At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ramzan Kadyrov — the tyrant at the helm of Russia’s Chechnya region and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — gathered his troops in the main square of the region’s capital Grozny in a show of combat readiness.
With Kadyrov dressed in a khaki-green outfit with a matching tactical belt and a pair of military-themed Prada boots, a menacing smile crept across his bearded face as he made a defiant promise to seize Kyiv.
“We once again gathered to show that we fully support the decision of the supreme commander-in-chief [Putin]. And we will not let you down. We will fulfill any order. [We] have prepared, are preparing and will always prepare,” Kadyrov said in his address on Chechen state TV.
The footage showed Kadyrov flanked by some of the most powerful men in Chechnya, including Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the Russian Parliament and formerly on Interpol’s wanted list for plotting an assassination, and Abuzayed Vismuradov, a decorated general and Kadyrov’s right-hand man, who was sanctioned by the United States government in 2019 for his role in Chechnya’s purge of sexual minorities. He is also in charge of Kadyrov’s mixed martial arts (MMA) empire.
MMA is a full-contact, combat sport that incorporates techniques from various martial arts, including striking, kicking and grappling. Once a fringe and unregulated activity, MMA has emerged as one of the fastest-growing sports in the past two decades, with a global audience, mainstream attention and a multimillion-dollar industry.
Known by his nom de guerre “Patriot,” Vismuradov is the president of the Akhmat MMA fight club — a combat sports training facility and fight organization funded by Kadyrov — and the man responsible for overseeing thousands of Chechen men as they train to become professional fighters.
Behind Vismuradov stood Abdul-Kerim Edilov, a former MMA fighter who competed for the popular U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) before becoming the vice premier of Chechnya. And though Edilov was not among those deployed to Ukraine, he stood armed with a machine gun and a tactical vest packed with extra ammunition.
“Proud to die in this path,” he later wrote on Instagram.
Vismuradov’s and Edilov’s prominent positions alongside Kadyrov underscore the important role that MMA plays in cementing the dictator’s totalitarian rule in Chechnya, as well as a farming system for his private army. It also sheds light on how Kadyrov’s obsession with the violent sport helps bolster the republic’s war machine.
Situated in the mountainous landscapes of the North Caucasus along the Caspian Sea, Chechnya has been invaded numerous times throughout history, most recently during two brutal wars with Russia in the 1990s.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Chechnya seized its opportunity to declare independence from Russia, which had occupied the republic since 1859. Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician and former Soviet general, toppled the local communist government and became the first president of the free Chechen Republic. By 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched the first Chechen war — an effort to bring the rebellious republic back under Russian control — which cost the lives of more than 5,000 Russian soldiers and more than 50,000 Chechen civilians over the two years until a peace treaty was signed.
Following the war, which ended with Russian troops withdrawing from the republic, Chechnya descended into a state of turmoil. Dudayev had been killed before the war ended in 1996, and the ensuing power vacuum led to violent struggles between Islamic extremists and the Chechen nationalists who led the republic during the first war. Kidnapping became a fruitful business, and more than 1,300 people were abducted and held for ransom in the years leading up to the second Chechen war.
In September 1999, a month after Putin became prime minister, there was a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people. Putin accused the Chechens, who denied any role in the explosions, and ordered airstrikes on Grozny, which launched the second Chechen war. What followed was a vicious military campaign and the destruction of the region’s capital.
Following the end of the second Chechen war in 2000, the Kremlin reached an agreement with Chechnya that gave the republic increased financial support and resources in exchange for its complete loyalty to the Russian Federation. Putin placed Akhmat Kadyrov — a mufti and militia leader who switched sides to fight alongside the Russians during the war— in charge of the republic. Akhmat was then assassinated in a bomb blast in 2004, paving the way for his son to ascend to power three years later.
Endowed with economic support and a hefty budget in exchange for the continual suppression and pacification of Chechnya, Kadyrov took the reins of a semi-autonomous republic and transformed it into his own personal fiefdom, which he rules with an iron fist.
