Kadyrov’s Game: How Khabib Nurmagomedov fell out of favor with the Chechen dictator

On May 12, 2021, Ramzan Kadyrov decided to host an impromptu live chat on Instagram with his followers. Dressed in a grey tracksuit and…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
Kadyrov’s Game: How Khabib Nurmagomedov fell out of favor with the Chechen dictator
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On May 12, 2021, Ramzan Kadyrov decided to host an impromptu live chat on Instagram with his followers.

Dressed in a grey tracksuit and matching baseball hat emblazoned with the Akhmat MMA fight club logo, the Chechen dictator answered a wide range of questions before focusing on his beloved combat sports. After boasting about the athletic prowess of Chechen athletes, Kadyrov went on a bizarre rant about former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, whom he referred to as a “UFC project.”

“Khabib is a good athlete, but he is a UFC project,” Kadyrov said during the Instagram live chat. “He is 100 percent a project because they have a good relationship with Dana White. If someone misses a fight, they are immediately removed from the rating, and Khabib has never been removed from the rating. And he also knows that he is a UFC project. If it is not a project, then I have never seen our brother Khabib perform with the flag of the Russian Federation, the flag of Dagestan. Therefore, clearly knowing what he was doing, he became a champion, while not making mistakes. The fact remains – he is a UFC project. I think so, and I think he will also agree.”

The controversial leader of the Chechen Republic (also known as Chechnya) went on to diminish Nurmagomedov’s achievements in the UFC before claiming that breakout star Khamzat Chimaev, himself a Chechen native, is a superior fighter. “There is no one more interesting that Khamzat in the UFC now,” he added.

Kadyrov concluded his rant by offering to pay Nurmaogmedov “any fee [he desires]” to fight in his Akhmat MMA promotion.

“I am ready to pay Khabib any fee if he performs at Akhmat,” Kadyrov explained. “I am ready to give any money and see if he breaks anyone in Akhmat. I am ready to pay him more than in the UFC if he fights in Akhmat against one of our fighters. Let’s see who will win it.”

This unexpected reaction from Kadyrov shed light on the strained relationship between Nurmagomedov and the dictator. This was further emphasized by Chimaev, who offered to “smash” Nurmagomedov during Kaydrov’s live chat.

So how exactly did the relationship between the two notable Caucasus figure fall into disrepair? Understanding the current strain between Nurmagomedov and Kadyrov begins by understanding the dictator’s overarching political ambitions, as well as the longstanding tension between Chechnya and Dagestan.

Trouble in Paradise

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. He founded the Akhmat MMA fight club—a training facility with more than 15 branches across the region—as well as an MMA promotion (World Fighting Championship of Akhmat, later rebranded Absolute Championship Akhmat) that held more than 60 events in various countries. Several of the fighters who represent his fight club have gone on to compete for the UFC, including Maxim Grishin and Magomed Ankalaev.

However, while Kadyrov mainly focused on Chechen athletes, he also set his sights on adopting Nurmagomedov, an athlete from neighboring Dagestan who emerged as arguably the greatest UFC fighter of all time.

Khabib Nurmagomedov Instagram

Over the past few years, Kadyrov has invited Nurmagomedov to host a training seminar at the dictator’s Akhmat MMA fight club, the training facility funded by Kadyrov himself; invited him to attend several Akhmat MMA shows as his guest of honor; gifted Nurmagomedov and his father luxury cars; and made the UFC champion an honorary citizen of Chechnya. Nurmagomedov even went so far as to promote Kadyrov as a strong leader during a border dispute between Chechnya and Dagestan.

During each of the visits, Nurmagomedov posed for a photo op with the Chechen leader and was usually honored with a gift of some sort. This was standard procedure for Kadyrov, who was known for posing with athletes in an effort to rebrand himself as a magnanimous, sports-loving leader—a tactic he used on Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah when the Egyptian national team was staying in Chechnya during the 2019 FIFA World Cup.

By associating with Nurmagomedov, Kadyrov was effectively rubbing shoulders with one of the most popular athletes in Russia and arguably the single most recognizable face in Dagestan. Nurmagomedov’s following also stretches far beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, expanding across the world where he is seen as one of the most influential Muslim athletes of this generation.

While Kadyrov and Nurmagomedov maintained friendly ties for several years, their relationship soured in August 2019 when Kadyrov claimed that Imam Shamil—the Dagestani native who served as the leader of the Caucasian resistance to Imperial Russia in the 1800s— and the resistance he mounted against Russia led to the “annihilation of the Chechen people.” Kadyrov’s comments drew outrage across Dagestan and led to increased tension between the two Caucasian republics.

