In July 2020, the UFC ventured to Yas Island —a tourist destination in Abu Dhabi, UAE — for a four-event showcase dubbed ‘Fight Island.’ The series of events featured exciting bouts, a handful of controversies, and even saw the rise of breakout star, Khamzat Chimaev.
Chimaev, a Chechen native living in Sweden, competed twice during Fight Island showcase, finishing both of his opponents in spectacular fashion. He submitted John Phillips in his UFC debut at the UFC on ESPN 13 event, and later knocked out Rhys McKee at UFC on ESPN 14 just 10 days later.
The Chechen fighter’s breakout performances set him the path towards UFC notoriety. Though just 8-0 in his professional career, Chimaev has already got the attention of UFC President Dana White, who called him the “real deal” and even suggested he wasn’t far off from a potential title shot.
“The guy is so dominant, so confident, wants to continue to fight every weekend,” White said.
“I love it. I love guys with that mentality. I love how talented this guy is. We threw the hottest prospect out of the U.K. at him and that kid is a badass. That kid is a legit great fighter. [Chimaev] made it look like he didn’t belong there. … The kid is legit. He’s real and he knows it and I love it.”
Few fighters have managed to make a lasting impression in as short a period as Chimaev has. However, while the 26-year-old has all the makings of a star, he also carries much of the same baggage that other Chechen fighters do, and that is the looming shadow of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.
“A True Chechen”
Shortly following Chimaev’s breakout performances on Fight Island, Kadyrov took to social media to congratulate Chimaev on his victories, referring to him as a “true Chechen.”
“In the history of the UFC league, no one before Chimaev had two fights in a ten-day period of time and won them. Moreover, Khamzat had to do this immediately after his debut in the [UFC]. Quite recently, on July 16, he fought with a representative of Wales and won this fight ahead of schedule, ”Ramzan Kadyrov wrote on his VK page on July 26.
Kadyrov was not deterred by the fact that Chimaev is based in Sweden, adding, “Regardless of the country in which he performs, Khamzat always remembers that he is, first of all, a Chechen, and strictly observes the traditions and customs of his people.”
Kadyrov’s sentiments were shared by AbuZayed Vismuradov, the dictator’s right hand man and fellow combat sports fanatic. Vismuradov, who was placed on the U.S. ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions list for his role in Chechnya’s anti-gay purges, has since continued to promote Chimaev and even shared several pictures of the two men posing together.
Referred to by his nom de guerre, Patriot, Vismuradov is considered to be one of the three most powerful men in Chechnya. Since Ramzan’s rise to power, Patriot commands Chechnya’s Special Forces, a special Chechen SWAT team known as “Terek,” as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail—a national-security trifecta that makes him practically indispensable to Kadyrov’s government. He is also the man in charge of Chechnya’s combat sports interests.
Vismuradov is responsible for thousands of Chechen athletes who train at the Akhmat MMA facility and has played a signifiant role in expanding relations between the fight club and the UFC. He oversees Kadyrov’s fight club, Akhmat MMA, as well as his MMA promotion, Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA). Founded in 2015, the Akhmat MMA fight club consists of several training facilities throughout Chechnya. They are sponsored by Kadyrov through his government budget and bears the name of his father, Akhmad Kadyrov.
With Vismuradov at the helm of Akhmat MMA, several fighters affiliated to Kadyrov’s fight club eventually signed with the UFC. Those who remain with the promotion in 2020 include Magomed Ankalaev, Said Nurmagomedov, and Liana Jojua. And while Chimaev is not a member of the Akhmat fight club, he is a far more valuable asset to Kadyrov and Vismuradov than any of their official representatives in the UFC at the moment.
The Chechen Wolf & His Master
Sports in the North Caucasus region are not just used for entertainment purposes and societal concerns, but for political gain and the strategic realization of particular ambitions. For Kadyrov, athletes are versatile tools used to whitewash crimes and human rights abuses, exercise control over a population and even as a sports socialization tactic to impose a fabricated model of Chechen machismo.
