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Nepotism & Politicking? How Eagle FC became a platform for Khabib’s personal ambitions

Karim Zidan delves into some of the controversies and concerns surrounding Eagles FC, the MMA organization owned by Khabib Nurmagomedov, ahead of its U.S. debut.

Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

On Dec. 15, 2021, retired UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov appeared at a press conference in Miami, Florida, to announce that his Eagle Fighting Championship (Eagle FC) promotion was planning to expand into the United States.

The undefeated former fighter held court with a room full of media members, where he explained the organization’s plans to become a prominent force in the world of combat sports.

“One year ago, I just became owner of Eagle FC. I bought this promotion exactly one year ago December 2020. Right now, after one year, we have made 43 shows around the world. No. 44 is going to be end of January next year,” Nurmagomedov said during the press conference.

“I just want to change a couple of things. One of the main things I want is Eagle FC to become a global promotion. That’s why we opened here in Miami. This promotion is not only from Russia, we’re going to make events, we’re still going to make events around the world but the main home is going to be here in Miami,” Nurmagomedov continued.

Eagle FC’s debut event in the U.S., which is scheduled to take place on Jan. 28 in Miami, will feature a hodgepodge of combat sports veterans, journeymen, and former UFC fighters. The main event will feature kickboxing standout Tyrone Spong against PRIDE and Bellator veteran Sergei Kharitonov, while the co-main event will showcase the return of former UFC champion Rashad Evans. Other notable fighters involved in the debut event include Ray Borg, John Howard, and Anthony Njokuani.

Nurmagomedov’s organization also plans to launch three new weight classes, including a new 165-pound division, to coincide with the inaugural U.S. show. There are also currently no plans to create women’s divisions in the foreseeable future.

While Eagle FC has managed to garner interest from fans and media members alike due to its association with Nurmagomedov, the organization isn’t without its glaring concerns. In some ways, the organization seems to be operated through nepotism, with Nurmagomedov seemingly favouring his friends and relatives with jobs and positions of influence. Eagle FC also maintains strong ties to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen dictator sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for wide-scale human rights abuses, and appears to be expanding its associations to several authoritarian Gulf states in the Middle East.

Familiar Faces

Nurmagomedov’s transition from MMA champion to promoter took place in November 2020, when the undefeated fighter acquired Russian promotion Gorilla Fighting Championship (GFC) for $1 million. The organization operated out of Nurmagomedov’s native Dagestan prior to the acquisition.

By December 2020, GFC had been rechristened as Eagle FC—paying homage to Nurmagomedov’s nickname, ‘The Eagle’—and was being discussed as a potential feeder league for the UFC.

“I had this offer to Dana White,” Nurmagomedov said during a press conference in December 2020. “I wanted to make a contract with UFC Fight Pass, to broadcast EFC fights there, kind of like their contract with M-1 but a bit different.

“It’s no secret everyone wants to get into the UFC. Other promotions want their fighters to stay. I don’t want that. I want EFC to be a launchpad into the world stage,” Nurmagomedov added.

Since then, Eagle FC has held 16 events in various locations throughout Russia and its surrounding neighbors, including Moscow, Dagestan, Almaty (Kazakhstan), Issyk Kul (Kyrgyzstan), and Sochi. Much of the promotion’s active schedule is due to Nurmagomedov’s financial support.

However, given that the former fighter is involved in several ongoing projects and investments, he has placed two of his trusted allies in leading positions with Eagle FC: his cousin was made president of Eagle FC, while manager Rizvan Magomedov was elevated to Chief Executive Officer.

UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov gives news conference in Moscow
Shamil Zavurov
Photo by Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images

Nurmagomedov’s decision to place Zavurov and Magomedov in positions of power can be viewed as an example of fostering nepotism, which is the practice of favoring relatives or friends, mainly by giving them jobs. While nepotism is not illegal, it can foster a questionable work environment and raise questions about the organization’s legitimacy.

Zavurov, a veteran fighter with a 40-7-1 record, has little experience in administrative or executive roles and competed twice for Eagle FC despite his position of influence. He most recently lost by knockout to Nariman Abbasov at the Eagle Fc tournament in the memory of Nurmagomedov’s father and coach, Abdulmanap.

Magomedov, on the other hand, is best known for his role as the president of Dominance MMA Russia, the management company founded by Ali Abdelaziz. Magomedov is one of Nurmagomedov’s managers and is responsible for all the Russian, Chechen, and Dagestani fighters that are part of the Dominance roster. While it remains unclear whether Magomedov has resigned from his position with Dominance MMA—the former manager has not responded to BloodyElbow’s request for comment—his involvement with Eagle FC could be viewed as a potential conflict of interest if he hasn’t resigned. If Magomedov opts to juggle his roles as CEO of an MMA promotion and as a manager to Russian talent, then he is in a position to derive personal benefit from decisions made in his official capacity.

Interestingly, this would be similar to Magomedov’s partner Ali Abdelaziz, who once worked as a matchmaker for World Series of Fighting (WSOF) while also running his Dominance MMA company. He even managed several of WSOF’s champions, including Marlon Moraes and David Branch, while working as WSOF matchmaker. WSOF eventually parted ways with Abdelaziz due to the conflict-of-interest concerns.

Given that Eagle FC is primed to become an official feeder league for the UFC, it is possible that Magomedov could use his new platform to funnel fighters from Dominance MMA into the UFC, prioritizing them over others now signed to the management team. It may also incentivize other fighters to join Dominance MMA in order to further their career ambitions.

Beyond the conflict-of-interest concerns, Magomedov and Zavurov both have strong ties to Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA team, which further entrenches Nurmagomedov in potential sanctions concerns as he attempts to gain a foothold in the U.S.

Courting Dictators

Last month, Eagle FC president Shamil Zavurov revealed interest in hosting a co-promoted event with Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA), the MMA organization owned by Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov.

“ACA are our relatives,” Zavurov explained. “I myself performed there and represent the Akhmat club. We know that ACA has its own way, but if there is interest, no problem. We do tournaments with Fight Nights, we will do it with ACA.”

Zavurov’s statement emphasized the relationship between Kadyrov and the executives leading Eagle FC. As Zavurov stated, he represents the Akhmat fight club, Kadyrov’s personal MMA team, and has competed for Kadyrov’s promotions numerous times.

Even when Zavurov was not fighting for Kadyrov’s promotion, he continued to represent the dictator’s team abroad. In 2017, he was pictured wearing Akhmat MMA gear while competing at a Road FC show in South Korea. Nurmagomedov, who cornered Zavurov at the time, was also wearing Akhmat MMA clothing.

Zavurov and Nurmagomedov’s support for Kadyrov’s Akhmat team came shortly following the 2017 crackdown on Chechnya’s LGBTQ community, where over 100 gay men were detained and subjected to torture. Three of these victims allegedly died in extrajudicial killings during interrogation

Nurmagomedov and Zavurov have since continued to meet with Kadyrov. Following his submission victory against McGregor, Nurmagomedov attended a celebratory dinner with the dictator in Grozny before being made an honorary citizen of Chechnya. The famed fighter then attended a Ramadan iftar at Kadyrov’s palace alongside Zavurov the following year, where he led a prayer for Kadyrov and his team before gifting the dictator with a pair of sneakers.

UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov defends his title Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

While Nurmagomedov’s relationship with Kadyrov has been on the rocks since Kadyrov focused his attention on Chechen standout Khamzat Chimaev, it is likely that his Eagles FC organization will maintain a solid relationship with members of the Akhmat team, especially with Zavurov and Magomedov in charge.

In his role with Dominance MMA, Magomedov managed all the Akhmat MMA fighters who went on to sign contracts with the UFC. Those include former fighters such as Magomed Bibulatov and Abdulkerim Edilov, as well as current UFC fighters such as Said Nurmagomedov, Magomed Ankhalaev, and Albert Duraev. While Abdelaziz was the controversial face of Dominance MMA and its roster, it was Magomedov who actually spoke Russian and several North Caucasus dialects and worked behind the scenes to maintain the international roster and its ties to Kadyrov.

The influence of Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA team can already be felt at Nurmagomedov’s promotion. The Eagle FC 43 show on Dec. 10, 2021, featured three fighters affiliated to Akhmat MMA, including lightweight champion Mehdi Dakaev, who headlined the event., and middleweight champion Faridun Odilov, who represents the Akhmat fight club in Tajikistan. Both were victorious and remain EFC champions.

Other Akhmat MMA fighters involved with Eagle FC include welterweight champion Samandar Murodov, Mansur Jamburaev, Shamil Iraskhanov, Sheikh-Akhmat Tokayev, and Yusuf Raisov, among others.

While most Russian MMA promotions have allowed Akhmat fighters to compete on their shows, Eagle FC may run into complications given its interest in expanding into the U.S, especially since 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” in December 2020.

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 ACA– a decision that held significant ramifications across the sport.

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.

“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.”

Though the sanction implications are ambiguous, it suggests that U.S. persons and entities are forbidden from providing funds, goods, or services to sanctioned entities. This could therefore be interpreted as organizations such as the UFC or Eagle FC not providing financial services to sanctioned entities such as fighters representing Akhmat MMA.

However, it is worth noting that the UFC continues to allow Akhmat MMA fighters to compete on their shows, including those taking place on U.S. soil. Most recently, Akhmat representative Said Nurmagomedov took part in the UFC 270 main card in Anaheim, California.

Beyond Eagle FC’s concerning ties to Kadyrov and its potential sanctions fallout, it appears that Nurmagomedov is aiming to expand his organization’s ties to the Middle East, primarily in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Eagle FC already attempted to hold an event in Abu Dhabi in 2021 and will likely push for greater international presence in 2022.

UAE-FBL-MMA-PRESSER Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Nurmagomedov’s commitment to expanding his MMA entity across Russia and internationally into the Middle East arguably matches his personal and business ambitions elsewhere. Last month, Russian state media announced that Nurmagomedov had created a football (soccer) management agency alongside former Dutch football player and manager Clarence Seedorf.

“We will manage [players], sign them to other leagues, not just in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but also for European championships,” Nurmagomedov said at the time.

The duo also created a football academy known as the Seedorf Khabib Performance Club, which will combine “sports and social abilities with a training methodology which combines football and mixed martial arts.” The academy was founded in Dubai and boasts global partners such as the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), a government entity established in 2002 to enhance commodity trade flows through Dubai.

Nurmagomedov is also launching several sports nutrition products in the UAE, including Fitroo by Khabib protein bars and PH TOP Alkaline Water by Khabib.

“The UAE is a country that knows how to reach its goals. This is where my new chapter begins. I believe and eagerly invest in this country,” Nurmagomedov said.

Given that Nurmagomedov’s business interests involve Middle Eastern partnerships, it comes as no surprise that the retired fighter plans to lead Eagle FC in a similar direction. Yet while Eagle FC will likely have the financial support to thrive in the combat sports industry, it is worth remembering the politicking and potential nepotism behind the organization’s rebranding and the potential repercussions involved.

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