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From Octagon to Kadyrov’s right hand: How a former UFC fighter became vice-premier of Chechnya

Karim Zidan delves into the career trajectory of Abdul-Kerim Edilov, the former UFC fighter who recently became the vice-premier of Chechnya.

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On Feb. 25, 2022, Ramzan Kadyrov—the brutal tyrant at the helm of the republic of Chechnya in Russia—stood on a raised dais in the heart of the Chechen capital Grozny and announced his intention to join Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The notorious Chechen warlord was flanked by three of his most loyal henchmen—one of whom has been accused of torture and another of plotting an assassination—as well as three of his teenage sons, all of whom were dressed in military attire. Beside them stood Abdul-Kerim Edilov, a former mixed martial arts fighter with the UFC who became the vice premier of Chechnya.

Edilov, who was compiled a 17-4 professional record, stood armed with a machine gun, a tactical vest packed with extra ammunition, and a skull cap with the phrase “Akhmat Sila” (literally ‘Akhmat Power/Strength’), the battle cry used by Kadyrov loyalists and athletes in reference to Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad.

He later posted a photo of himself at the gathering with the caption: “An honor to be on the team. An honor to serve the idea. Proud to die in this path.”

Though Edilov himself was not deployed to Ukraine, his prominent position alongside the Kadyrov family during the gathering underscores his growing influence within the dictator’s repressive regime. His unique journey from MMA fighter to vice premier of Chechnya also sheds light on how Kadyrov structures his power vertical around loyalty, bloodlines, and his inner circle.

Kadyrov’s MMA Soldier

When the UFC hosted its first show in Rotterdam in September 2017, few anticipated that the event would attract several of the most dangerous men in Chechnya.

Led by Kadyrov’s right-hand man Abuzayed Vismuradov, an escort of no less than 14 Chechen men emerged from a fleet of Mercedes Benz cars and made their way into the Ahoy Rotterdam convention center, where they sat in attendance to support their fellow countryman Abdul-Kerim Edilov as he made his UFC debut that evening. Some were fellow fighters from Akhmat MMA—the gym funded by Kadyrov himself as an extension of his own totalitarian regime—while others, like Vismuradov, were among the men personally implicated in Chechnya’s crackdown on sexual minorities in the republic.

Edilov’s debut took place on preliminary portion of the fight card and saw him defeat Serbia’s Bojan Mihajlovic in a lopsided beatdown. The Chechen light-heavyweight pounded away at his much smaller foe until Mihajlovic’s face was streaming with blood. After dominating the entirety of the bout, Edilov was awarded a technical knockout after the referee mercifully put an end to the bout midway through the second round.

Though his opposition was lacking, Edilov’s victory was not insignificant. He was one of Kadyrov’s favorite athletes and the first fighter from Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club to sign with the UFC. Edilov’s win not only showcased his athletic prowess, it also helped promote Kadyrov’s narrative of Chechen masculinity and dominance.

UFC Fight Night: Mihajlovic v Edilov Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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 ostentatious goods.

Kadyrov’s decision to promote Edilov as one of his new fight club’s primary representatives was a gradual one. The light-heavyweight fighter first gained a reputation as a legitimate prospect in Russia during an impressive run that saw him compile a ten-fight win streak between 2013-15. He then joined Kadyrov’s newly-founded Akhmat MMA fight club in 2015 and became one of the promotion’s key figures.

Edilov went on to compete in the inaugural Akhmat MMA event (known at the time as World Fighting Championship of Akhmat 1) in March 2015, where he defeated journeyman Tiago Monaco Tosato in less than three minutes during the evening’s main event. He was rewarded with a hug from Kadyrov, who entered the ring in a tracksuit emblazoned with the Akhmat MMA logo and accompanied by his children and kickboxing great Badr Hari.

Following a second win at WFCA 3, Edilov agreed to be represented by Dominance MMA’s Ali Abdelaziz— the only UFC manager with a working relationship with Kadyrov—and signed with the UFC in August 2015.

However, Edilov UFC debut was sidetracked when the light-heavyweight was suspended for an anti-doping violation before ever making his debut. The Chechen fighter was handed a 15-month suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) after he tested positive for meldonium, a prohibited substance, in an out-of-competition drug test in January 2016. USADA granted Edilov a reduced suspension after investigating his claim that the substance was being used for medical purposes.

