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MMA fighter-turned-mercenary awarded medal from Putin for service in Ukraine

Hayk Gasparyan, a mercenary for the Wagner Group, was awarded the Order of Courage by Vladimir Putin during a ceremony in January 2023. 

Hayk Gasparyan, a mercenary for the Wagner Group, was awarded the Order of Courage by Vladimir Putin during a ceremony in January 2023. 
Hayk Gasparyan with Vladimir Putin.

An Armenian MMA fighter who was later recruited as as a mercenary for the infamous Wagner Group has been awarded a medal by Russian president Vladimir Putin for serving in Ukraine.

Hayk Gasparyan, 31, was awarded the Order of Courage by Putin himself during a ceremony in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, earlier this month.

Gasparyan amassed a 6-12 professional record druing his tenure as a fighter, which include stints with M-1 Global and Absolute Championship Akhmat, the organization owned by Chechen warlord Ramzan KAdyrov and currently facing sanctions from the U.S. government.

Apart from his past as an MMA fighter, Gasparyan was convicted of armed robbery last year after stealing approx. $4,200 from a man at gunpoint outside a bank in Moscow. He sentenced to seven years in a high security penal colony in Ryazan.

However, after serving no more than a few months of his sentence, Gasparyan was recruited to join the Wagner Group, a network of mercenaries who operate as Putin’s de facto private army. The paramilitary group is heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine and assisted in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Wagner Group has been recruiting thousands of members for Putin’s war in Ukraine through penal colonies across Russia, offering pardons and commuted sentences in return for a six-month contract in the Russian army. Gasparyan was among the convicts who accepted the deal and has since been pardoned following his six-month term of service.

‘I serve Russia and Wagner,’ Gasparyan told Putin as he was being awarded the medal.

Gasparyan is one of thousands of convicted criminals called up to war who have since been released back into society. This has led to outrage among Russian citizens concerned about their safety.

“Criminals with combat experience will return to society, hmm, encouraging,” an anonymous commenter told state-run news agency RIA Novosti.


About the author: Karim Zidan is an investigative reporter for Bloody Elbow focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. His work is also a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian. (full bio)