The apparent ties between UFC fighters and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov are on the radar of the U.S. State Department.
Kadyrov, who is accused of being responsible for anti-gay purges in Chechnya, notoriously has used the UFC’s platform for sportswashing in recent years – and that isn’t lost on the U.S. government.
‘The Department of State is aware of Kadyrov’s association with Chechen UFC. fighters,’ a State Department official familiar with the investigations of Kadyrov’s business dealings said in a statement to the New York Times. According to the Times, the statement is the ‘first direct mention of athletes with the UFC having ties to Kadyrov.’
Kadyrov first was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 over a wide range of human rights violations that include the kidnapping, torture and killing of LGBTQ people. A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov has been a major proponent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supplied soldiers to the Russian armed forces, which led to additional sanctions against Kadyrov, his wives, his adult children and his businesses this past September. The restrictions are supposed to keep people from doing business with Kadyrov.
Kadyrov and his relatives have been seen at UFC events. Kadyrov attended the UFC’s debut event in Moscow in 2018, as well as UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi in 2019. His teenage son, Ali, attended UFC 280 in October in Abu Dhabi with Khamzat Chimaev.
Among Kadyrov’s businesses is his fight club, Akhmat MMA, which he founded in 2014 to help train and sponsor athletes. While the UFC as an organization doesn’t have a known official relationship with Kadyrov, the promotion hasn’t shied away from signing fighters tied to his gym – chief among them rising star Chimaev, as well as the likes of UFC 282 headliner Magomed Ankalaev, Albert Duraev and Said Nurmagomedov. UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov made public appearances alongside Kadyrov while he was the promotion’s lightweight champion.
While Kadyrov’s ties to Chechen and Russian UFC fighters isn’t surprising, it came as a shock on Nov. 24 to see American former UFC champions Henry Cejudo, Justin Gaethje and Kamaru Usman appear in photos and video at the Russian Special Forces University in Gudermes, Chechnya. The images showed them shooting assault weapons and rocket launchers at the facility where Russian soldiers train for the war in Ukraine.
In response to Cejudo, Gaethje and Usman’s visit, a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to MMA Junkie: ‘We reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Russia and those in Russia should depart immediately. Our Russia Travel Advisory remains at ‘Level 4 – Do not travel’ due to a number of factors, including: the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s military forces; the potential for harassment of U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials; the singling-out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials, including for detention; the arbitrary enforcement of local law; limited flights into and out of Russia; and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.’
The spokesperson would not specify if Cejudo, Gaethje and Usman violated rules in accordance with the sanctions placed on Kadyrov. All three fighters, as well as Ankalaev, Duraev and Nurmagomedov, are managed by Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA,
At the time the images surfaced, it was reported that, in addition to the photo op at the military academy, the UFC fighters attended a birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s sons, which Gaethje this week admitted on Twitter.
The visit marked Cejudo and Gaethje’s first time in Chechnya. It was Usman’s third visit at Kadyrov’s invitation since November 2020. He’s previously been seen sparring with one of Kadyrov’s sons and attended his birthday party in 2021.