Caged Nationalism: How The UFC Became Home To A Proxy War

Fraught post-Soviet geopolitics are finding their way into MMA thanks to a dictator's violent whims

Photo Illustration R. A. Di Ieso
Jan 26, 2017 at 2:26 PM ET

On October 4, 2016, long time head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov celebrated his 40th birthday in a manner befitting a Vladimir Putin-backed dictator: by watching his three pre-teen sons fight in a professional MMA competition aired live from Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city. The children, who ranged from eight to 11 years old, competed without proper protection or regulatory oversight.

While Kadyrov’s love of the bizarre and violent is no secret—his decade-long track record of human rights abuses outlandishly contrasts his exotic animal-lover image on Instagram—putting his own children in the cage was a particularly depraved act. So much so that legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, the president of the Russian MMA Union, publicly condemned Kadyrov’s actions. In a social media post that has since been deleted, Emelianenko declared the Kadyrov-backed event “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable.”

“I am outraged by the fact that the head of Chechnya was watching over it,” Emelianenko stated on his Instagram account. “Didn’t [the Chechen] sports minister tell him about the fact that children under 12 cannot participate in MMA under any circumstances?”

Emelianenko’s sharp denunciation of Kadyrov’s event led to intimidating messages and public humiliation from the dictator’s supporters, including top UFC lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov. Despite an official investigation from the Kremlin and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Russian Federation, notable Caucasus-region fighters continued to lambast Emelianenko for interfering in their leader’s affairs.

That feud set the table for another, altogether more heated one between UFC light heavyweights Abdel-Kerim Edilov and Nikita Krylov. Edilov, a particularly vocal Kadyrov loyalist who personally trained the dictator’s sons for their fights, was singled out by eastern-Ukraine native Krylov and challenged to a fight.

Public challenges are commonplace in MMA, but in this case a pro-Russia Ukrainian fighter publicly summoned one of Kadyrov’s trusted henchmen to a fight in by far the world’s most popular MMA promotion. Few had ever publicly challenged those within Kadyrov’s inner circle, let alone done so with such disregard for their personal well-being. Not only did Krylov challenge a notable Chechen fighter, he did so by alluding to unsavory tactics used by MMA fighters in the Chechen republic to intimidate foreign opponents.

“Don’t make calls and threats to cut and take me out into the woods, as it was in [Petr] Yan vs Magomed Magomedov [ACB 32 fight],” Krylov said in an Instagram post, which remains visible on his page as of this writing. “Meet in the spring in the UFC and we can decide who wants to play sports, and who wants to write to Instagram.”

Although October’s child MMA scandal fizzled after the Kremlin ruled against Kadyrov’s MMA promotion by sending him a sternly-worded letter as punishment, Krylov’s challenge spread like wildfire.

Despite Edilov and other Chechen fighters removing their antagonistic social media posts against Emelianenko at Kadyrov’s request, Krylov remained focused on his target. Even when Edilov called Krylov to intimidate him on the phone, one of many time-honored bully tactics in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, Krylov did not seem fazed.

“I just talked to Abdul-kerim [Edilov], all discussed,” Krylov told Russian reporters. “First he offered to meet outside the ring—said he was ready to come to the room and there to fight. In the sense that it does not matter in what place. But we decided to do everything according to the rules.”

What is it about this particular fight that captivated the combatants’ respective fanbases? While both are talented fighters from post-Soviet states, their burgeoning rivalry is rooted in a historical and tragic ethnic divide, as well as geopolitical tension consuming the region. Understanding the rivalry begins with understanding the last two years of conflict in Ukraine.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that toppled longstanding regimes across North Africa and sowed the seeds of discontent throughout the Middle East, calls of reform reverberated to Europe, particularly Ukraine. In 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s fourth president who served from 2010, had been accused of widespread state corruption and regional cronyism for appointing pro-Russian eastern Ukrainians like himself to the majority of official positions. The growing sentiment was that Yanukovych represented Russian interests and not those of the Ukrainian people.

By November 2013, Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which triggered severe unrest among citizens who accused the president of excessive loyalty to Russia. The organized uprising known as Euromaidan lasted until February 2014, when president Yanukovych was disavowed by his political party, the Party of Regions, and a subsequent parliamentary vote led to his forced removal as well as a warrant for his arrest that accused him of “mass killing of civilians.”

