On October 10, 2015, news broke that Fabricio Werdum—the Brazilian fighter who at the time was the UFC heavyweight champion—had partnered with Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal warlord at the helm of Russia’s Chechnya region.
The Brazilian had signed an affiliation agreement with Kadyrov’s personal MMA fight club, Akhmat MMA. His deal consisted of frequent visits to Chechnya as an ambassador for the promotion and required him to conduct a portion of his future training camps there.
“Fabricio was happy to accept what ultimately was a very lucrative offer, but this deal is not just a financial arrangement,” Werdum’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told MMA Junkie at the time. “He was in Chechnya earlier this year, and he was treated like a king. It was an amazing experience for Fabricio, and the opportunity to partner with Akhmat Fight Club was something he didn’t want to pass up.
“Honestly, I think opportunities like this are something all managers should be looking for in the sport. With the changing landscape of sponsorship opportunities, you have to think outside of the box.”
Once the deal was struck, the UFC’s reigning heavyweight champion was paraded around in the streets of the Chechen capital, Grozny, alongside a man accused of horrific human rights abuses that would only grow more sinister over the coming years.
Reporting on Kadyrov
I also happened to be in Russia at the time. I remember sitting at a cafe in Sochi, the resort town along the Black Sea, when the article appeared on my Twitter feed. I was already familiar with Kadyrov through my own experiences with his henchmen in Russia but had yet to write about the tyrant with a penchant for the fight game. I decided to strike while the iron was hot.
My article was published a little more than two weeks later on the now-defunct Sports on Earth with the title “UFC Champ’s Complicated Russian Ties.”
Though I have since done far more important reporting on Kadyrov, this article is significant because it was the one of the rare occasions where the UFC was willing to comment on the record.
“It is important to note that UFC fighters operate as independent business partners, not employees, and that subject to their contractual commitments to UFC they are free to conduct business and to participate in activities as they choose,” Dave Sholler, who was the UFC’s vice president for public relations, told me in 2015. “We do expect, however, all fighters to be mindful that their actions reflect well on themselves, the sport and the UFC organization.”
This particular article also happened to be the first time that Ali Abdelaziz attempted to threaten me for reporting on one of the fighters he represented. I spoke to Bloody Elbow founder Nate Wilcox about this early experience with Ali during a recent interview, available here.
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