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In April this year, Khamzat Chimaev crashed his brand new Mercedes SUV. This wasn’t just any Mercedes, but one reportedly gifted to Khamzat by a man who’s currently under US sanctions for a slew of human rights abuses—Ramzan Kadyrov, the all-powerful leader of Chechnya.
A month earlier, it was Kadyrov who persuaded (or more likely pressured) Chechen-born Chimaev to rethink his retirement from MMA following a near-death battle with COVID-19. The 27-year-old, after all, had become the pride of Chechnya—a tiny Russian republic in the North Caucasus over which Kadyrov rules with an iron fist. And the Mercedes was just a little enticement from the warlord, and quite possibly, like an offer from a Mafia don, one Khamzat couldn’t refuse.
For most people, reciprocating a gift from your nation’s iron-fisted ruler by crashing it isn’t the smartest move. But for Chimaev, who became a UFC fan favorite last year for his regularly stated imperative to “smash everybody,” it almost seems poetic that he did the same to his Mercedes. And besides, Kadyrov simply bought him an even better Ferrari a month later.
But Kadyrov—who is under US sanctions for committing bloody anti-gay purges, extra-judicial killings, and the torture of his citizens—isn’t doling out luxury vehicles simply because he’s filled with the milk of human kindness. It’s more than likely he expects a return on investment from Khamzat in the form of his continued rise through the UFC ranks. Because “Borz” isn’t just his dear leader’s favorite fighter, but also his latest puppet to help distract from the crimes of his regime.
Ramzan Kadyrov: The World’s Sleaziest Fight Promoter
Mix the sociopathic tendencies of Saddam Hussein with the fight game ambitions of Dana White, and you have Ramzan Kadyrov, a despot who rules Chechnya as his personal fiefdom in between running his own MMA promotion, Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA) —a franchise that has generated outrage for hosting bouts between children.
For Kadyrov, involving himself in MMA is part of a strategy to “sportswash” his many heinous crimes against humanity. ACA, which has held over 150 MMA events across the globe, is one such avenue through which Kadyrov curates his public image as a sports-loving, hyper-masculine, yet benevolent leader. So too via his public flirtations with some of the UFC’s and boxing’s biggest stars.
In 2015, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, and Frank Mir visited Chechnya as honored guests of Kadyrov to attend the inaugural ACA event. Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson have also hung out with and snapped selfies with Kadyrov. And in late 2020, even Kamaru Usman accepted an invitation from the warlord to train at his Akhmat MMA facilities in Chechnya. Video shows the welterweight champ hanging out with Kadyrov’s sons after a sparring session, and even chanting the dictator’s slogan. Renzo Gracie, Alexander Gustafsson, Frankie Edgar, and Khabib Nurmagomedov have also experienced the red carpet treatment from Kadyrov.
Kadyrov’s tentacles run deep through the MMA world. With his Akhmat MMA Fight Club, the dictator runs a network of training facilities across many former Soviet states, and those in Chechnya not only produce a long line of talent for Kadyrov’s MMA promotion, but also foot soldiers for his army. Akhmat MMA Fight Club is, after all, run by the commander of Chechnya’s special forces.
Some Akhmat MMA graduates have even made it to the UFC, most notably light heavyweight rising star Magomed Ankalaev, who’s set to face Volkan Oezdimir at UFC 267 this weekend. Managing these fighters through a tight working relationship with Kadyrov is Ali Abdelaziz. The Dominance MMA president has since 2015 represented a number of UFC fighters who were developed through Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA gyms, including Magomed Bibulatov, Abdul-Kerim Edilov, Ruslan Magomedov, in addition to those currently on the UFC roster, Said Nurmagomedov, Maxim Grishin, and Ankalaev.
Abdelaziz, like many others profiting from their relationship with Kadyrov, has casually turned a blind eye to the warlord’s many human rights violations. In a 2019 interview with Luke Thomas, the MMA manager to the stars brushed off media coverage of Kadyrov’s anti-gay purges as simply fake news.
