The UFC star and the Chechen warlord

Ramzan Kadyrov was in a violent mood. The notorious Chechen dictator stood in the garden surrounding his palace residence in Chechnya on May 18,…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
The UFC star and the Chechen warlord
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Ramzan Kadyrov was in a violent mood.

The notorious Chechen dictator stood in the garden surrounding his palace residence in Chechnya on May 18, 2021, where he addressed the several thousand subscribers tuned into his livestream on Instagram. Among them was an anonymous follower who posted a message referring to Kadyrov as a “Shaitan” (Arabic for Satan/Devil).

Staring directly into the camera, Kadyrov responded by threatening to “destroy” the anonymous follower.

“If you write this to me, then I will find you and we will see which of us is a shaitan,” Kadyrov said during the broadcast. “You will not sleep at night. You will now go and prepare your will. Let’s see which one of us is a shaitan. I destroyed a lot of shaitans and I will destroy you.”

At the time, Kadyrov was accompanied by Khamzat Chimaev, a talented fighter who emerged as a legitimate contender while competing for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Chimaev also happens to be Kadyrov’s favorite fighter—a bonafide Chechen native who has the potential to become a champion.

Kadyrov and Chimaev

Chimaev’s relationship with Kadyrov dates back several years and has only intensified following the fighter’s breakout performances at the UFC’s ‘Fight Island’ showcase in July 2020. During that time, Chimaev 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 success caught the attention of UFC President Dana White, who referred to him as the “real deal” and a future contender. It also made him a significant asset to Kadyrov, who has long utilized combat sports as part of his political agenda.

Kadyrov declared Chimaev a “true Chechen” and proceeded to shower the fighter with luxury goods and expensive cars. Chimaev, who resides in Sweden, began to spend more time in Chechnya as Kadyrov’s personal guest, accompanying him on local trips and attending banquets in his honor.

Chimaev’s blossoming relationship with Kadyrov is particularly troubling considering the dictator’s well-documented human rights abuses, which include a deadly crackdown on LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya that resulted in torture and summary executions, as well as a recent string of assassinations and abductions targeting Chechen dissidents living abroad. Kadyrov has also played a significant role in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, where his troops have reportedly committed various war crimes.

With Chimaev set to take part in the biggest fight of his career against Gilbert Burns at UFC 273, he is unlikely to escape the looming shadow of the Chechen warlord.

Ever since his rise to power in 2007, Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom while molding Chechen society in his ideal image.

He encouraged displays of religious piety and military might while orchestrating extrajudicial killings and abductions targeting those who opposed him. He built a cult of personality around himself and his late father while defining hypermasculinity and sporting prowess as highly valued in Chechen society.

Much like other strongmen before him, Kadyrov uses sport to distract from well-documented human rights abuses, a process known as sportswashing. By elevating Chechen fighters to an elite social status, lavishing them with luxury goods and cars, and propagating the idea that proficiency in combat sports such as MMA is part of the ideal Chechen manhood, Kadyrov has popularized the sport and created a pool of fighters, ready at his disposal for combat. He furthered this goal by launching the Akhmat MMA fight club.

Photo by Sasha Mordovets/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.

The fight club is operated by Abuzayed Vismuradov, a life-long friend and ally to Kadyrov who emerged as one of the three most powerful men in Chechnya. Vismuradov 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.

Vismuradov, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018 for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” is also responsible for thousands of Chechen athletes who train at the Akhmat MMA facility and has played a significant role in expanding relations between the fight club and the UFC. He also oversees the dictator’s MMA organization, Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA).

Vismuradov has also played a role in Russia’s ongoing war and can be seen in footage posted by Kadyrov rallying troops set to be deployed to Ukraine. This emphasizes the fact that Kadyrov’s fight club is not an ordinary MMA gym but rather an extension of his tyrannical regime.

Despite these concerns, Chimaev has regularly visited the Akhmat MMA facilities, where he hosted training seminars for children, participated in interviews that later aired on Chechen state TV, and took part in photo-ops with Kadyrov and Vismuradov. He regularly donned the club’s attire, which consisted of a 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.

Chimaev seated alongside Kadyrov at a banquet

Since emerging as a breakout star, Chimaev has risen to become Kadyrov’s favorite fighter, surpassing others such as Abdul-Kerim Edilov and Magomed Bibulatov, both of whom also competed for the UFC. Kadyrov gifted Chimaev a luxury Mercedes Benz (which Chimaev promptly crashed) and reportedly convinced Chimaev not to retire despite suffering from health complications from a bout with COVID-19.

“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.”

Since then, Chimaev has become a regular guest at Kadyrov’s residence, drawing ire from fellow Chechens disappointed by his decision to promote the dictator who oppresses them.

Kadyrov and Chimaev posing behind a cannon

Last week, 1Adat, an anonymous Telegram channel in Chechnya popularly known for its mix of informative, humorous, and accusatory content, posted a series of attacks directed at Chimaev for his ongoing relationship with Kadyrov.

“Ukrainian boxers Lomachenko and Usyk stood up to defend their homeland from the invaders while Beterbiev and Chimaev, who called Kadyrov a brother and convinced people to support Akhmat’s path, keep silent, sitting in America and Europe,” read one of the posts. “Beterbiev suddenly became a Canadian, and Chimaev a Swede. And no one, even for the sake of decency, has renounced his past convictions, but only acts with the maximum personal benefit for himself.

“Where are you, Kadyrov’s athletes? Why are you not on the front lines? Why don’t you all march in droves to Ukraine, leaving behind your golden palaces, expensive foreign cars and a luxurious life?” continued the 1Adat post. “Suddenly it turned out that ‘the path of Akhmat Kadyrov,’ as we constantly said, is a common cover for traitors, cowards, and hypocrites.”

1Adat is not the first example of Chechen dissidents speaking out against Kadyrov’s UFC fighters. Mansur Sadulaev, the founder of Swedish-based Chechen human rights organization Vayfond, referred to Chimaev as a propaganda tool for the dictator.

“These [fighters] are well aware of the horrors this Putin mafia is doing in Chechnya,” Sadulaev told BloodyElbow via email. “They know about kidnappings, torture, rape of women and murders. However, they prefer to get their expensive Mercedes and praise these maniacs, thereby helping [Kadyrov’s government] cover up all their criminal activities. They became the mouthpiece of Kadyrov’s propaganda.”

Though Chimaev has not referenced Kadyrov since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, his Instagram account is peppered with posts promoting the warlord. One such post featured an image of Chimaev seated on a throne covered in wolf pelts with Kadyrov standing behind him. Other Instagram posts showed Chimaev and Kadyrov seated beside a cannon, petting a baby tiger, and alongside the dictator’s teenage sons. Each is accompanied by a caption showing support for Kadyrov.

“Chimaev has repeatedly stated that everything is just fine in Chechnya, and that he does not see any violations of human rights or other crimes that people talk about,” Sadulaev said.

Chimaev did not respond to BloodyElbow’s request for comment.

As arguably one of the brightest talents in the UFC, Chimaev has the potential to become the most successful Chechen athlete in a generation. This is precisely why Kadyrov has invested so much time, effort and resources to support the rising star.

By seizing the opportunity to claim Chimaev as one of his homegrown fighters, Kadyrov is furthering his own socio-political agenda, which includes distracting from his ongoing human rights abuses and proving that his Chechen fighters are the most elite competitors in the world.

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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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