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The Kinahan Strategy: How the alleged crime lord used boxing and MMA to sportswash his reputation

Daniel Kinahan, who was recently targeted by U.S. sanctions for allegedly leading an Irish organized crime group, has long used boxing and MMA to “sportswash” his reputation. But now his empire might be crumbling.

Daniel Kinahan pictured alongside Tyson Fury in Dubai

The United States government announced a crackdown last week on Daniel Kinahan, the alleged crime lord at the helm of Ireland’s most notorious organized crime group who is also a prominent figure in the world of combat sports.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Kinahan Organized Crime Group along with several of its key members, including Kinahan himself. Sanctions were also issued against Hoopoe Sports, a sports management and advisory company based in the United Arab Emirates—where Kinahan currently resides—for ties to the Kinahan cartel.

The U.S. Department of State also offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Kinahan’s arrest and conviction.

“The Kinahan Organized Crime Group smuggles deadly narcotics, including cocaine, to Europe, and is a threat to the entire licit economy through its role in international money laundering,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said in a press release issued by the Treasury department. “Criminal groups like the KOCG prey on the most vulnerable in society and bring drug-related crime and violence, including murder, to the countries in which they operate.”

The US was also reportedly given intelligence linking the Kinahan cartel to money-laundering activities of terrorist groups in the Middle East and South America, including groups affiliated to narco-terrorist groups in Colombia.

Beyond his alleged role as the de facto leader of the Kinahan cartel, a group responsible for narcotics trafficking in Ireland, mainland Europe, as well as North Africa, Kinahan is also known for influence in combat sports, where he repeatedly sought to whitewash his reputation through associations in boxing and mixed martial arts, a process known as sportswashing. His associations include notable athletes like WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and UFC fighter Darren Till.

“Yes, I am friends with Daniel Kinahan…and what?”

On Feb. 5, 2016, five gunmen dressed as police officers stormed the weigh-in ceremony ahead of a boxing event hosted by Daniel Kinahan’s MGM boxing promotion at the Regency Hotel in Dublin, Ireland. The assailants opened fire on the room, which resulted in the death of Kinahan enforcer David Byrne, and left two others with non-fatal injuries. One of the wounded men was Sean McGovern, who was also targeted for U.S. sanctions.

However, Daniel Kinahan, who is believed to be the assailants’ main target, managed to avoid the attack before escaping the venue.

The attack on the Regency Hotel was a major escalation in bloody gangland feud between the Hutch mob and the Kinahan cartel that has since claimed at least 15 lives, the majority of whom belonged to the Hutch mob.

The incident also drew international attention to the organized crime groups and laid bare the close association between combat sports and Ireland’s notorious drug-dealing gangsters. This included Jamie Kavanagh, an Irish professional boxer signed with Golden Boy Promotions who also happens to be the son of Gerard “Hatchet” Kavanagh, a prominent gangster who is believed to have been slain by the Kinahan cartel.

Kavanagh, who was scheduled to face Antonio João Bento at the MGM event that was canceled due to the Regency hotel shooting, trained at the Crumlin Boxing Club alongside former UFC champion Conor McGregor, who attended the funeral of Gerard Kavanagh’s younger brother, Paul, who was also killed in a suspected attack by the Kinahan cartel. McGregor also trained in the same boxing club with slain gangster David Byrne, and even shared a selfie at a boxing event.

The Regency Hotel shooting also placed a spotlight on Kinahan, who was already in the process of sportswashing his image through boxing. He founded the Macklin’s Gym Marbella (MGM) with former pro boxer turned manager Matthew Macklin in 2012, which quickly grew into a management and promotion company.

Boxing at Manchester Arena
Boxing Manager Matthew Macklin
Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images

After Spanish police raided the MGM gym in Puerto Banus in September 2016, the company announced that it had severed ties with Kinahan. The company then rebranded as MTK Global due to their previous name being a trademark of MGM casinos.

However, reports from Irish media alleged that Kinahan continued to exert influence over the organization and claimed he even served as an advisor to several of the fighters on the roster.

MTK Global boasts a roster of fighters that include UFC middleweight Darren Till, who posed alongside Kinahan and defended his “friendship” with the alleged mobster in a written statement published in 2020.

“Yes I am friends with Daniel Kinahan... & what? I’ve never hidden his friendship & why should I when the man has given me more valuable advice as a friend than anyone I’ve ever met in a professional capacity,” Till said in his statement. “I’ve been friend with Dan for years & years long before I ever joined MTK Global so why would it automatically be presumed the two are linked.”

Till has since posed with Kinahan in Dubai last year.

MTK Global also worked with Fury, who posted a picture alongside Kinahan in 2017. Three years later, Fury claimed that Kinahan was instrumental in securing his two-fight deal against Anthony Joshua.

The First Domino to Fall

Fury’s association with Kinahan continued to endure well into 2022, when the heavyweight champ visited the TK MMA gym in Dubai.

The gym was founded by Tam Khan, a British citizen of Afghani origins who refers to himself as the “pioneer of MMA in the UAE” and who once attended a private dinner with boxing legend Mike Tyson and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov in 2018.

A video posted to the TK MMA Instagram page on Feb. 9 showed Fury posing alongside Kinahan and former WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker, who is allegedly under investigation in New Zealand in connection to a major international drug importation and supply conspiracy case.

The video not only signalled Kinahan’s continued influence in boxing, it also underscored his attempts to align himself with entities in the Middle East.

Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa dressed in a KHK shirt
Wikicommons

Kinahan had previously formed a relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain, having been appointed as a “special advisor” to KHK Sports, a sports collective founded by Bahrain’s Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

KHK Sports revealed that Kinahan’s role will be to “advise across KHK Sports entire portfolio, encompassing KHK MMA, KHK Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Promotion and BRAVE Combat Federation.” Referring to the controversial figure as an “international boxing power broker,” KHK Sports added that Kinahan’s international connections will strengthen its brand and expand its international reach.

“It is an honour for me to work with His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al Khalifa, Mr Mohammed Shahid and the entire team at KHK Sports,” Kinahan said in the KHK press release—his first public statement since the infamous 2016 Regency Hotel shooting in Dublin. “KHK Sports has made an impressive mark on the world of combat sports and has fantastic ambitions to grow into a global powerhouse. I look forward to working with the team to realize these dreams and further build Bahrain combat sports into a globally recognized presence.”

Through Sheikh Khalid’s patronage, KHK Sports founded an MMA organization called Brave CF, which enjoyed significant growth over the past few years and hosted shows in Brazil, India, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Indonesia, Colombia, Pakistan, South Africa and Mexico.

However, the organization also operates as an extension of the government agenda, a tool for diplomacy and improved bilateral relations between Bahrain and other countries and a distraction against ongoing human rights concerns.

KHK’s press release announcing its newfound relationship with Kinahan also included quotes from various boxing legends, including Bob Arum, Frank Warren, and Roy Jones Jr.

“Most people in the sport look at boxers like race dogs or race horses but not Daniel, he treats you like a boxer or as a friend, and sometimes even as his own kid so I think he’s a fantastic addition to the team at KHK Sports,” Jones Jr. said in the press release.

Though Kinahan hoped to use his newfound association with the Bahraini monarchy to help sportswash his image, his ambitions were dashed after the Irish government communicated with diplomats in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to provide detailed reports of his criminality. Less than a month later, the Bahraini government announced it had terminated the agreement between KHK and Kinahan.

Despite losing out on a relationship with Bahrain, Kinahan still reportedly enjoys influence in neighboring Saudi Arabia and UAE. Fury noted that he played a key role in securing the Joshua fight, which was supposed to take place in Saudi. The alleged mob boss also resides in Dubai, which has no extradition agreement with Ireland or the United Kingdom.

However, the UAE’s director general of anti-money laundering Hamid Al Zaabi noted that “authorities are using all available resources to investigate and prosecute anyone engaged in these activities” when asked about Kinahan in March 2022.

Faced with increased scrutiny and a recent sanctions designation, Kinahan’s sphere of influence appears to be crumbling. Some of the biggest figures in boxing have been warned to cut ties with Kinahan, with Irish police commissioner Drew Harris adding that those who choose to deal with Kinahan or other sanctioned entities are “involved in a criminal network.”

Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank boxing, which co-promotes Fury, was among the figures who distanced himself from Kinahan, promising to adhere to the sanctions in a statement to ESPN. Probellum, which also promotes fighters advised by Kinahan, released a statement promising to be “fully compliant” with the sanctions.

Ahead of his match-up against Dillian Whyte Saturday, Fury broke his silence on Kinahan and the recent sanctions, claiming that “it’s none of my business and I don’t get involved in other people’s business.”

Fury’s dismissal led to a tense exchange where the boxing champion even tried to compare the Kinahan situation to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Tyson Fury v Dillian Whyte - Press Conference Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images

Yet it appears that not every athlete affiliated to Kinahan has opted to distance themselves from the alleged crime boss. UFC fighter Mounir Lazzez, who is managed by MTK Global, used his post-fight interview to thank Kinahan.

“I would love to thank my coaches and my brother Daniel Kinahan, without him I would never be the man who I am today and my career at this point,” Lazzez said following his decision victory, which aired on ESPN+. “Thanks a lot.”

When questioned about his decision to shout-out Kinahan in his victory speech, Lazzez claimed he was unaware of the U.S. sanctions and that Kinahan was nothing more than a “friend and advisor” and that Lazzez was “not involved in this kind of stuff.”

Despite Lazzez’s claim of ignorance, his decision to reference Kinahan helped legitimize the alleged crime boss in combat sports, which is exactly what Kinahan has been trying to do over the past few years. It further underscores the extent of Kinahan’s influence within combat sports and the lengths that athletes will go to help defend him, which further exemplifies the role of sportswashing.

However, it was announced Wednesday that MTK Global had ceased operations and that the management group would be closing down at the end of the month. The company cited “unfair scrutiny” since the U.S. government sanctions took effect. Even so, the company statement also noted that MTK gyms, which they claim are operated independently, would remain open for the “foreseeable future.”

MTK Global’s apparent demise further suggests that Kinahan’s sports empire is crumbling. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that upstart boxing and MMA promoter Probellum is closely linked to Kinahan. A trademark for Probellum was filed in the UK by MTK Global in 2019 and some of Probellum’s executives and fighters have been pictured with Kinahan around Dubai.

Probellum has attempted to distance itself from Kinahan. They refuted claims that Kinahan was financially connected to the company and noted that they retained legal counsel in the US to ensure they comply with the sanctions.

While Kinahan’s combat sports empire appears to be crumbling, it remains to be seen whether this will truly mark the end of the crime lord’s sportswashing ambitions.

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