Kadyrov molded Chechen society in his ideal image, encouraging displays of religious piety and military might while orchestrating extrajudicial killings and abductions targeting those who opposed him. He built a cult of personality around himself and his late father while defining hypermasculinity and sporting prowess as highly valued in Chechen society.
Much like other strongmen before him, Kadyrov uses sport to distract from well-documented human rights abuses, a process known as sportswashing. In Kadyrov’s case, these alleged crimes include a deadly crackdown on LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya that resulted in torture and summary executions, as well as a recent string of assassinations and abductions targeting Chechen dissidents living abroad.
Kadyrov also uses sport, and especially combat sports, to socialize Chechen youth. By elevating Chechen fighters to an elite social status, lavishing them with luxury goods and cars, and propagating the idea that proficiency in combat sports such as MMA is part of the ideal Chechen manhood, Kadyrov has popularized the sport and created a pool of fighters, ready at his disposal for combat.
In 2015, Kadyrov launched his own gym franchise and fight league, now known as Akhmat MMA.
Fitted with a gladiatorial name, the Coliseum Sports Hall serves as Chechnya’s combat sports stage — a platform for ambitious fighters to represent their republic while pledging allegiance to the man seated on a raised dais overlooking them: Kadyrov.
Surrounded by his closest henchmen, bought celebrities and an entourage of obedient yes-men committed to entertaining his every whim, Kadyrov admires the sea of “Akhmat MMA” shirts and flags emblazoned with pictures of his late father and Putin. Chants of “Akhmat Sila” (a battle cry popularized by Kadyrov that translates to Akhmat Power) reverberate throughout the arena as thousands of young Chechen men cheer on their republic’s new national pastime and the leader who championed it.
According to Mansur Sadulaev, the founder of the Chechen human rights organization Vayfond, such scenes are commonplace in Chechnya and encapsulate the hypermasculine society that Kadyrov has gradually imposed upon his people over the past 15 years.
“Sports have always been very popular among Chechen youth, especially combat sports,” Sadulaev told New Lines. “Kadyrov, of course, did not miss the chance to use this for his own selfish purposes.”
By weaponizing combat sports such as MMA, Kadyrov has been able to propagate new societal ideals that have eroded longstanding traditions within Chechen society, including Islamic traditionalism. Chechnya, a Muslim republic, has a lengthy history in Sunnism and Sufism, and held strict rules about how men should act and what was permissible. Over time, these rules gave way for Kadyrov’s sports-driven and performative masculinity, where Chechnya’s proud warrior class was replaced with modern-day prizefighters. This form of sports institutionalization helped Kadyrov shape Chechen society while also cementing his legitimacy.
The Akhmat MMA fight club consists of an MMA organization and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other post-Soviet states. The fight club is sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget and bears the name of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs and travel fees in exchange for them representing the club wherever they compete.
Through his fight club, Kadyrov was able to establish relationships with a seemingly endless list of celebrities, including the likes of former martial artist turned D-list actor Steven Seagal and boxing legends like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. He has also invited more than half-a-dozen past and current UFC champions to hold training seminars at Akhmat MMA. These associations serve the dictator’s soft power strategy to enhance his public image as a benevolent patron of sports.
“When young people see their idols in the arms of Kadyrov and hear how they praise him, they begin to believe that Kadyrov is a good, generous person,” Sadulaev said. “They do not understand that the money that he generously gives to athletes is the money of the inhabitants of the republic, taken from their salaries.”
Several fighters affiliated with Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA have also competed for the UFC over the past few years, which has furthered Kadyrov’s sportswashing ambitions since he can now boast about his fighters’ success competing for the world’s leading MMA organization. One of Kadyrov’s fighters, Magomed Ankalaev, even headlined a recent UFC show in Las Vegas, emerging victorious while edging closer to a potential championship opportunity. For Kadyrov, this highlights his growing influence in the world of combat sports.
Indeed, Kadyrov’s MMA empire has not gone unnoticed. On Dec. 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued its latest round of sanctions targeting Kadyrov for “serious violations of human rights.” Additionally, the OFAC sanctioned Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club for providing the dictator with “pride and profit.” This official designation cemented Kadyrov’s fight club as an extension of his oppressive government.