Edilov’s suspension did not stop Kadyrov from continuing to promote him as a celebrity in Chechnya. In the months leading up to Edilov’s UFC debut, Kadyrov staged numerous public training sessions and photo-ops with Edilov and could be seen in footage offering advice to the professional fighter. Such events were broadcast on state TV in Chechnya.

Grand Prix Akhmat WFCA 31 international tournament in Grozny, Chechnya Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Edilov eventually made his promotional debut at UFC: Rotterdam, where he defeated Mihajlovic by TKO. Despite the impressive win, however, Edilov did not compete for the UFC again. Instead, he focused on becoming a faithful servant of the Chechen president’s family.

Kadyrov’s Vice Premier

During their first visit to Grozny in May 2017, the HBO Real Sports team were having lunch at an outdoor café in downtown Grozny when they noticed a motorcade pull up nearby. Kadyrov’s three sons emerged from the vehicle with Edilov vigilantly by their side.

While the HBO cameras were not rolling footage at the time, correspondent David Scott decided to film the rarely captured scene using his iPhone. Edilov noticed Scott filming the Kadyrov children and bull-rushed the journalist, demanding that he delete the footage. Fearing for his safety, Scott obliged.

“This was the most intimidating place I’ve ever been,” Scott told Business Insider. “Every man and boy between the ages of 11 to 75 looks like they are about to kick your a—.”

Edilov’s reaction to Scott’s filming on his phone was due to the fighter’s newfound role as a glorified babysitter to Kadyrov’s children, primarily his three eldest sons. The fighter was effectively responsible for protecting the three boys and spending the vast majority of his day in their company.

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This transformation from full-time fighter to surrogate brother began in 2016, when Edilov was still serving a suspension for a USADA anti-doping violation. His Instagram account, once filled with training videos and fight footage, was now primarily dedicated to various pictures and videos of the fighter caring for Kadyrov’s three young sons. Clips on Instagram show Edilov attending Quran recitation classes with the princelings, teaching them various martial arts techniques in the gym, and even cruising in cars emblazoned with the late Akhmad Kadyrov’s face.

Edilov’s commitment to Kadyrov’s children earned him favor with the Chechen leader, who gifted him with a Porsche Panamera valued at over $120,000 USD for his 25th birthday in 2016. Edilov posted a picture of himself and Kadyrov’s children standing beside the car, along with the caption: “”I know that I do not deserve this in any way. The presence of Ahmad, Eli and Adam in my life is already the greatest gift! I cannot find the words to express my gratitude to them! I promise to always be around, stand up for them, and be a brother.”

Over the course of the next few years, Edilov continued to curry favor from Kadyrov. He trained Kadyrov’s children in boxing and MMA and coached them through amateur fights put on by their father’s Akhmat fight club. All the aforementioned bouts have been criticized as fixed fights with predetermined outcomes.

Time of Legends boxing night in Moscow Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

By November 2021, Edilov was elevated to his first official government role when he became Kadyrov’s chief of staff—a position he gained through his commitment to Kadyrov and his family, as well as his own family’s generational ties to the dictator.

Edilov is a native of Tsentoroi, the same village that Kadyrov hails from, which makes them part of the same clan (teip). He has several cousins involved in Chechen government, including police chief Major Amrudi Edilov, who also authored a hagiography on Akhmad Kadyrov that became required reading for high school students in Chechnya.

Other Edilov relatives include a deputy in the Chechen parliament, a traffic-police lieutenant colonel, a deputy health minister, and a senior staffer at the Chechen Security Council, and the head of the Chechen Boxing Federation.

Three months after being appointed chief of staff, Edilov was promoted to vice-premier of Chechnya in February 2022, further expanding his sphere of influence.

Edilov’s meteoric rise through the ranks of Chechen government emphasizes Kadyrov’s determination to fill important roles with loyalists and relatives, thereby consolidating his power and cementing his authority in Chechnya. It also sheds light on the elevated status of successful combat sports athletes in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, whereby talented fighters are elevated to celebrity status and influential government positions.

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