Here is a delightful vignette: UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman doing his best impression of the lezginka, the national dance of the North Caucasus region of Russia, in the palace of Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic. You can see Kadyrov in the video—he’s the short, bearded gentleman in black clapping and smiling at the edge of the parquet floor. He also happens to be perhaps the second-most powerful person in Russia, behind Vladimir Putin himself.
On March 14, a trio of UFC champions—one current, one interim, and one former—attended a mixed martial arts event in Grozny as Kadyrov’s personal guests. Akhmat FC was a star-studded event, featuring Weidman, interim heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, and former titleholder Frank Mir. Also in attendance were champion kickboxer and accomplished ne’er-do-well Badr Hari and three-time Olympic gold medalist Buvaisar Saitiev, the greatest freestyle wrestler in history. These international stars added flavor and prestige to an event that could easily be construed as one of Kadyrov’s many vanity projects.
Kadyrov has been the head of Chechnya since 2007, and intimately involved at the highest levels of politics in the region since his father Akhmad Kadyrov’s assassination in 2004. Far from being merely a politician with money to burn, Kadyrov is a true combat sports enthusiast. He is also an accused war criminal who is allegedly personally responsible for hundreds of deaths and for torture on a mass scale.
You could wonder, actually, why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. After all, this event brought together two institutions, one sporting and one political. One is a kleptocratic dictatorship founded on blood and ethnic strife; the other is the Chechen Republic.
The MMA event, Akhmat FC, was named in honor of Akhmad, who had switched sides from the Chechen separatists to pro-Russia forces during the Second Chechen War and been rewarded by Vladimir Putin with a post as head of the new government in the small autonomous region. Ramzan took over from his father, initially as deputy prime minister, and after consolidating his rule was officially named head by Putin himself in 2007 following his predecessor’s ouster.
Judging by the passed-out and presumably hungover faces of Werdum and Weidman on the flight home, the Akhmat event was a good time. The fights were excellent—the local talent is world-class by any measure—and the Chechen favorites won, which as far as the crowd was concerned amounted to the same thing. Kadyrov himself sat in the place of honor, as he is wont to do, and was feted throughout the evening. Afterward, the head and his guests retired to the presidential palace for an evening of eating, dancing, and presumably drinking. Top welterweight prospect Khusein Khaliev, who fought on the card, badly showed up Weidman in his rendition of the lezginka.
Frank Mir, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Fabricio Werdum have a good time; photo via Instagram
The event was almost certainly funded by Kadyrov, either directly or through the sports ministry, and the PR-savvy head went out of his way to secure celebrity appearances to buttress its reputation. This isn’t the first time the Chechens have paid large sums of money to foreigners for MMA-related things. Cage Warriors, one of the largest promotions in Europe, put on a show in Grozny in 2013, and CEO Graham Boylan tweeted (and later deleted) a picture of the cold, hard stacks of banded cash with which they were paid.
For the Akhmat event, Chechen authorities reached out to then-UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who according to a source with knowledge of the situation was offered more than $100,000 to attend. Jones turned the invitation down, but his manager Malki Kawa’s brother, and Kawa’s client Frank Mir, didn’t. They were given expedited visas and a police escort while driving through Chechnya, and were treated like kings. Badr Hari was even flown in on a private plane.
So who is Ramzan Kadyrov, and why did he drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on a mixed martial arts event?
The answer is complicated, like the Chechen strongman himself. Kadyrov is a combat sports fan, dictator, accused war criminal, bon vivant, Instagram enthusiast, ultra-nationalist motorcycle gang member, and, due to his close personal association with Vladimir Putin, one of the most important figures in Russian politics. On this last count, Kadyrov has received increasing attention over the last several years, including a recent profile in the New York Times that used the Akhmat FC event as a backdrop.
The Times focused on Kadyrov’s potential involvement in the highly publicized recent assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The five suspects Russian authorities arrested for his murder were all Chechens, and one of them—Zaur Dadayev—is a longtime associate of Kadyrov and former deputy commander of one of his security units. In one Instagram post posted after Nemtsov’s murder, Kadyrov referred to Dadayev as a “true Russian patriot,” but when questioned denied any knowledge of the investigation or the assassination.