Kadyrov popularized combat sports in Chechnya by elevating Chechen fighters to elite social status, creating structured facilities and gyms, and propagating the idea that proficiency in combat sports such as MMA is part of Chechen manhood. By doing so, the dictator has been able to create a farming system to assimilate Chechens en masse into combat sports programs. Some, such as former champion Beslan Ushukov, go on to become soldiers as well as fighters, thus combining Kadyrov’s ideal traits in Chechen men: athletic prowess and military might.
When combat sports are so central to Chechen society and identity, it gives Kadyrov the leeway to enact his socio-political agenda with little resistance from his own people. This includes his pogrom against Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community. Though Chimaev is not party to the harrowing purge, he has spent the last few years pledging allegiance and promoting the entities behind the pogrom.
It should also be noted that Chimaev’s manager, Ali Abdel Aziz, has gone so far as to deny that the anti-gay purges took place, claiming he “doesn’t believe anything the media says.”
Following Chimaev’s UFC wins in July, Chechen human rights activist Mansur Sadulaev referred to Chimaev as a known “Kadyrovite” despite becoming a Swedish national. Chimaev’s loyalty to Kadyrov means he is little more than a propaganda tool at the dictator’s disposal.
“It doesn’t matter what territory and what team [Chimaev] is on,” Sadulaev — who also founded the Vayfond Chechen Human Rights Association — told BloodyElbow during an interview. “What matters to Kadyrov is that he is being promoted and praised. And it doesn’t even matter who does it – an athlete, an actor, a public figure, etc., the main thing is that these people should be famous at least among the Chechens.
“[Kadyrov’s] task is to attract the growing youth on his side, as well as to show the whole world that all Chechens, even those outside Chechnya, are satisfied with him as a leader. Propaganda plays a huge role in transforming democracy into dictatorship and also greatly contributes to strengthening the power of the dictator.”
Chimaev — who goes by the nickname ‘Borz’ meaning wolf in Chechen — has visited Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA facility in Grozny on numerous occasions, including June 2019, where he participated in the ‘Extra Rounds’ combat sports talk show and hosted a training seminar for children. A clip of his appearance shows him training at the facility, with a picture of Kadyrov emblazoned along the wall behind him. He regularly donned the club’s attire, which consisted of t-shirt with the Akhmat MMA logo along with a picture of Ramzan Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the former president of Chechnya who was assassinated in 2004.
There are countless photos of Chimaev posing alongside fellow Kadyrov loyalists, as well as with the sanctioned Vismuradov.
Interestingly, Chimaev is not the first person from Sweden’s All Stars gym to visit the Akhmat MMA facility. Several others, including Alexander Gustafsson, Ilir Latifi, and Makwan Amirkhani had previously visited Grozny at Kadyrov’s behest. It is also worth noting that Kadyrov has posed with a wide range of fighters, including Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Frankie Edgar, Fabricio Werdum, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Renzo Gracie, Badr Hari, Floyd Mayweather, and Mike Tyson.
By associating with some of the most popular figures in combat sports, Kadyrov is presenting the image of a benevolent, sports-loving leader instead of a tyrannical despot who oppresses his citizens and treats Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom. This tactic is known as sportswashing — a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to whitewash their human rights records — and has been especially useful in cementing his rule in Chechnya.
Human rights activists such as Sadulaev argue that it is essential for the global community to recognize Kadyrov’s sportswashing tactics, even if that is only achieved at great personal expense.
“In order for the international community to understand all this, we must speak the word of truth, even though it is not safe for us either. As we all see, opponents and critics of the Kremlin and its appointee Kadyrov are being killed even in European countries. We, the few who try to tell the truth about the crimes of the regime, are forced to live in constant expectation of death. However, even in this situation, we understand that we have no other way to fight the bloody regime.
“Speaking the truth, fighting for justice and dying unbowed is all we can do today.”
Chimaev has not responded to a request for comment and has since blocked the author on social media.
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