MMA reporter Ariel Helwani has assessed the options for those who disagree with the political alignments of certain fighters.
The link between sports and politics has long been prevalent — not least in mixed martial arts, where fighters perhaps express beliefs more publicly than many other sports. That’s often the case in the UFC, where members of the roster have no limitations to their affiliations and political views.
With that, controversy often appears. And on a night where a new UFC lightweight champion was crowned, one of the main talking points was a connection to a much-criticized and controversial regime.
Cageside at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi earlier this month was welterweight contender Khamzat Chimaev. Beside him sat the 14-year-old son of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who’s been accused of well-documented human rights abuses in the past. Among the allegations are executions, torture, and the attempt to rid Chechnya of the LGBTQ+ community.
The presence of a Kadyrov at one of the UFC”s biggest events of the year came under scrutiny given the current political climate, which involves Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Just days before interacting with Chimaev and UFC President Dana White, Kadyrov’s son was filmed in army gear alongside Ukrainian prisoners of war in Mariupol.
Given Kadyrov’s past interactions with mixed martial artists, including Khabib Nurmagomedov, many have accused athletes of giving into the leader’s attempts at sportswashing — meaning the attempts of individuals, groups, or governments to utilize sport as a means to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing.
The latest incident involving the UFC drew a number of reactions on social media. While one Twitter user suggested that the promotion has gone “over the top” with its political allowances, so much so that they stopped watching, another instead criticized reporter Karim Zidan for highlighting ‘politics’ rather than the fighting.
Despite the latter view, there were certainly many speaking out against the UFC and its fighters’ association with the controversial leader. But according to Ariel Helwani, not a whole lot can be done.
Helwani: “There Has To Be A Line”
During a Q&A session on the latest episode of The MMA Hour, host Helwani was asked about Ali Kadyrov’s presence at UFC 280, as well as the numerous interactions between his father and MMA fighters in the past.
The renowned Canadian journalist began by acknowledging the unique dilemma that faces MMA fans given the sport’s more prominent association with certain political controversies.
“This is a tough one… I think there is no denying that Ramzan Kadyrov is a very controversial figure in the world. Some might call him a dictator,” Helwani said. “His past is very checkered… I’m being very kind and choosing my words wisely. And then you see some of the best fighters in the UFC hanging out, rubbing elbows with family members, Dana White taking a picture with his son.
“But guys, Ramzan Kadyrov is… he’s like the head of Chechnya, right? … You see these pictures… you’re like, ‘How am I supposed to feel about this?'” Helwani continued. “I don’t know if other top athletes in the major sports in North America, I don’t know if fans are faced with this dilemma.”
Helwani also noted the recent boxing equivalent, which saw the Fury family caught in the discussion surrounding US sanctions against Daniel Kinahan, who’s alleged to be the head of an Irish organized crime gang.
While the reporter agreed that there must be “a line” of some sort, he questioned where said line sits in regard to such controversial topics.
“Are we supposed to just separate those feelings and just appreciate the fighters? To a degree, people want to be dismissed because of their politics… but there has to be a line. I agree there’s a line,” Helwani stated. “I just don’t know in this regard what that line is… They’re taking pictures with someone who isn’t a friend to the United States and isn’t viewed as a good guy… What are you supposed to do then?
“On one hand, UFC says, ‘Hey, everyone’s viewpoints are welcome here.’ But it does seem as though there has to be a line, and it seems as though they’ll draw a line when it benefits them,” Helwani added. “It’s uncomfortable… it feels more and more prevalent in this sport.”
Ultimately, Helwani offered one solution. If fans disagree with fighters like Chimaev associating with individuals like Kadyrov, or appearing to publicly back criticized regimes, they should withdraw any and all support for them and their fights.
“There are people that are gonna come from certain parts of the world, that aren’t gonna mesh with how we feel,” Helwani said. “The beauty of it is, you can pick and choose who you want to support, who you want to root for, who you want to pay money to watch. That’s the best you can do, that’s really it.
“You don’t wanna buy a Khamzat fight? Don’t buy it. That’s really the only thing you can do. He’s not gonna stop being friends with this guy or his family because of you, or I, or anyone else. Only thing you can do is just not watch.”
Do you agree with Ariel Helwani’s assessment?
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