Wagner’s march on Moscow

On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin—the Russian oligarch and founder of the Wagner private mercenary group—launched what appeared to be the most serious challenge to Vladimir Putin’s rule when he called for an uprising against Russia’s military leaders. 

Less than 12 hours later, Wagner forces had seized control of key military facilities in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and continued to advance on Moscow in what Putin described as an “armed mutiny” against Russia. 

The Kremlin responded by deploying forces at key sites in Moscow and Rostov while Russia’s domestic intelligence service, Federal Security Service (FSB), launched a criminal case against Prigozhin accusing him of “calling for an armed rebellion.” Meanwhile, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov announced that his private forces were prepared to put down the attempted insurrection and were en route to Moscow. 

Yet as Wagner forces were approaching Moscow, Prigozhin suddenly announced on Telegram that his forces were standing down and heading back to their camps in occupied Ukraine, bringing an apparent end to an absurd 24 hours. 

Nevertheless, a surprising common thread has emerged in the wake of the attempted coup, linking the notorious Wagner and Kadyrov’s Akhmat battalion: their heavy recruitment from the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). 

Wagner’s MMA recruitment

Wanger first came to prominence in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Mercenaries associated with Wagner fought alongside pro-Russian separatist forces in occupied eastern Ukraine. Since then, its contracted soldiers have reportedly been involved in various Russian military operations around the world, including the civil wars in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. Most recently, the group has been involved in Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine. 

The Wagner group was originally made up of experienced former soldiers from Russia’s elite regiments. However, the unit began recruiting troops drawn from prisons to feed Russia’s war machine in Ukraine.

The Wagner group also focused on recruiting combat sports athletes from various martial arts gyms and sports clubs in Russia. Over the past few months, I have uncovered more than 60 participating gyms across Russia, including eight participating gyms in Moscow, most of which cater to adults and children alike. Six of the gyms are located in St. Petersburg, while dozens more are located in Anapa, Astrakhan, Barnaul, Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Orenburg, Volgograd, and Voronezh. 

Among the most notable facilities being utilized is the Russian Boxing Federation headquarters in Tyumen. The federation, which acts as the governing body for both amateur and professional boxing in Russia, pledged its support for the invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, stating at the time: “”The entire boxing community of Russia expresses its full confidence and support to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!”

Several other recruitment centres are located within federally-owned Olympic reserve schools, including those in Barnaul and Irkutsk. 

On occasion, Wagner has been able to recruit MMA fighters from penal colonies. Hayk Gasparyan, a Armenian MMA fighter, was several months into his seven-year sentence for armed robbery when he was recruited to join the the mercenary group. He participated in the war in Ukraine and has since been pardoned following his six-month term of service. 

Gasparyan was later awarded the Order of Courage by Putin during a ceremony Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia. 

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Sports Politika is the home of Karim Zidan’s original content that focuses on the intersections between sports and politics. At Sports Politika you can find Zidan covering topics you may be familiar with from the world of MMA and boxing. However, Sports Politika also goes beyond the ring and the cage, covering stories of sportswashing across all of world sport.

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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