Already embroiled in a betting scandal involving Glory MMA and Fitness coach James Krause, the UFC is courting another kind of unwanted attention.
For years, a handful of UFC fighters have openly associated with Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin puppet and brutal tyrant accused of torture and murder. Kadyrov, who has sent troops to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recently openly stated he would burn Ukrainian soldiers alive rather than take POWs.
Now, following an ill-advised trip to Chechnya by UFC fighters Henry Cejudo, Justin Gaethje, and Kamaru Usman first reported on by Bloody Elbow — all high-profile former title holders in the organization — the U.S. State Department has spoken out.
In a statement to the New York Times on Tuesday, a State Dept. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “The Department of State is aware of Kadyrov’s association with Chechen U.F.C. fighters.”
While none of Cejudo, Gaethje, and Usman are Chechen, it doesn’t get them off the hook. While the pair were not directly seen with Kadyrov, they visited a training facility used by members of the Russian Special Forces, and were seen firing off a number of weapons. Kadyrov, meanwhile, has been hit with a record number of sanctions by various political bodies, surpassing even North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
A political pariah outside his homeland, Kadyrov has attempted to use his association with UFC fighters as a form of “sportswashing” to add legitimacy to his regime. He also runs Akhmat MMA, which counts among its representatives Russian UFC fighter Maxim Grishin.
Kadyrov attended the first Russian UFC event, in Moscow, in 2018, though the promotion later denied having any ties to the dictator. Usman previously visited Chechnya in 2020, while several other fighters including Fabricio Werdum and Frankie Edgar have in the past. Others fighters have as well.
Notably, nearly all of the fighters involved are managed by Ali Abdelazziz of Dominance MMA. But the Kadyrov associations do not stop there. The dictator is also associated with Khamzat Chimaev, who was born in Chechnya before moving to Sweden. He is close with Magomed Ankalaev as well, who many felt was robbed of victory in the UFC 282 main event over the weekend.
Kadyrov seemed to place blame over Ankalaev’s fight with Jan Blachowicz ending in a split draw at the feet of the UFC. He went so far as to accuse UFC President Dana White of mixing sport with politics — a rather ironic statement, given the source — in a social media post following the event. White has not publicly responded to the Chechen’s comments.
Interestingly enough, the sanctions lodged against Ramzan Kadyrov by the U.S. are worded in such a way that could impact anyone associating with him. Gaethje, after being heavily criticized online for his association with a man accused of running concentration camps for homosexuals in Chechnya — and out outright murdering them — hastily denied having met him.
In a 2017 interview with HBO’s Real Sports, Kadyrov claimed that his country didn’t have homosexuals, and if they did, they should be sent to Canada. He also threatened the use of nuclear weapons, while claiming the U.S. was not “a strong enough state” to be regarded as an enemy of Russia, Chechnya’s staunchest ally.
“America is not really a strong enough state for us to regard it as an enemy of Russia. We have a strong government and are a nuclear state. Even if our government was completely destroyed, our nuclear missiles would be automatically deployed,” he stated. “We will put the whole world on its knees and screw it from behind.”
On Sunday, Gaethje, the UFC’s former interim lightweight champion, attempted to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that he only travelled to Chechnya to attend the birthday party of the dictator’s son — and because he likes to shoot guns.
Kadyrov’s 16-year old son was recently in the news for “gifting” his father Ukrainian slaves captured during the war in Ukraine.