While the OFAC sanctions theoretically could hinder the dictator’s sportswashing ambitions in the U.S., they have little impact on his actions in Chechnya. MMA continues to be a source of influence and image laundering for Kadyrov, while his fight club has evolved from a vanity project into a breeding ground for soldiers looking to prove their loyalty to the Chechen leader.
Of the thousands of Chechen men who train at Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA facilities, only a handful go on to become full-fledged professional fighters representing their republic.
Many of those who don’t make the cut go on to join military and police regiments in Chechnya, including the Terek SWAT forces (controlled by Vismuradov), as well as the so-called Kadyrovtsy paramilitary units infamous for committing widespread human rights abuses such as kidnapping, forced disappearances and murder. And while the Kadyrovtsy are mostly used as tools of domestic oppression, they are occasionally deployed to war zones such as Syria and Ukraine, where they go on to commit countless war crimes.
Known as Kadyrov’s private militia, the Kadyrovtsy is considered to be one of the most feared organizations in Russia. The militia has previously worked as death squads to eliminate Chechen dissidents, opposition members and Kadyrov’s enemies. At Kadyrov’s discretion, the Kadyrovtsy also act as an extension of Putin’s military forces, having previously been deployed to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in Syria in 2016.
The Kadyrovtsy are also believed to be behind the intimidation and assassination of several of Kadyrov’s critics in Russia and across Europe. Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov, who made the shocking revelation that he had been personally tortured by Kadyrov, was murdered in Vienna in 2009. Later that year, Chechen rebel commander Sulim Yamadayev was shot dead in Dubai, for which Delimkhanov was put on Interpol’s wanted list. Several Chechen dissidents have been assassinated in Istanbul over the past few years, each killing believed to have been ordered by Kadyrov or the Russian security services. In 2020, outspoken Chechen blogger and opposition leader Imran Aliev was found dead in a hotel room in the northern French city of Lille after being stabbed repeatedly.
In July 2017, HBO Real Sports released a documentary that revealed how Kadyrov uses Akhmat MMA as a farming system for his private militia. More than 5,000 Chechen men trained at Kadyrov’s MMA facilities at the time, though only a handful of them went on to become professional fighters. The rest are funneled into various military and police regiments, where their hand-to-hand combat training can be applied elsewhere.
Kadyrov has gone out of his way to elevate athletes who moonlight as soldiers. Among them is Beslan Ushukov, a former champion in Kadyrov’s organization who is also a member of the Special Chechen Forces unit. Ushukov competed as recently as February 2022, earning a decisive victory at an Akhmat show in Moscow, boosting his professional record to 18 wins and five losses.
Ushukov has emerged as a household name in Chechnya, primarily thanks to Kadyrov’s continued support for the fighter. Prior to being suspended from Instagram for his inclusion in the Global Magnitsky sanctions list, Kadyrov’s social media profile was filled with posts celebrating Ushukov’s skills, as well as his “achievements in sports, modesty and decency.” The fighter could regularly be seen alongside Kadyrov, whether dressed in military garb or in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt following a training session.
As someone who fights both inside the cage and on the battlefield, Ushukov is the embodiment of Kadyrov’s ideal Chechen man.
“I want to congratulate my brother on his victory,” Kadyrov said following Ushukov’s recent win. “I am sure that a huge army of MMA fans is already waiting for more beautiful performances and bright victories.”
While Ushukov continues to fight professionally, it is possible that several of his Akhmat MMA training partners will be utilized as soldiers in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Kadyrov has allegedly deployed thousands of troops to Ukraine and promised that another 70,000 “volunteers” are ready to join the fray. Among those who are reportedly tasked with selecting troops for deployment is Vismuradov, in yet another connection between Kadyrov’s MMA institution and his state-funded war machine.
Even Kadyrov’s MMA “Akhmat Sila” battle cry is now regularly used by his soldiers in videos posted from the battlefield in Ukraine.
As his MMA empire continues to grow, so too, does his authoritarian sphere of influence and his ability to help fight Putin’s wars.