“A lot of people say a lot of shit. Right? I don’t know what this man in Chechnya thinks about gay, not gay,” Abdelaziz said. “But the whole thing is, I don’t know nothing about it, because I don’t believe anything the media says. I don’t see it with my eyes, I don’t believe it.”
Where Abelaziz’s business ethics failed to prevent him from pursuing commercial interests with Kadyrov, the US sanctions imposed late last year have most likely succeeded.
Kadyrov and Khabib: A Complicated Relationship
Perhaps the greatest PR strategy for a murderous dictator like Kadyrov is to latch onto the coattails of UFC stars from the North Caucasus region. For years, the Chechen strongman has attempted to court Khabib Nurmagomedov, who hails from neighboring Dagestan, into his good graces.
The former lightweight champ has received the full “dictator’s plaything” treatment from Kadyrov. He’s been invited to host training seminars at Kadyrov’s Akhmat gym and appear as a guest of honor at several of his MMA events. Khabib has also, like Chimaev, been lavished with luxury cars and even been anointed an honorary citizen of Chechnya.
But Khabib and Kadyrov’s relationship is one that’s been complicated by the messy politics of the North Caucasus. In 2019, the dictator claimed that Dagestan’s national hero, Imam Shamil—who led the Caucasian resistance to Imperial Russia in the 1800s—also caused the “annihilation of the Chechen people.” This didn’t sit well with the people of Dagestan nor Khabib, who’s since largely steered clear of Kadyrov. The tyrant did, however, attend the funeral of Nurmagomedov’s father Abdulmanap last year, where footage showed him embracing the lightweight GOAT.
Khamzat Chimaev: Kadyrov’s Latest Plaything
Just as his relationship with Khabib was on the outs, in stepped another shiny new plaything to monopolize Kadyrov’s attention—Khamzat Chimaev.
Last year, when Chimaev announced himself as the UFC’s next rising star by achieving three wins in just 66 days, Kadyrov wasted no time in worming his way into the good graces of the Chechen-born Swede, labeling him a “true Chechen” in a congratulatory post on Russian social media. That Chimaev represents Sweden and has resided there since his teens matters little to Kadyrov.
“Regardless of the country in which he performs, Khamzat always remembers that he is, first of all, a Chechen, and strictly observes the traditions and customs of his people,” wrote Kadyrov.
Prior to achieving UFC fame, Chimaev had visited Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA facility on numerous occasions, even hosting a training seminar for children. And since his breakout performances last year, “Borz” has well and truly taken Khabib’s place as his dear leader’s favorite fighter.
Kadyrov has of course showered him with lavish gifts. And like any third-world tyrant obsessed with projecting an image of machismo, has engaged in a sparring session with his 27-year-old compatriot.
These friendly gestures, however, seemingly carry with them weighty expectations for Chimaev. What Khabib Nurmagomedov had done for neighboring Dagestan, Chimaev was doing for Chechnya in 2020—smashing every opponent placed before him in the name of his beloved homeland. So when Khamzat announced his MMA retirement earlier this year, Kadyrov would have none of it. The tyrant was quick to “persuade” his favorite fighter into doing otherwise, even offering rehabilitation in Chechnya to speed his recovery.
“During our conversation, Chimaev realized how important his career is for every Chechen and promised to make every effort to recover as soon as possible,” Kadyrov wrote in an Instagram post. “In the near future, he will fly to the republic, where he will complete a rehabilitation course, hold a training camp, and start training.”
“And this means that Khamzat does not leave, HE REMAINS AND WILL FIGHT TO THE END!”
It’s probably safe to say that while Khamzat was likely all-in on making his UFC return if he wasn’t, he’d be facing far more dire repercussions than simply no longer receiving luxury vehicles from Kadyrov.
Yes, Chimaev resides in Sweden. But he no doubt has family in Chechnya, and international borders aren’t something that has deterred Kadyrov from exerting his power over Chechen expatriates, often with bloody results.
As “Borz” prepares to make his return to the Octagon at UFC 267 this weekend, it seems he’ll be fighting for more than just recapturing the form that saw him rise to prominence last year. And one man, from the confines of his opulent presidential palace in Grozny, will be watching closely.