However, Yanukovych’s departure and eventual exile to Russia led to anti-revolution backlash from Ukrainians in Russophone regions with loyalty to their neighboring country. Cities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine began to protest the decision, eventually resorting to armed resistance against the seemingly anti-Russian government.

Less than four months after the start of the Euromaidan movement, pro-Russian forces seized the Crimean parliamentary building and held an internationally unrecognized referendum that gave Crimea independence from Ukraine. By March 18, 2014, Russia had swept in and annexed Crimea.

At the time, conflict in eastern Ukraine had already begun and the region was divided into two self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist states—Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)—which the Ukrainian government considered occupied territories. At first, the separatist leadership was largely Russian, but that quickly changed as locally-born leaders began to replace their Muscovite predecessors to lead the newfound republics. Russians and Chechens, however, made up a significant portion of the actual combatants in Eastern Ukraine. This sets the stage for the UFC rivalry between Edilov and Krylov, whose homelands, Chechnya and eastern Ukraine respectively, were both heavily involved in the conflict. The two fighters represent a miniaturized version of the bitter struggle involving post-Soviet loyalties on the geopolitical stage.

The conflict in Ukraine waged on with no end in sight. Despite two separate ceasefire agreements in Minsk as well as Western sanctions against Russia, the violence and deaths in the region went on unabated. By 2015, Ukraine represented the most volatile conflict in Europe in 25 years.

When the struggle for Ukraine began, fighters flocked from neighboring regions to join the cause. Chechens were among the first to form battalions and join the battle, though they were few in number. By 2015, it had become clear that the Chechen militias involved fought on both sides of the conflict with vastly contrasting political and religious beliefs.

For some Chechens, it was an opportunity to oppose the Russian Federation, a lifelong enemy that had put them through two traumatic wars for independence in the 1990s. To them, the idea of forgiving Russia for its war crimes is unacceptable. Veterans of the Chechen wars—jihadis and soldiers alike—fled the Caucasus mountains, illegally entered Ukraine, and joined the conflict with the objective of thwarting Russian might. Exiled men now had a chance to rekindle their hatred for their Russian overlords, and though they were not officially enrolled in the Ukrainian army, their volunteer battalions were well-supported and respected for their bravery in battle.

“Ukrainians loved them, so did Donbas rebels,” said Anna Nemtsova, an award-winning journalist for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, who covered Chechen involvement in Ukraine last year. “Chechens are fearless.“

Others, however, took up arms at the behest of pro-Kremlin dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, who has countless human rights abuses to his name and rules over his republic with impunity as though it were his personal fiefdom. While UFC fighter Abdel-Kerim Edilov wasn’t one of the selected soldiers, he represents the same elevated elite that rely on Kadyrov’s success. Naturally, his position within Kadyrov’s inner circle makes him an obvious target for Krylov.

Viewed as the Kremlin’s solution to the Chechen wars, Kadyrov has been lavished with a generous budget for his loyalty to his former Russian enemies. He erased the proud Chechen history from the local education system and repressed his subjects’ thirst for independence in favor of absolute loyalty to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He rebuilt his bombarded republic and established a new ruling class made up of the Chechen elite. A small subset of those loyal to him fought for the separatists in eastern Ukraine during several key battles in 2015.

The division in loyalty among the Chechen volunteer soldiers provided an interesting glimpse into the domestic politics within Chechnya. While not necessarily an overt schism within society, the segregation and enmity between these opposing Chechen forces highlighted a clear divide within their native republic.

“In Ukraine, on one side, we have pro‐independence Chechens who reside in European countries, while on the other hand we have Russian forces staffed with ethnic Chechens,” said Dominik K. Cagara, a Caucasus-based journalist with experience covering the region and Kadyrov’s policies. ”Currently one of the main axes of societal division in Chechnya runs along the line of religious division, i.e. state‐backed Sufis/traditional Muslims vs. Salafis/reformed Muslims. The other axis is marked by support or opposition to Kadyrov.

“Sometimes these two axes overlap and I think this offers a more compelling visualisation of the schism.”

Though the aforementioned pro‐independence Ichkeria Chechens fighting to defend Ukraine may not have the necessary support from fellow Chechen citizens who oppose Kadyrov’s policies, it has not stopped battalions from joining the war. For many, it is an opportunity to resume their noble cause against a mighty imperialist force. Given Russian success at quelling Chechen resistance by installing a ruthless leader like Kadyrov who divided his people along with their loyalties by force and intimidation, it came as little surprise that Russia’s foreign agenda was to use Chechnya as a blueprint for an eventual solution to Ukraine.