While answers about Kadyrov’s role in Nemtsov’s assassination will likely remain elusive, the questions shed light on the increasingly important and unique role he plays within the Russian political ecosystem. He runs Chechnya, one of Russia’s 22 federal republics, with a degree of autonomy unheard of anywhere else in the country. It is effectively Kadyrov’s personal fiefdom. His word for all intents and purposes is law; security forces report directly to him; and vast sums of money flow from the central government to him personally. In return, Kadyrov is Putin’s loyal soldier and mouthpiece, a figure who can speak on the Russian national scale with the president’s voice and implicit approval and say the things Putin cannot. More importantly, Kadyrov keeps Chechnya from exploding into ethno-religious violence, as it did throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s at the cost of thousands of civilian lives in both the North Caucasus and the rest of Russia. Putin justifies his near-autocratic rule by pointing to his successes in keeping Chechnya under control. Kadyrov is the means to that end.
Ramzan Kadryov and Mike Tyson, 2005. Photo via Getty
Kadyrov took over after his father’s assassination in 2004 and consolidated his rule in brutal fashion. Journalists and human rights activists who raised questions about his behavior, or that of his security forces, ended up dead under mysterious circumstances. Factional rivals were assassinated in Moscow and Dubai. A former bodyguard who talked at length to the New York Times about Kadyrov’s abuses, Umar Israilov, was shot to death in Vienna in 2009. Kadyrov’s forces beheaded Islamist insurgents and targeted their families, and largely succeeded in driving them out of Chechnya proper. Hundreds of suspected militants were either killed outright or taken to a series of secret holding facilities, where torture on a mass scale was the order of the day.
It would be easy to paint Kadyrov as Putin’s puppet in the North Caucasus, or as a decadent second-generation legacy ruler, but Kadyrov is utterly ruthless, sophisticated, and surprisingly savvy. A State Department report on a 2006 wedding in neighboring Dagestan focused on Kadyrov’s excesses—he presented the newlywed couple with a 10-pound lump of gold, showered performers with banknotes, and danced awkwardly with a gold-plated pistol stuck in his waistband—but building relationships with power brokers in the region is no fool’s errand.
He is equally comfortable speaking the seemingly contradictory languages of violent Russian ultra-nationalism and dangerous Chechen ethnocentrism. He has built a cult of personality around himself and his family, and his utterly surreal Instagram account—on it, you can find everything from videos of monkeys doing push-ups to clips of military exercises to photos advertising Kadyrov’s Muslim piety or his connection to Putin—serves as a direct advertisement of his effectiveness as ruler to the people of Chechnya. Josef Stalin, Caesar Augustus, or Benito Mussolini would have salivated at the thought of a social media platform like Instagram through which to make the implicit argument for their centrality to the political system. When the system of governance is essentially personal, the ability to show hundreds of thousands of constituents that the leader is in fact doing meaningful things is an incredibly potent tool.
His appeal to Chechens should not be underestimated, and sources familiar with the region repeatedly emphasize the extent of his popularity. His brutality and heavy-handedness aside, many residents want nothing more than peace and order after decades of open and covert war, whatever the cost.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s vociferous love of combat sports is a constituent part of his carefully crafted, propagandizing appeal. What better way to present oneself as a man of the people than to support and engage in the favored sports of the region?
The North Caucasus, Chechnya included, produces elite combat sports athletes at perhaps a higher rate than anywhere in the world. Part of this grows out of the region’s peculiar cultural attitudes toward violence, but it is also a simple product of youth participation rates. Where children in the United States have their pick of many different sports, in the North Caucasus practically every boy wrestles, at least for a few years. The Russian Olympic wrestling and judo teams are recruited almost entirely from the region, and the overflow of talented competitors is enough to stock the wrestling teams of neighboring countries like Azerbaijan with transplants.
The surplus of trained athletes without a future in international wrestling, the king of North Caucasian sports, is also sufficient to produce absurd numbers of talented mixed martial artists, who leave wrestling for judo, sambo, or one of the bewildering variety of other combat sports rule-sets—pankration, army hand-to-hand combat, and kick-jitsu, to name a few—under which athletes compete. Government money, both at the federal and regional level, supports the coaches and training facilities that recruit and hone these athletes. That money has traditionally gone to wrestling schools. Under Kadyrov’s direction, it is increasingly targeted specifically toward MMA.
Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, and Fabricio Werdum at an Akhmat FC event; image via Instagram
Akhmat FC could be construed as a straightforward kind of appeal to the masses, but Kadyrov goes a step beyond merely funding those activities. Instead, he actively participates, and regularly posts videos of himself hitting pads, sparring, and posing with Chechen fighters. While vanity is a part of this ongoing hobby, it is also politically savvy. Men from the region, and Chechens especially, take their hard-earned reputation as warriors seriously. The North Caucasus have been ravaged by continual conflict for centuries, and the phrase “war-torn” is an almost ludicrous understatement in describing the consistent level of violence that has shaped the region.
Sports like MMA and wrestling are the natural outgrowth of cultures that place real social emphasis on proficiency at violence, and Kadyrov’s public image places him firmly within this long and illustrious tradition of ass-kickers. As Khusein Khaliev, an up-and-coming Chechen fighter and a particular favorite of Kadyrov’s, put it in an interview: “There were some wars in the past few decades, which of course affected my own personal upbringing, but our fighting culture in this region actually stems more from the past hundreds of years … a very, very old culture, with ancient values of heroism, honor, and respect, and even rules and codes for fighting, for settling disputes.” Practically every interview with a fighter from the North Caucasus in general or Chechnya in particular could supply a similar understanding of the warrior’s role in history and identity formation. In Khaliev’s formulation, “You just cannot be a man in this culture and not know how to fight; it is bred in and taught to us from the earliest ages.”
Viewed in this light, Ramzan Kadyrov’s support of combat sports is effectively an appeal to ethnic identity and popular sentiment. One constituent part of Kadyrov’s political program has been the promotion of the idea of Chechens as a special people with special, extraterritorial legal rights within Russia. That special status is built on a warrior ideal. Kadyrov recently proclaimed that Russian security forces could not operate in Chechnya without Chechen permission, and threatened to have them shot if they did so.
Akhmat FC was not only entertainment for the people of Grozny, but an encapsulation of Kadyrov’s self-image, his popular appeal, and his emulation of Vladimir Putin, who also associates with well-known athletes and sits ringside at MMA events.
But what about Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, and Frank Mir, the trio of UFC champions who attended the event? A simple Google search would have told them (or their managers) that Kadyrov was not simply a rich foreign politician, but the ruler of a gangster state-within-a-state with a long history of alleged human rights abuses.
From the fighters’ perspectives, it’s hard not to see the upside to earning tens of thousands of dollars in appearance fees for watching some fights, going to a party, and teaching a group of Chechen fighters a few things. Unlike Hillary Swank, Seal, or Jean-Claude van Damme—who were all paid to attend Kadyrov’s birthday party in 2011—their window for making actual money is narrow. In Mir’s and Werdum’s cases, that window is more likely to close altogether than to crack open any further. They have kids to feed and eventually put through college, and MMA, even at the highest levels, isn’t exactly A-list Hollywood in terms of compensation. (Per one source, Kadyrov’s people paid Werdum roughly 10 times what he would have made that same weekend as the UFC’s Spanish-language color commentator for its pay-per-view show.)
Russia is a massive new market for the UFC, which just signed a lucrative broadcast deal with state-owned TV, and nowhere in the country is more fanatical about MMA than Chechnya. More and more Chechen fighters are gracing UFC cards, including Zubaira Tukhugov, who got a personal shout-out on Kadyrov’s Instagram after winning his promotional debut in February 2014. The aforementioned Khusein Khaliev will likely join them in the near future. In fact, top flyweight prospect Magomed Bibulatov, for whom Kadyrov purchased a brand-new Mercedes Benz, recently signed with the U.S.-based World Series of Fighting promotion. In an utterly tone-deaf and clueless interview, World Series of Fighting matchmaker Ali Abdel-Aziz talked about how much Kadyrov loves MMA and supports his fighters, and indicated a strong desire to run a co-promoted show with the dictator.
Nobody in the MMA bubble seems to be paying the least bit of attention to the alleged atrocities with which Kadyrov is directly or tangentially associated. The shame of it is, this isn’t a part of the world that can be ignored when it comes to combat sports, and Kadyrov’s money, prestige, enthusiasm, and long, illustrious record of alleged human rights abuses are fundamental pieces of the terrible stew.
Regardless of how you feel about athletes hanging out with a gangster warlord, Weidman, Werdum, and Mir stepped into a surreal world at the intersection of politics, combat sports, and personal rulership. With Kadyrov’s increasing role as a close ally of Putin and Chechnya’s rise in the world of MMA, this will not be the last these different strands come together, and there’s no reason to think things will get less revolting from here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that MMA manager Malki Kawa attended the Akhmat FC event; he did not. We regret the error.
Patrick Wyman is a regular contributor to Sherdog.com and co-hosts the Heavy Hands podcast every Wednesday on BloodyElbow.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Patrick_Wyman. Top image via Instagram