Several months ago, a trio of former UFC champions visited Chechnya at the behest of the republic’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, former flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, and former interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje were pictured at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya, which is used to train Russia’s special forces units preparing to take part in the country’s war on Ukraine.

Footage later posted on the dictator’s social media accounts showed the former champions testing out assault rifles and other weapons of war at the facility. In one shot, Gaethje fired an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher at a distant target before turning to the camera to flex his muscles with a smile etched across his face.

“The [fighters] really got a lot of positive emotions from visiting Russia,” Kadyrov said in a caption accompanying the video. “Now they want to invite other UFC fighters to join us so that athletes can watch how real men and defenders of the Fatherland learn to fight.”

Usman, Gaethje and Cejudo later attended a birthday party for Kadyrov’s teenage son Adam, whom weeks earlier had been sent to Mariupol, the occupied Ukrainian port city destroyed by Russian forces, to take part in propaganda photo-ops with his brothers while dressed as soldiers. He later returned to Chechnya with Ukrainian prisoners of war that they handed to Kadyrov as a “gift.”

While the controversial footage drew the attention of mainstream outlets and the U.S State Department and raised questions about whether the fighters violated international sanctions, two of the three champions are scheduled to headline Saturday’s UFC 286 event in London, England.

Usman is set to face welterweight champion Leon Edwards in the UFC 286 main event while Gaethje will meet fellow knockout specialist Rafael Fiziev in the co-main event slot. Their involvement in the event cements the notion that neither competitor will face any repercussions for their actions. Instead, they’ve been rewarded with marquee match-ups.

And while the strange trip marked the first time that Cejudo and Gaethje visited Chechnya, it was Usman’s third trip to the semi-autonomous republic in Russia, and his second since the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions targeting Kadyrov’s mixed martial arts empire.

In November 2020, Usman—then welterweight champion—visited Chechnya for the first time to attend Adam Kadyrov’s birthday party and to spar with him and his brothers in a private training session. Footage showed Usman joking around with Kadyrov’s sons in the dictator’s private gym and chanting the phrase “Akhmat Sila”—a battlecry which translates to “Akhmat Power” and which is popular among Kadyrov loyalists.

The welterweight champion returned to Chechnya in November 2021—nearly a year after the Treasury Department cracked down on Kadyrov’s fight club— to once again attend Adam’s birthday party. Despite his repeated visits, Usman has refused to answer questions about his apparent ties to Kadyrov and his family.

Gaethje, on the other hand, admitted to attending Adam’s birthday party in November 2022. He also acknowledged that he visited the Russian Special Forces University, adding that he likes to “shoot guns.”

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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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