As the lights dim inside the CSKA Arena in Moscow, Russia, the raucous crowd grows silent with anticipation. A teenager with an infamous father is set to make his professional mixed martial arts (MMA) debut. The young man emerges from the entrance tunnel, his angular face filled with determination. He struts toward the cage with the confidence of a veteran competitor at the height of his game. Once inside, he paces back and forth as he awaits the announcer to introduce him to the 5,000-strong audience. When the time comes, he flexes for the camera as his name rings through the arena: Ali Kadyrov, son of Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord at the helm of Russia’s Chechnya region.
On Dec. 23, 2022, 16-year-old Ali made his professional MMA debut in a fight that embodied the spirit of his father’s complex propaganda displays. The fight took place in an MMA organization called Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA), which is owned by Kadyrov and operated by his henchmen. The budding fighter draped himself in an olive green and blood-red flag emblazoned with a picture of his grandfather, Akhmad Kadyrov, a former president of Chechnya who was assassinated in 2003 and elevated to near-sainthood by his son. Ali was also joined by one of his coaches, Khamzat Chimaev, a Chechen superstar who competes for the world-renowned Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The fight also appeared to be fixed in Ali’s favor, ensuring a dominant victory in front of his compatriots. Ali faced little resistance as he toyed with his opponent for several minutes before sending him tumbling to the canvas with a pair of left hooks. He hovered over his opponent, landing a series of feathery punches that did not appear to be causing any damage. Nevertheless, the referee opted to stop the fight in the opening round and declared the dictator’s son victorious.
The teenager celebrated by performing a backflip off the top of the cage, mimicking his favorite UFC fighters. He dedicated his win to his father, to whom he expressed gratitude for the development of combat sports in Chechnya, and concluded by chanting the phrase “Akhmat Sila” (a battle cry popularized by Kadyrov that means “Akhmat Power”).
The event served as the latest example of Kadyrov’s long-standing approach to use sports and his own children to advance his personal politics. In this respect, the dictator — who has been accused by Western governments and nongovernmental organizations of harrowing human rights atrocities, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and an ongoing purge of Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community — is exploiting his sons to cement his legacy and ensure the future of the Kadyrov family as Chechnya’s supreme clan. Lauding the family’s perceived achievements in combat sports is an important aspect of this.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kadyrov has also begun positioning his sons not just as skilled fighters but as future politicians, and even trained soldiers, to secure his dynastic lineage.
Since his rise to power in 2007, Kadyrov has subjected the semi-autonomous republic of Chechnya to his iron-fisted rule.
Having consolidated his power in the wake of his father’s assassination, Kadyrov has bent Chechen society to his will. He has developed a cult of personality around himself and his late father; allegedly orchestrated the slayings of political opponents, activists and journalists critical of his regime; persecuted marginalized groups, including women and religious minorities; and encouraged sporting prowess and military might as prized traits in Chechen men.
The Chechen warlord has presented himself as a staunch ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchange for his unwavering loyalty and ongoing suppression of rebellion in Chechnya, Kadyrov is endowed with a hefty budget and limited oversight from the Kremlin. He is also a vocal proponent of the ongoing war in Ukraine and has sent thousands of his private militia troops to take part in the conflict.
Kadyrov has also used sports to launder his reputation abroad and distract from his human rights abuses. For example, he owns a soccer team in the Russian Premier League and a stable of prize-winning horses in the United Arab Emirates. However, the dictator has mainly relied on combat sports as the core component of his sports propaganda. He has launched his own gym franchise, known as Akhmat MMA, and paid fighters a monthly stipend to train and represent the club wherever they compete. Some of those fighters have gone on to compete in the UFC, giving Kadyrov a world-renowned platform to propagate his political agenda.
Kadyrov has used his fight club to cultivate relationships with celebrities within the combat sports world, including boxing legends Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. He also flew in celebrities such as Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme to celebrate his 35th birthday — an incident that drew ire from human rights organizations at the time.
Countless UFC fighters and former champions have visited Kadyrov’s fight club and posed for photo-ops at the dictator’s behest. Such public relations tactics enhance Kadyrov’s image as a popular leader and present him as a selfless patron of sports, rather than a brutal tyrant. They have also allowed him to recast perceptions of masculinity in Chechnya. In the Muslim-majority republic, men wearing shorts and prizefighting, both of which are components of MMA, are prohibited under Islamic tradition. But with Kadyrov at the helm, these rules have given way to the dictator’s sports-driven and performative masculinity, reshaping Chechen society according to his vision of Islam.
In October 2016 — one year after launching his fight club and MMA league — Kadyrov hosted an MMA show to celebrate his 40th birthday. The event included three fights featuring the dictator’s sons — Akhmad, Ali and Adam — whose ages ranged from 8 to 11. The fights were broadcast across the Russian Federation despite the fact that full-contact fights between children are illegal in the country. Nevertheless, the three princelings won their fights and were awarded miniaturized championship belts for their victories.
This showcase was only the beginning. Over the next seven years, Kadyrov continued to thrust his three sons into the spotlight. He posted regular updates of their religious training, their development as teenagers and their proficiency as fighters. He even organized for them to have private training sessions with UFC fighters, like former champion Kamaru Usman. On occasion, his sons would compete at one of Kadyrov’s combat sports events in bouts that are believed to have had predetermined results. In most cases, Kadyrov and his henchmen were in attendance to celebrate their symbolic victories.
And as Russia is submerged in a full-scale war on Ukraine, Kadyrov has begun to find new ways to further his dynastic intentions.
In October 2022, Kadyrov posted a video that appeared to show his sons, flanked by Russian soldiers, delivering three Ukrainian prisoners of war to his residence in Chechnya.
The video, which was shared on Kadyrov’s Telegram channel, showed the prisoners with their hands restrained behind their backs and hats pulled low over their faces. As they arrived in front of Kadyrov, the hats were removed and they were identified as Ukrainians.
Kadyrov alleged that his sons had captured the soldiers during a visit to the front lines with the West-Akhmat battalion.
“Akhmad, Ali and Adam Kadyrov delivered to the republic three captured servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, whom they neutralized in the course of their participation in a special operation,” Kadyrov wrote in the caption accompanying the video.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kadyrov has found numerous ways to exploit his children as part of his wartime propaganda. The teenagers have appeared in well-produced videos dressed in tactical gear and testing rocket launchers and machine guns. In one such video, Kadyrov boasted that his sons had been trained for combat “almost from their youngest years” and that it was “time to prove themselves in a real fight.”
By positioning his children as soldiers taking part in the conflict, Kadyrov is responding to criticism that his family was not personally involved in a war that has reportedly led to more than 200,000 Russian casualties to date. It also furthers his interpretation of an ideal Chechen man as either a soldier defending the fatherland or an athlete achieving sporting glory, or both.
It is worth noting that, by sending his underage kids to fight in Ukraine — an act that he later promoted on television and on his social media channels — Kadyrov was openly admitting to the war crime of using children in armed conflicts.
Kadyrov has also begun positioning his eldest son, the 17-year-old Akhmad, as his heir apparent. In September 2022, the teenager was elected as the regional chair of the Russian movement of youth and children. While he is the only one of Kadyrov’s sons to have officially joined the political fray, he is not the first of Kadyrov’s children to be awarded a government role.
In October 2021, Kadyrov appointed his 23-year-old daughter Aishat as Chechnya’s minister of culture. Her previous experience included serving as deputy culture minister and running Firdaws, a luxury Islamic fashion house founded by her mother that operates boutiques in Chechnya, the neighboring Muslim-majority region of Dagestan, Moscow and Dubai.
In 2020, Aishat, her sister and her mother were included along with Kadyrov on a U.S. State Department sanctions list for involvement in human rights violations. In September 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added Kadyrov and his daughters, including Aishat, to the “specially designated nationals” list of sanctioned individuals. Kadyrov’s sons, who are minors, have yet to be sanctioned.
Kadyrov’s decision to appoint his relatives and kin to high-profile government positions is a strategic one that consolidates his power and reinforces his authority as the republic’s enduring leader. With power concentrated in the hands of loyal family members, the potential for dissent or regime change significantly decreases. In short, it helps Kadyrov extend his dynastic lineage.
“MUHAMMAD ALI.” This was the caption accompanying a clip posted on Kadyrov’s Instagram account in February that showed his son Ali performing a series of kicks and punching combinations under the watchful eye of UFC star Chimaev. The slow-motion montage was paired with Tommee Profitt’s song “Enemy,” with the lyrics, “I see who you are, you are my enemy.”
The comparison was a strategic one by Kadyrov, who has gone out of his way to associate himself with the legendary boxer. He renamed an avenue in the Chechen capital of Grozny to “Muhammad Ali Prospekt” and unveiled a commemorative plaque during the ceremony that referred to Muhammad Ali as “an example of a true Muslim and a great athlete.”
Now, the Chechen dictator is imparting that association with Muhammad Ali to his son, who recently embarked on a career as a professional MMA fighter.
Over the past few months, Ali has benefited from the fighting expertise of his glorified babysitter, Chimaev. The UFC fighter trained the teenager ahead of his professional debut in December 2022 and has continued to bring him along to training camps with some of the UFC’s top fighters in places like Dubai and Thailand. Ali’s Instagram page now claims he is an active professional in the sport, which suits his father’s ongoing plans to use his children to project strength, fearlessness and ruthless aggression — characteristics he expects all Chechen men to embody.
So far, Kadyrov has successfully begun grooming his eldest son for a life in politics, placed his daughters in high-ranking stations and positioned another son as an MMA fighter. This strengthens the position of current and future generations of the Kadyrov family as members of the political and cultural elite in the troubled North Caucasus republic, which has become especially important in the wake of an uncertain political future, due to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
By unscrupulously using his sons to promote his dynastic aspirations, Kadyrov is invested in securing his family’s status as Chechnya’s supreme clan for decades to come.
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