Several weeks ago, a baffling image made the rounds on social media: Chechnya's menacing and unsavory president, Ramzan Kadyrov, jubilantly positioned side-by-side with UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and holding his oversized championship belt.
Werdum earlier this year ventured to Chechnya along with fellow UFC champ Chris Weidman and former titleholder Frank Mir to attend the inaugural event for the government-funded MMA promotion World Fighting Championship of Akhmat (Akhmat MMA, for short). They were invited by Kadyrov himself, who also happens to be one of the most powerful men in Russia.
Just a few months later, Werdum returned to the Chechen Republic to sign an affiliation agreement with Akhmat MMA. His deal consists of frequent visits to Chechnya as an ambassador for the promotion and requires him to conduct a portion of his future training camps there.
"Fabricio was happy to accept what ultimately was a very lucrative offer, but this deal is not just a financial arrangement," Werdum's manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told MMAJunkie this month. "He was in Chechnya earlier this year, and he was treated like a king."
The promotion, which showcases local fighters sprinkled with occasional foreign talents, is a sort of hobby for Kadyrov. The promotion was named after Chechnya's assassinated prior leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the republic's current chief.
Once the deal was struck, Werdum was paraded around the streets of the Chechen capital, Grozny, dressed in the conservative Islamic clothing and headcovering typical in the region.
The champ was greeted by swarms of civilians who crowded the wide streets of the recently developed city. Fireworks lit the sky with multi-colored, smoky ribbons, and a man in a traditional Chechen lambswool hat played the Pondar, a three-stringed instrument made of walnut wood that can be strummed or played with a bow, while singing in unison with the president himself.
It was quite a sight: The UFC's reigning heavyweight champion stoically positioned behind an accused warlord -- a man with a brutal past and an ominous future.
The trajectory of Kadyrov's involvement in MMA is interesting to follow -- something that can be done by perusing his bizarre Instagram page -- as it is not often an alleged war criminal takes a fancy in the niche sport. Local fighters who once struggled in abject poverty were transformed into near-overnight sensations and blossomed into national heroes. Fighters such as recent UFC signee Abdul-Kerim Edilov and World Series of Fighting (WSOF) champion Magomed Bibulatov have become household names in Chechnya.
In fact, Kadyrov regularly posts Instagram videos promoting the young fighters, as well as ones of him sparring or training at the Akmat MMA Fight Club. He recently posted a short video of himself watching Bibulatov win the WSOF flyweight title in North America. He added in a caption that the "majority of the resident[s] of Chechnya" stayed up to watch the fight. He also called Bibulatov immediately thereafter to congratulate him and even awarded him with a brand new Mercedes upon his return to Chechnya.
The post received more than 26,000 likes.
Дорогие друзья! Я знаю, что большинство жителей Чечни эту ночь провели у экранов телевизоров, наблюдая за поединком бойца Клуба "Ахмат" Магомеда Бибулатова. В американском городе Машантакет на турнире MMA WSOF-24 он сразился с Донаваном Фрелоу из Лас-Вегаса. Соперник у Магомеда оказался очень динамичным. Но наш боец не оставил ему ни одного шанса на победу. А в пятом раунде Фрелоу вообще зашатался. Итак, бой завершился . Магомед стал первым в истории ММА чемпионом мира в наилегчайшем весе. Я сразу же связался с Магомедом и поздравил его с победой! Уверен, что он ещё много раз обрадует нас чемпионскими поясами! #Кадыров #Россия #Чечня #ММА #Бибулатов #Чемпион
What is it about Kadyrov that makes him an unsavory character for Western athletes to affiliate themselves with? The answer lies in Chechnya's war-torn past and how Kadyrov brutally seized power.
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Chechnya is one of the more recognizable republics in the North Caucasus region, both for its use as a setting in romantic era Russian literature and more recently for the two wars that occurred in the last two decades. Situated between the Caspian and the Black Seas, it was once an area that gripped strangers with both awe and angst. It was seen as a savage place -- an area that never caught up with civilization -- one that was run by nobles, chieftains and highlanders.
Modern scrutiny, however, was inevitable when that region became a hotbed for terrorist activity and radical militia formation in the late 1990s. This was mainly due to the influence of radical Islamists who had been harbored in the Caucasus since the time of Peter the Great. They were the source of Chechnya's longstanding rebellion against the ethnic Russian rulers keen to bend them to their will.
In the 21st century, Chechnya remains scenically impressive but operates like a fiefdom under the control of controversial president Kadyrov, a leader known for his ruthless retribution and strategic fear-mongering.