Born and raised in eastern Ukraine, Krylov was forced to escape the Donbass region shortly following the start of the conflict. Originally from Krasnyi Luch in the Lugansk province, Krylov fled his home in Donetsk just a few weeks ahead of his scheduled fight against Cody Donovan in Dublin, Ireland. He won that fight by knockout, the very same week that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down while flying over Ukrainian airspace.

After settling in Kyiv for his next training camp, it became clear that Krylov’s pro-Russian politics were not welcome in his native land’s capital city. In eastern Ukraine, a large percentage of the local population is native to Russia or, at the very least, spoke the language. Having grown up in a region that was friendly to Russia, Krylov is an advocate of Putin’s international policies, including closer ties to Ukraine.

“Russia is developing in international relations,” Krylov stated ahead of his UFC 206 fight in Toronto. “Many of my friends have been in the country for a long time and I think they have a better life. In many moments, Putin is the right policy. Even judging by how he developed sports. If you look at the Sambo championships, Russia does not leave anyone else a chance of success.”

Interestingly, Krylov’s perspective on politics is closely matched by that of Abdul-Kerim Edilov. Both are Putin loyalists and theoretically represent the same side of the Ukrainian conflict. Despite that common ground, neither side can escape their tragic history.

“A very pro‐Russian Ukrainian won’t be on the same side as pro‐Kadyrov Chechens, because of the deeply rooted anti‐Chechen sentiment in Russian society, despite Kadyrov’s loyalty and good PR,” Cagara said. “It even goes beyond the Christian/Muslim Russia conflict; Chechens are a personification of ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious ‘other’ and most of the time aren’t even considered a ‘proper’ part of Russia. I don’t know Krylov, but I suspect that his feelings might be linked to this Russian narrative rather than a grudge related to the war in Ukraine.”

Given the pre-existing racial prejudice against the North Caucasus, Chechen involvement in both sides of the conflict made them vehemently disliked by all except those who fought alongside them. For many Ukrainians fighting off Russian oppression, the Chechens may provide some much-needed assistance through volunteer battalions, but some of the anti-Kadyrov forces who joined the Ukrainian conflict are veteran jihadists of the war in Syria.

This could lead to a rise in fundamentalist insurgency and further destabilize a vulnerable, war-torn country. With limited resources and few allies, the Ukrainian government had to make difficult choices out of sheer desperation.

“I have the impression that the Ukrainian side will take any ally they can get right now,” said Natalia Antonova, editor for OpenDemocracy Russia. “On the international stage, the war has largely been forgotten, much like the situation in Yemen, it’s not grabbing headlines, even as people continue to die. I think the Ukrainian ethos is, “If you’re with us, we will accept your help,” which is understandable.”

According to the International Crisis Group, radical Islamist involvement in the form of jihadi veterans from the Chechen and Syrian wars could be catastrophic for vulnerable administrations such as that of current Ukrainian president Poroshenko. Jihadi presence could also be used as a propaganda tool by the Russian Federation, who will use the threat of ISIS involvement or more generalized concerns of terrorism to validate their relentless onslaught on Ukraine.

Yet while Chechens made Ukraine their latest glorified battlefield in 2015, there are only a handful of militia members remaining in 2017. Kadyrov has withdrawn his Chechen forces in favor of sending battalions to Syria. As of December 2016, one of the former commanders of a volunteer battalion in Ukraine, Apti Bolothanov, is expected to participate in Syrian ground operations. It is also being reported that the families of Chechen men who fought for the Islamic State have been forcibly recruited into battalions headed for Syria.

Though Chechen involvement in Ukraine has dramatically decreased since the start of the conflict, the country’s eastern region continues to burn. Krylov remains exiled from his native land with little hope of returning in the near future. Now residing in Moscow, the talented light-heavyweight fighter has chosen to focus on his UFC career and growing family.

However, instead of working his way up the ranks to title contention, Krylov opted to provoke Edilov, a fighter supported by a meddling warlord with a history of violence on every scale. The rivalry may not have been sparked by the ongoing political tension between the two countries, but it does reflect an indelible ethnic and historical divide.

A divide so deep that its latest proxy war may end up playing out inside an eight-sided cage.