolitical disputes surrounding it. Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated to war between 1988 and 1994, where a cease-fire was agreed upon. However, border clashes have been reported in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.

The most recent skirmishes between the two nations took place on July 12, 2020, along the shared border region around Armenia’s northern province of Tavush. Given the geopolitical strife currently taking place, Shahbazyan’s decision to represent the disputed Artsakh flag only added to the international tension.

The Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles reportedly sent a letter of protest to UFC President Dana White following the event.

“The letter notes that illegal organization is nothing but the result of Armenia’s military aggression and unequivocal position of the United States on support to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity has been brought to the attention of UFC leadership. According to the UFC rules, it has been noted that only the flags of internationally recognized states are allowed to be demonstrated, and taking appropriate disciplinary measures against Armenian fighter for attempts to politicize competition and not to repeat such cases in the future has been demanded,” Leyla Abdullayeva, the head of the press service of Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

Shahbazyan’s coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, later claimed that he was contacted by the UFC and was informed that an employee was fired for allowing the fighter to use the flag. He added that Shahbazyan donned the flag as a show of support for his country following the most recent border clashes.

“I said that we are trying to show that we stand by our country, we represent Armenia, in this way we present our complaint about the recent tense situation in Tavush and that Artsakh is our country, Armenians live there. and we must defend our nation. The goal of our team in the United States is to represent the Armenians, the Armenian nation, our country in all major tournaments. Edman’s coming out of the octagon with the flag of Artsakh had exactly that mission.

“We were deprived of Reebok funding as a penalty,” Tarverdyan added. “It is a pity, but the Azerbaijani and Turkish embassies achieved their goal. I want everyone to know about this. I’m sorry the UFC staff suffered because of us. There was no such thing as harming the UFC. I do not feel bad about the financial penalty, I feel even worse that someone else suffered because of us.”

A petition was later started to pressure the UFC to ban the use of the Artsakh flag in the Octagon.

The UFC has not responded to a request for comment.