On Saturday, the city of Las Vegas was host to a fight — and not just any fight. Mixed martial artists Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov faced off in front of 20,000 fans in what was one of the most highly-anticipated fights in the recent history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC.
But what should have been an enthralling spectacle soon devolved into a farce after the Russian Nurmagomedov notched his victory by choking out Irishman McGregor in the fourth round. Immediately after McGregor tapped out, conceding the match, Nurmagomedov rounded on McGregor’s team and attacked them, causing a melee. Fans quickly joined the fracas, which in turn forced the police to step in, and such were the scenes that the traditional presentation of the belt to Nurmagomedov in the octagon had to be cancelled.
“[Nurmagomedov’s] actions almost led to a full scale arena riot,” former UFC title contender Dan Hardy told BBC Sport. “It was just pandemonium out there and obviously fans are starting to get upset and I saw a lot of fans running for the exit and things like that, too. It was just chaos.”
The post-fight accusations thrown at Nurmagomedov, however, did not matter much in Dagestan, the southern Russia republic Nurmagomedov calls home. Raucous celebrations greeted the victory, and thousands turned up to give Nurmagomedov a hero’s welcome when he returned to Dagestan on Tuesday.
Стрельба. Крики. Перекрытыхе улицы.
Это в Махачкале празднуют победу Хабиба над Конором pic.twitter.com/6RaFsvOMga
— Горный ветер (@neluibit) October 7, 2018
But perhaps most worthy of note were the comments made by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who said that Nurmagomedov was “invincible” and added that McGregor “realized that Khabib is a brilliant artist who can turn his face into a picture painted with red oil paint.”
For almost two decades, Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled over Chechnya — the once notoriously-dangerous region which borders Dagestan and with which it shares similar history and culture — with an iron fist. He has led a “gay purge” in which Russian gay men were kidnapped and tortured, has his own well-equipped private army known as the Kadyrovsky, and has been linked to the murder of Russian politicians opposed to Putin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kadyrov is a major fan of the Russian president.
But over time, Kadyrov has also developed carrots to go along with his tyrannical stick. He has maintained a bizarre Instagram account which boasted three million followers prior to it getting banned in January, when the Treasury Department added him to the list of Russians facing sanctions.
More interestingly, however, Kadyrov absolutely loves sponsoring sports (specifically soccer and MMA) as a way of hyping up his own regime and further endearing him to the people of Chechnya as well as neighboring Dagestan. For example, in 2015, Kadyrov founded the Akhmat MMA fight club, which is sponsored by the Chechen government directly and operated by Abuzayed Vismuradov, the commander of Chechnya’s special forces units.
As Karim Zidan reported at Deadspin, Kadyrov’s facility with the pageantry of sports has helped him consolidate his power, reward his cronies, and entwine the spectacle with the political:
As the result of the wide autonomy and hefty budget granted to him by the Kremlin in exchange for the continuous suppression and pacification of the rebellious North Caucasus republic, Kadyrov operates Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom. While Kadyrov has transformed Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, into a miniature Dubai, complete with sparkly buildings and fancy restaurants, Chechens continue to suffer the wrath of his rule. Human rights and basic freedoms are considered unattainable luxuries. Within this repressive context, sports play an influential role in Kady. Sports are used as a tool to fabricate a sense of normality and distract from the ongoing abuse with the republic – an effective tool to maintain control of Chechnya.
This is where Nurmagomedov comes in. As Zidan has previously highlighted, writing for SB Nation, Nurmagomedov has previously made much-publicized appearances at the Akhmat gym, and has even grappled with Kadyrov. Nurmagomedov has also complimented Kadyrov, telling Chechen state media that “I would fight with honor at a UFC [event] in Grozny, because Chechnya is a brotherly republic.” Meanwhile Nurmagomedov’s manager, the Egyptian Ali Abdelaziz has also sought to shore up friendly ties with Kadyrov, as well as the authoritarian regime in Bahrain.
Even Conor McGregor has used Nurmagomedov’s Chechen connections.
In an attempt to rile him up, pre-fight, McGregor used his own Instagram to antagonize Nurmagomedov along with his father and coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
McGregor offered something of an explanation in September:
”The Chechen people know what I’m talking about when I called this man a coward,” McGregor said. “When I called his father a quivering coward. [Nurmagomedov’s father] and Kadyrov were at a mosque together, and he posts a picture of Kadirov [sic] on his Instagram. Kadirov’s [sic] the Chechen dictator, a crazy man, don’t get me wrong. But, Khabib’s father, lick-ass O’Hoolihan, posts a picture of Kadirov [sic] at his mosque and the caption is, ‘Together we are stronger.’”
It would be extremely unfair to blame Nurmagomedov for Kadyrov cozying up to him. During the World Cup for example, Kadyrov was also filmed meeting Egyptian soccer superstar Mo Salah — a move which Salah later allegedly criticized the Egyptian Football Association for allowing. In 2011, Hillary Swank also faced a storm of criticism for meeting with Kadyrov.
However, Nurmagomedov’s connections with Kadyrov, coupled with his victory in Las Vegas this weekend, has undoubtedly given the Chechen dictator an new way to launder his reputation — humans rights abuses be damned. As the Kremlin’s public relations coup in wake of the World Cup this summer demonstrated, it is not a bad strategy.
This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Conor McGregor’s name.