HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel sent correspondent David Scott to Grozny, Chechnya to tell the story of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord running his private fiefdom with an iron fist thanks in part to the strategic use of MMA and soccer. Kadyrov is the most powerful man in his small corner of Russia and has the support of Vladimir Putin as well as a small private army of battle-hardened and well-trained young men. Sports and militarism feed into each other.
The segment featured several hardened MMA fighters who are competing in Kadyrov’s state-run fight club, Akhmat MMA. The ideal Chechen in Kadyrov’s vision is a warrior, someone who fights for his country both inside and outside of the octagon. Given Chechnya’s violent recent history and Kadyrov’s personal experience in war, it’s not terribly surprising.
Scott caught up with Khusein Khaliev, the Akhmat lightweight champion, and he discussed how he had to live in a refugee tent city after the Chechen war. He said he traded food rations for fighting lessons, which helped him develop into a champion. Kadyrov sees little difference between athletic prowess and military might, and he challenged the UFC to a tournament with Akhmet fighters with fights “to the death.”
Scott also spoke with Akhmat welterweight belt holder Beslan Ushikov, who is an active member of the Chechen special forces. As Karim Zidan told Scott on the program, Ushikov is the ideal of Chechen masculinity, and Ushikov said that he felt proudest after he won his fight when he got congratulated by Kadyrov. When sports are so central to Chechen society and Kadyrov controls them, he has the leeway to enact whatever agenda he wants.
As it turns out, that agenda is laced through with repression and torture, particularly against gay men. This isn’t even a matter of interpretation. Kadyrov himself spoke with Scott and detailed exactly how much he despises gay people, who he says don’t even exist in Chechnya. To him, they are “subhumans” who would represent an impurity in the blood of the Chechen people.
When Scott challenged him on the record of human-rights abuses against gay people, Kadyrov waved it off as lies by Chechnya’s enemies, before later saying he’d endorse “honor killings” of gay people by their families. When asked about American relations with Russia and Chechnya, Kadyrov was explicit. He said he’d give his life for his country, then threatened that if the two countries were to go to war, he’d gleefully watch as nuclear weaponry launched automatically to “turn the whole world over to screw it from behind.”