In August 1999, the Chechen-based fundamentalist group Islamic International Brigade (IIB) invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan with grandiose visions of separation -- an Islamic state separate and autonomous from Russia. The invasion caused the Kremlin to react, and less than three weeks later, Russian forces pushed the separatists out of Dagestan. Two months following that Russian victory, federal forces invaded Chechnya to put an end to the de facto independence of the newly formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
Russian president Vladimir Putin regained control of Chechnya from the radical Sunni Muslim rebel forces in 2000, reestablishing Russian authority over the republic. Akhmad Kadyrov, a former separatist leader, switched sides during the war and was given control of the Chechen government. Akhmad was a Chief Mufti (religious leader) during that time and feared the effects of Wahhabi influence on the Chechen population. Fueled by personal ambition and a sense of duty to eliminate the radical Sunni movement, Akhmad opted to support the rebel forces. He was seen as a traitor by his former associates and was assassinated in 2004. An immediate and violent struggle for military control and political power saw the deceased president's son, Ramzan Kadyrov, ascend to rule in 2007. He was 30.
The younger Kadyrov had been involved in the bloody struggles within Chechnya since his teenaged years. He fought alongside his father during the First Chechen War -- Chechnya's initial attempt to separate from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He remained close to his father during the Second Chechen War and switched sides to fight alongside the Russian forces against the separatists. Following his father's assassination, Ramzan engaged in bitter power struggles with the de facto military leader Sulim Yamadayev, as well as former Chechen president Alu Alkhanov, whom he ousted in 2007.
Unlike his father, Kadyrov was able to consolidate his power over the ensuing years and leverage financial support from Putin. With Putin's support and the financial backing of the Russian government, he was able to rebuild Chechnya's war-torn cities. It was his most notable contribution to Chechen society.
"Thanks to the president of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, the environment recently has become very modern and nicely developed," Chechen fighter Khusein Khaliev told BloodyElbow.com in March. He was also present during the three UFC champions' appearances at the first Akhmat MMA event. "Despite the ruins and past devastation from the war, the city is now very beautiful, completely rebuilt with malls, high-rises, paved roads and good public transportation."
While Kadyrov has seemingly earned the respect and support of many of his citizens, this is not enough to cover up his extensive history of violence or his scandals. At one point, the leader was linked to the murder of noted Putin critic Boris Nemtsov. While no incriminating evidence was produced, various harrowing reports have surfaced alleging heinous crimes and human rights abuses -- assassinations, extortion and torture -- dating back to his rise to power.
Kadyrov's ability to employ fear-mongering tactics lies in his power as a militia leader in Chechnya. Unlike many other republics in Russia, Chechnya's Kadyrov is in full control of his security forces, aptly named the Kadyrovtsy. It is widely believed that the Kadyrovtsy -- more than 20,000 Ramzan-loyal Chechens -- is outside the control of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). It was even suggested that the Kadyrovtsy was not just involved in the murder of Nemtsov, but that it has allegedly targeted other vocal members of the opposition in the past.
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So why would a UFC champion associate himself with such a man?
"It is important to note that UFC fighters operate as independent business partners, not employees, and that subject to their contractual commitments to UFC they are free to conduct business and to participate in activities as they choose," the UFC said in a statement to Sports on Earth. "We do expect, however, all fighters to be mindful that their actions reflect well on themselves, the sport and the UFC organization."
Kadyrov remains a powerful leader in Russia, despite the disgruntled ethnic citizens worried about the establishment of an Islamic republic within the borders of the Russian Federation. He regularly makes public appearances with Putin, most recently at the grand opening of Russia's biggest mosque in Moscow during the Eid (an Islamic holiday) celebrations. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that he is pivotal for Putin's continued success in Russia, as he holds the key to peace in the North Caucasus. This stands as more of an inevitability of political circumstance rather than a sign of Kadyrov's positive influence on Russian politics.
Kadyrov is also an avid supporter of MMA and has allocated some of his exorbitant finances toward funding a fight promotion in the region. He directed some of that funding at fight-game celebrities such as the trio of UFC champs Werdum, Weidman and Mir, who, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, were paid handsomely for their appearances at the inaugural Akhmat MMA show -- so much so that they were at his beck and call throughout their stay in Chechnya.
Money talks, after all.
No matter Werdum's personal views on the matter, the UFC champ has aligned himself with a dangerous man, and he now stands at the crossroad between sports entertainment and ruthless political conflict. Now matter how "lucrative" his offer may be, is the asking price worth the tarnished reputation?
That depends on whom you ask.
Through a Western lens, Werdum's actions may only be slightly costly to his reputation, if at all. While Kadyrov's harrowing history is a talking point in political forums, this is hardly the case for the average UFC or MMA fan. Therefore, unless MMA media sources opt to cover this topic extensively, it is unlikely Werdum will lose much support for his decision to associate himself with Kadyrov.
The UFC heavyweight champion also happens to be one of the great comeback stories of the modern era. From his upset of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko -- it was the Russian's first loss in over a decade -- to his six-fight win streak that led him to yet another upset victory to claim the title, Werdum's rise through the ranks has been thoroughly impressive. Considering Werdum's image has evolved into that of the so-called "baddest men on the planet," maybe aligning himself with a ruthless warlord is nothing more than strategic branding.
After all, one is judged by the company he keeps.
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Karim Zidan was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. He now works as an associate editor for BloodyElbow.com, a contributor to SBNation.com and Sports on Earth, and the lead writer for SteveGtennis.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZidanSports.