A growing number of elite MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters are the target of criticism for their links to Chechen leader and Putin protégé Ramzan Kadyrov.


A Dec. 13, 2022, report by Karim Zidan for the New York Times, has brought those well-known connections to light.


The Ultimate Fighter Championship (UFC) has long had a stable of elite fighters who are citizens of the Russian Federation (RF) – most of them from the Republic of Dagestan. Since Russia’s attempted full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the sporting promotion has tried to protect itself from political controversy.


Now the UFC is beginning to feel the pressure, as several of its most popular fighters have visited Chechnya recently and appeared to publicly fraternize with Kadyrov or members of his family.



The Chechen connection to MMA


Kadyrov has been a fan and promoter of mixed martial arts since the nascent sport’s popularity surged in the 2000s. He supports and sponsors many elite UFC fighters and in 2014 founded Fight Club Akhmat (FCA), based in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic. The FCA gym specializes in MMA and trains many of Russia’s elite prospects.


In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Kadyrov and the organizations affiliated with him – including FCA – for his involvement in gross violations of human rights. Kadyrov, the Treasury Department claims, “is a leader of an organization, the Kadyrovtsy, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuses.”

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The statement added, “Kadyrov and the forces he commands, commonly known as the Kadyrovtsy, are implicated in the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other serious violations of human rights.”


Today the Kadyrovtsy are engaged as an elite force in the RF occupation army, specializing in urban warfare. They have been terrorizing Ukraine’s civilian population and are now implicated in war crimes, such as the torture and rape of civilians.



In late November, following a UFC event in Dubai, three former champions –Kamaru Usman, Justin Gaethje (both of whom are still active) and Henry Cejudo – visited Chechnya after Kadyrov invited them to attend the birthday party of his son and to fire weapons at a shooting range where Kadyrov’s soldiers are trained.


The go-between


All three fighters mentioned above are managed by Dominance MMA, whose founder, Ali Abdelaziz, has longstanding connections to Kadyrov. Egyptian-born Abdelaziz even represents fighters from the Chechen leader’s FCA gym, mentioned by the U.S. Treasury Department when it sanctioned Kadyrov.


No stranger to controversy, Abdelaziz was allegedly on the New York City Police Department’s payroll from 2003 to 2010 as a covert agent who had infiltrated the Muslims of America organization after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Eventually, the FBI, suspecting that Abdelaziz might be a double agent, reportedly intervened to terminate his work with the New York police.



Today, Dominance MMA Management is one of the most powerful agents for fighters in the UFC.


The man who grew the sport


MMA is perhaps the fastest growing sport of the 21st century. The UFC, its top-tier promotion, was bought in 2001 for $2 million. Under the stewardship of Dana White, its current president, it has grown more than 2,000-fold over the past 20 years into a global brand that in 2016 was sold for $4 billion.


The outspoken Dana White has stayed on as president and often tried to expand the promotion into Russia, where the sport is extremely popular. Even Vladimir Putin is a fan and has made appearances at numerous events. In fact, in 2011, at an MMA event in Moscow, Putin was roundly jeered by fans amid accusations of voter fraud by his party.


Since Feb. 24, White has made attempts to buffer the UFC from any controversy stemming from Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.


In May of this year he banned fighters from appearing in the octagon – the distinctive caged ring used by the UFC as a sort of brand – carrying any sort of national flag. When pressed on the rationale behind the flag ban, the brash UFC president said, “You guys know why. Let’s not even play that f—king game.”



Somewhat beholden to the talents of fighters with Russian passports, White has had to walk a fine line. At the most recent UFC event in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, Magomed Ankalaev, a Moscow-born Dagestani fighter and member of Kadyrov’s FCA team, fought in the main event against the Polish fighter Jan Blachowicz. The fight was judged a draw, even though most observers felt Ankalaev had won.


After the fight Abdelaziz, who represents Ankalaev as well, publicly demanded strict action be taken against one of the judges of the fight.


Even Kadyrov went public against White saying, “Dana White, what happened to you? You were a normal, principled man, and today you took the championship belt out of the ring without handing it to the clear winner. Or has politics entered the UFC ring and requires you to referee dirty?” the Chechen leader posted.


The greatest UFC fighter and his Ukraine connection


Fighters from Dagestan and other regions of the Caucasus have punched above their weight in the sport of mixed martial arts for at least a decade.


Largely considered one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever had, undefeated former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is also represented by Abdelaziz. Since his retirement in 2021 the UFC star has founded the Eagles MMA club, whose members include the current lightweight champion Islam Makhachev.



Nurmagomedov, 34, and Makhachev, 31, are both Dagestani; the former an ethnic Avar and the latter an ethnic Lak. Both were coached from the time they were children by Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who died of COVID-19 complications in 2020 at the age of 57.


Now a posthumous legend in the sport, Abdulmanap had attended university in the Ukrainian city of Poltava. While serving in the Soviet Army, he began competing in judo and sambo (a martial art developed in the Soviet Union with rules similar to MMA). Eventually the elder Nurmagomedov became a sambo coach for the Ukrainian national team in 1992, shortly after independence.


Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s son Khabib even walked out to the ring under the Ukrainian flag early in his career. At one point he tried to obtain Ukrainian citizenship, but due to bureaucratic difficulties, he kept his Russian passport.


As Kadyrov takes a beating


With the Kadyrovtsy underperforming in their attempt to savage Ukraine and often the target of HIMARS attacks by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the various Caucasian ethnicities are becoming restive. There have been protests against the mobilization in the Dagestani city of Makhachkala, Nurmagomedov’s hometown.



This dissent can even be felt in the MMA community. One of the rising stars in MMA, Khamzat Chimaev, a Chechen who emigrated to Sweden as a teenager, is a friend of Kadyrov’s and visits him regularly. Chimaev has come under fire from other Chechen MMA fighters who support the anti-Kadyrov faction in exile.


So far, Khabib Nurmagomedov – who has met with both Putin and Kadyrov – has not made any statements publicly about Russia’s war against Ukraine. But if he does, it will certainly lead to shock waves in the MMA community. Moreover, his popularity in Dagestan is such that he could set off general protests and serve as catalyst for the RF fraying at the edges.

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