The apparent links between UFC fighters and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov are on the US State Department’s radar.
Kadyrov, who is accused of being responsible for anti-gay purges in Chechnya, has notoriously used the UFC’s platform for sportswashing in recent years, which the US government is well aware of.
“The State Department is aware of Kadyrov’s association with Chechen UFC fighters,” a State Department official familiar with the investigations into Kadyrov’s business dealings told the New York Times in a statement. The statement is the “first direct mention of UFC athletes with ties to Kadyrov,” according to the Times.
The US Treasury Department first sanctioned Kadyrov in 2017 for a wide range of human rights violations, including the kidnapping, torture, and killing of LGBTQ people. Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been a major supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has supplied soldiers to Russian armed forces, prompting additional sanctions against Kadyrov, his wives, adult children, and businesses this September. The restrictions are meant to discourage people from doing business with Kadyrov.
Kadyrov and his family have been spotted at UFC events. In 2018, Kadyrov attended the UFC’s inaugural event in Moscow, as well as UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Ali, his teenage son, attended UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi in October with Khamzat Chimaev.
Among Kadyrov’s businesses is Akhmat MMA, a fight club he founded in 2014 to help train and sponsor athletes. While the UFC does not have an official relationship with Kadyrov, the promotion has signed fighters associated with his gym, including rising star Chimaev, as well as UFC 282 headliner Magomed Ankalaev, Albert Duraev, and Said Nurmagomedov. While Kadyrov was the promotion’s lightweight champion, UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov made public appearances alongside him.
While Kadyrov’s connections to Chechen and Russian UFC fighters aren’t surprising, it was surprising 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 on Nov. 24. The images showed them firing assault weapons and rocket launchers at a training facility for Russian soldiers fighting 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: Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine; the potential for harassment of US citizens by Russian government security officials; the singling-out of US citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials, including detention; the arbitrary enforcement of local law; limited flights into and out of Russia; and the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
The spokesperson would not say whether Cejudo, Gaethje, or Usman broke any rules in accordance with the sanctions imposed on Kadyrov. Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA manages all three fighters, as well as Ankalaev, Duraev, and Nurmagomedov.
It was reported at the time 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 admitted this week on Twitter.
Cejudo and Gaethje were visiting Chechnya for the first time. Usman’s visit was his third at Kadyrov’s invitation since November 2020. He was previously seen sparring with one of Kadyrov’s sons and attending his 2021 birthday party.