A trio of former UFC champions have become the latest athletes to be invited to Chechnya at the behest of the republic’s warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kamaru Usman, Justin Gaethje and Henry Cejudo have all been photographed at the Russian Special Forces University, a private academy in Gudermes, Chechnya, devoted to training special forces prior to joining the Russian army. The former champs were given a tour of the complex before testing out various firearms, including grenade launchers.
The fighters, whose visit to the special forces academy in Chechnya comes in the wake of Kadyrov’s ongoing participation in Russia’s war on Ukraine, also attended a birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s teenage sons.
While this was the first time that Gaethje and Cejudo visited Chechnya, Usman is no stranger to the republic. The former champion first visited Chechnya in Nov. 2020, where he was pictured sparring with one of Kadyrov’s teenage sons. Usman returned again in Nov. 2021 to attend the teenager’s birthday party at Kadyrov’s personal invitation.
It is worth noting that all three fighters are managed by Dominance MMA founder Ali Abdelaziz, a U.S. resident who represents the vast majority of UFC fighters affiliated with Kadyrov and Akhmat MMA.
In December 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury prohibited people doing business in the United States from interacting with several businesses owned by Kadyrov, including his mixed martial arts gym, Akhmat MMA.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control cited “extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violations” among the reasons for sanctioning Kadyrov.
Kadyrov has long ruled Chechnya like his personal fiefdom, where he has been accused of orchestrating human rights abuses including assassinations, abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and purges targeting the local LGBTQ+ community.
Former UFC champs Kamaru Usman and Henry Cejudo, along with Justin Gaethje, are all currently in Chechnya at the invitation of the republic's warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.— Karim Zidan (@ZidanSports) November 25, 2022
Here they are testing out guns at a special forces facility in Gudermes. pic.twitter.com/lJIm8kBHRS
Kadyrov has long used sports to enhance his image. He is particularly fond of combat sports, and uses his Akhmat MMA fight club as a pretence to rub shoulders with fighters and present himself as a benevolent, sports-loving leader rather than a strongman with an atrocious record of human rights abuses — a soft power strategy known as sportswashing. He has also used Akhmat MMA and his own combat sports league in Chechnya to express Chechen masculinity and supremacy in sports.
In the past, notable former UFC champions such as Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, Frankie Edgar, Kamaru Usman, and Khabib Nurmagomedov have all made appearances alongside the Chechen dictator.
Kadyrov has also attended the UFC’s debut event in Moscow, Russia in 2018 and was later present at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi the following year. He currently has five Akhmat MMA fighters representing him in the UFC, including rising star Khamzat Chimaev and light-heavyweight title challenger Magomed Ankalaev.