Imam Shamil is revered as a hero among Dagestanis, who consider him to be the spiritual father of Caucasian resistance against Russia. Nurmagomedov was no exception, as his ancestor Nur Mohammed, was believed to have been a leading commander in Shamil’s resistance. In the wake of Kadyrov’s provocative comments, Nurmagomedov changed his profile picture to a portrait of Imam Shamil and compiled several posts on Instagram defending the Dagestani hero.

Imam Shamil in the Caucasus. Artist: Sommer, Richard Karl (1866-1939)
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

By all accounts, Kadyrov’s comments about Imam Shamil strained his relationship with Nurmagomedov. The former UFC champion has not posed for pictures with Kadyrov since then and has not visited the dictator’s palace in Grozny since mid 2019. However, when Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, contracted a severe case of COVID-19 last year, Kadyrov reportedly arranged for the renowned coach to be transferred to a hospital in Moscow. Kadyrov was also present at Abdulmanap’s funeral, where footage showed him comforting Nurmagomedov during the ceremony.

Since then, Kadyrov has focused on grooming another UFC fighter to replace Nurmagomedov as the face of MMA in the North Caucasus.

Kadyrov’s Latest Puppet

In July 2020, Khamzat Chimaev emerged as a breakout star during the UFC’s four-event showcase on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.

Chimaev—who goes by the nickname ‘Borz’ meaning wolf in Chechen—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. His breakout performances set him the path towards UFC notoriety. It also caught Kadyrov’s attention, who referred to Chimaev as a “true Chechen” in a social media post after the fight.

“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’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. Kadyrov and Vismuradov’s reactions raised concerns about Chimaev’s ties to Chechnya’s regime.

Chimaev (right) posing alongside Vismuradov (centre)

Chimaev 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.

While most of those encounters took place prior to Chimaev’s breakout performances, it appears that the Chechen fighter has quickly risen to become Kadyrov’s favorite fighter. He gifted Chimaev a luxury Mercedes Benz (which Chimaev promptly crashed), sparred with Chimaev on camera, and posed with the fighter for a photo op on several occassions. Kadyrov also pressured Chimaev not to retire despite health complications arising from COVID-19.

Chimaev, 26, had reportedly been hospitalized on numerous occasions after contracting COVID-19 last year. During one such stint, the Chechen native told his manager that he believed he was going to die. Later, he posted a picture on his Instagram story that showed a spray of blood in a sink, which underscores the serious long-term complications that plague many people recovering from the virus. Faced with a demoralizing situation, Chimaev took to social media to announce he was “done” with the sport.

Despite the apparent seriousness of Chimaev’s condition, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov was quick put an end to Chimaev’s retirement talk.

“I told him that ALL Chechens were upset by this news,” Kadyrov wrote on his VK page. “I reminded Chimaev that the youth, whom he inspires, are pinning their hopes and expectations on his success…and if fans need to wait for his return, then we will all look forward to his return to the octagon with trepidation and patience.”

Khamzat Chimaev Instagram

Kadyrov’s decision to intervene and pressure Chimaev out of retirement emphasizes his value to the Chechen dictator. As one of the brightest prospects in the UFC, Chimaev has the potential to become the most successful Chechen athlete in a generation, which is why Kadyrov seized the opportunity to utilize the fighter in an attempt to further his own socio-political agenda.

“I know for sure that Khamzat will take the UFC belt and prove that he is the best of the best!” Kadyrov added on VK after putting an end to Chimaev’s retirement talk.

Now that Kadyrov has a homegrown Chechen native to support, he no longer needs to rub shoulders with a retired fighter from neighboring Dagestan. While Nurmagomedov will be remembered as one of the most successful athletes in North Caucasus history, he will always be seen as an outsider by Kadyrov, who would prefer to promote a Chechen fighter because of the prestige it bestows on his republic. This also explains why Kadyrov offered to pay Nurmagomedov to fight Chimaev or another fighter who represents his Akhmat MMA brand. If one of Kadyrov’s fighters could defeat Nurmagomedov at his own game, it would signal Chechnya’s superiority in the sport, as thus Kadyrov’s undeniable influence.

Given Chimaev’s aggressive comments towards Nurmagomedov this week, it seems evidently clear that the UFC”s breakout star is comfortable in his newfound role as Kadyrov’s favorite pet fighter.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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