As the war in Ukraine heads into winter, Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s closest allies, is gaining visibility and propaganda through his connections to Ultimate Fighting fighters Championship and others in mixed martial arts.
And although the UFC as a company has repeatedly said its company has no connection to Kadyrov and abides by all laws, government officials in the United States say they are aware of the links. Apparent clashes between UFC athletes and Kadyrov, the strongman from Chechnya who faces severe legal restrictions.
Kadyrov provided soldiers to support Russian forces fighting in Ukraine and was one of the most warmongering cheerleaders of the invasion, at one point calling on Putin to use a low-yield nuclear weapon against Ukraine. . Kadyrov also owns several mixed martial arts-related businesses that have been restricted by the Treasury Department for US citizens and others seeking to do business in the United States. Companies include Akhmat MMA, a gym that trains and sponsors fighters, and the restrictions also prevent people from doing business with Kadyrov.
Still, the main event of UFC 282 on Saturday featured Magomed Ankalaev, who has been sponsored by Akhmat for most of his career, competing for the light heavyweight championship.
Neither Ankalaev nor his opponent took the belt after a rare split draw. Still, the fight was the latest in a string of recent moments that have linked UFC figures with Kadyrov and people in his orbit.
Last month, three former UFC champions traveled to Chechnya at the request of Kadyrov, who was first reprimanded by Treasury sanctions in 2017 and accused of a wide range of human rights abuses. man, including the abduction, torture and murder of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. Kadyrov received additional war-related sanctions in September, as did his adult wives and children.
Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, former flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and former interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje were pictured in November testing grenade launchers and assault rifles at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya. The facility is used to train Russian special forces units, including those taking part in warfare.
Usman, Gaethje and Cejudo also attended a birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s teenage sons. For Usman, it was the third time he has visited Chechnya since 2020, and the second time since the Treasury Department imposed sanctions directly on Kadyrov’s MMA businesses.
Ali Abdelaziz, an agent who represents Usman, Gaethje, Cejudo and Ankalaev, among many other fighters, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Neither did an agent of Chimaev.
On Twitter Sunday, Gaethje said he had never met Kadyrov but acknowledged his trip to Chechnya. “I went to the kids’ birthday party,” he said. “I also like shooting guns.”
Penalties, which are broad, are generally designed to discourage people from taking actions that will benefit those facing restrictions, financially or otherwise. Simple interactions could be subject to severe penalties.
A State Department official with knowledge of investigations into Kadyrov’s business dealings said in a statement, “The State Department is aware of Kadyrov’s association with Chechen UFC fighters.” The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the enforcement of Treasury sanctions and shared the statement on condition of anonymity. Although the State Department has previously noted Kadyrov’s ties to combat sports, the statement is its first direct mention of athletes with the UFC having ties to Kadyrov.
In October, at UFC 280, held in the United Arab Emirates, Chimaev sat cageside with two of Kadyrov’s teenage sons, who are underage and not among Kadyrov’s children. who were named in the sanctions. Chimaev and one of the boys, who is 14, posed for a photo with UFC president Dana White. The photo later appeared on an Instagram account associated with Kadyrov, who has long used similar photographs to burnish his reputation.
In a statement, the UFC said it had “no contractual or business relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov” or anyone affiliated with him. He added that the more than 600 fighters from more than 70 different countries were independent contractors, “who control many aspects of their careers, including where they train or where they live when not competing.” .
The UFC has sometimes told fighters not to work or be affiliated with certain people or companies. Recently, the UFC banned fighters from working with a gym and trainer due to investigations in at least two US states and Canada into suspicious betting patterns.
Shahroo Yazdani, a Washington-based attorney at Price Benowitz who specializes in Treasury sanctions, noted that a press release announcing the latest sanctions against Kadyrov specifically mentioned his association with mixed martial arts and how he recruited fighters for the war in Ukraine. through its MMA clubs.
“With that specifically noted in the designation, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with his MMA associates,” Yazdani said. “We could well see more fighters arrested at airports and potentially even more designations tied to those who work with his MMA club.”
After UFC 280, Chimaev fought with a fighter who is the cousin of former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Kadyrov then posted a screenshot on Instagram of a video call with the two fighters and proclaimed he had resolved the “misunderstanding” between them.
“I made sure of that personally,” Kadyrov said in the caption of his post.
Abuzayed Vismuradov, a colonel in Kadyrov’s militia considered one of the most powerful men in Chechnya and who leads Akhmat MMA, posted a video on Instagram with the fighters showing the conflict was resolved.
Also in the video were retired champion Nurmagomedov, as well as Islam Makhachev – who won the lightweight title at UFC 280. In front of the men, a UFC belt lay on a table.
“The dogs are barking, the caravan is moving,” Vismuradov said in a caption to the video in which he also congratulated Kadyrov directly and concluded with the battle slogan for Kadyrov loyalists: “Akhmat Power.”
In 2019, Vismuradov received sanctions from the US Treasury Department, which said he “was responsible for an operation that unlawfully detained and tortured people based on their real or perceived LGBTI status.”
Chimaev, a Swedish resident of Chechen descent who trains at Allstars Training Center in Stockholm, has had a high-profile relationship with Kadyrov since joining the UFC in 2020. On Sunday, Chimaev posted a video on Instagram of a practice montage alongside Kadyrov’s teenage sons. and members of his Allstars team in Dubai. The video was reposted by the Kadyrov-affiliated account, and both were captioned with the tagline “Akhmat Power”.
Chimaev’s two most recent fights have been in the United States, and Ankalaev appeared to have been in the country for over a month before his fight on Saturday. However, some Akhmat MMA fighters have struggled to obtain US visas in recent months, a potential sign of the difficulties the UFC could face if the US government increases its pressure.
Maxim Grishin, a Russian-born Akhmat MMA fighter, was scheduled to fight in Las Vegas on Nov. 5, but his fight was abruptly canceled days before the fight. Grishin said in an interview with Russian media that he had difficulty obtaining a visa.
Grishin said he does not believe his affiliation with Kadyrov led to his travel difficulties, but also revealed that he was advised not to go public with their friendly relationship.
“I was told that it was better not to associate with the Akhmat Fight Club, of which I am a representative,” Grishin told Match TV in an interview also picked up by Russia Today, the television channel of Russia. state-controlled English language. briefing. “But it’s not just a contract, we have a brotherly relationship. I considered it cowardly. Sport is separate from politics, why should I hide anything? I’m not doing anything wrong with the universe, why should the universe hurt me?”
The UFC declined to answer questions about Grishin. Asked about visa denials to Russian nationals, a State Department spokesman said visa records were confidential and by law he could not provide details of individual visas.
In September, the State Department announced visa restrictions against 910 Russians in response to the invasion of Ukraine, as well as sanctions against other key Russian officials.
“We will hold to account any individual, entity or country that provides political or economic support for Russia’s illegal attempts to alter the status of Ukrainian territory,” US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in the announcement. .