On Monday evening, Khamzat Chimaev—one of the UFC’s rising stars—appeared to announce his retirement from MMA due to health complications arising from COVID-19.
Chimaev, 26, had reportedly been hospitalized on numerous occasions after contracting COVID-19 last year. During one such stint, the Chechen native told his manager that he believed he was going to die. Later, he posted a picture on his Instagram story that showed a spray of blood in a sink, which underscores the serious long-term complications that plague many people recovering from the virus. Faced with a demoralizing situation, Chimaev took to social media to announce he was “done” with the sport.
Despite the apparent seriousness of Chimaev’s condition, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov was quick put an end to Chimaev’s retirement talk.
“Khamzat said that his recovery from the illness has been slow, and, in an attempt to be honest and frank with the fans, he decided not to give them hope,” Kadyrov wrote on his VKontakte page on Tuesday, adding that he also arranged for Chimaev to return to Chechnya, where he will “complete a rehabilitation course” and “hold a training camp.”
“I told him that ALL Chechens were upset by this news,” Kadyrov added. “I reminded Chimaev that the youth, whom he inspires, are pinning their hopes and expectations on his success…and if fans need to wait for his return, then we will all look forward to his return to the octagon with trepidation and patience.”
Kadyrov has long embraced mixed martial arts as a soft power strategy, using the sport to whitewash heinous crimes and to distract from ongoing human rights abuses such as targeted assassinations of dissidents, as well as the anti-gay purges targeting Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community. And while the United States has imposed sanctions on Kadyrov for his well-documented abuses, he remains an influential figure within the sport.
Kadyrov founded the Akhmat MMA fight club—a training facility with more than 15 branches across the region—as well as an MMA promotion (World Fighting Championship of Akhmat, later rebranded Absolute Championship Akhmat) that held more than 60 events in various countries. Several of the fighters who represent his fight club have gone on to compete for the UFC, including Maxim Grishin and Magomed Ankalaev, both of whom competed on recent shows. He has also hosted countless athletes and celebrities, including Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, and a selection of current and former UFC champions such as Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, Frankie Edgar, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kamaru Usman.
By associating with some of the most popular figures in combat sports, Kadyrov is presenting the image of a benevolent, sports-loving leader instead of a tyrannical despot who oppresses his citizens and treats Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom. 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. Kadyrov’s relationship with Chimaev is no exception.
Chimaev visited Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA facility in Grozny on numerous occasions, including June 2019, where he participated in the ‘Extra Rounds’ combat sports talk show and hosted a training seminar for children. A clip of his appearance shows him training at the facility, with a picture of Kadyrov emblazoned along the wall behind him. Chimaev has also repeatedly referenced Kadyrov on social media, including an Instagram post from Jan. 6, 2021, that showed the two Chechens embracing in Kadyrov’s palace.
Kadyrov’s decision to intervene and pressure Chimaev out of retirement emphasizes his value to the Chechen dictator. As one of the brightest prospects in the UFC, Chimaev has the potential to become the most successful Chechen athlete in a generation, which is why Kadyrov seized the opportunity to utilize the fighter in an attempt to further his own socio-political agenda.
“I know for sure that Khamzat will take the UFC belt and prove that he is the best of the best!” Kadyrov said in his VK post on Tuesday.