How Russia's mercenary groups found their warriors in MMA gyms
Fighters from various MMA gyms were among the soldiers who found themselves embroiled in an attempted uprising in Russia.
On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin—the Russian oligarch and founder of the Wagner private mercenary group—launched what appeared to be the most serious challenge to Vladimir Putin’s rule when he called for an uprising against Russia’s military leaders.
Less than 12 hours later, Wagner forces had seized control of key military facilities in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and continued to advance on Moscow in what Putin described as an “armed mutiny” against Russia.
The Kremlin responded by deploying forces at key sites in Moscow and Rostov while Russia’s domestic intelligence service, Federal Security Service (FSB), launched a criminal case against Prigozhin accusing him of “calling for an armed rebellion.” Meanwhile, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov announced that his private forces were prepared to put down the attempted insurrection and were en route to Moscow.
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Yet as Wagner forces were approaching Moscow, Prigozhin suddenly announced on Telegram that his forces were standing down and heading back to their camps in occupied Ukraine, bringing an apparent end to an absurd 24 hours.
Nevertheless, a surprising common thread has emerged in the wake of the attempted coup, linking the notorious Wagner and Kadyrov's Akhmat battalion: their heavy recruitment from the world of mixed martial arts (MMA).
Wanger first came to prominence in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Mercenaries associated with Wagner fought alongside pro-Russian separatist forces in occupied eastern Ukraine. Since then, its contracted soldiers have reportedly been involved in various Russian military operations around the world, including the civil wars in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. Most recently, the group has been involved in Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.
The Wagner group was originally made up of experienced former soldiers from Russia’s elite regiments. However, the unit began recruiting troops drawn from prisons to feed Russia’s war machine in Ukraine.
The Wagner group also focused on recruiting combat sports athletes from various martial arts gyms and sports clubs in Russia. Over the past few months, I have uncovered more than 60 participating gyms across Russia, including eight participating gyms in Moscow, most of which cater to adults and children alike. Six of the gyms are located in St. Petersburg, while dozens more are located in Anapa, Astrakhan, Barnaul, Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Orenburg, Volgograd, and Voronezh.
Among the most notable facilities being utilized is the Russian Boxing Federation headquarters in Tyumen. The federation, which acts as the governing body for both amateur and professional boxing in Russia, pledged its support for the invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, stating at the time: “"The entire boxing community of Russia expresses its full confidence and support to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!"
Several other recruitment centres are located within federally-owned Olympic reserve schools, including those in Barnaul and Irkutsk.
On occasion, Wagner has been able to recruit MMA fighters from penal colonies. Hayk Gasparyan, a Armenian MMA fighter, was several months into his seven-year sentence for armed robbery when he was recruited to join the the mercenary group. He participated in the war in Ukraine and has since been pardoned following his six-month term of service.
Gasparyan was later awarded the Order of Courage by Putin during a ceremony Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia.
Kadyrov, too, has long relied on combat sports as a fundamental tool for recruitment and military mobilization. The dictator has utilized his Akhmat MMA fight club as a fertile breeding ground for soldiers looking to prove their loyalty on the battlefield.
Founded in 2015, the Akhmat MMA fight club consists of an MMA organization and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other post-Soviet states. The fight club is sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget and bears the name of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs and travel fees in exchange for them representing the club wherever they compete.
Through his fight club, Kadyrov was able to establish relationships with a seemingly endless list of celebrities, including the likes of boxing legends like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. He has also invited more than half-a-dozen past and current UFC champions to hold training seminars at Akhmat MMA. These associations serve the dictator’s soft power strategy to enhance his public image as a benevolent patron of sports.
While a handful of fighters representing Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA gyms go on to become full-fledged fighters competing in international MMA organizations such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the vast majority who don’t make the cut go on to join military and police regiments in Chechnya, including the Terek SWAT forces, as well as the so-called Kadyrovtsy paramilitary units infamous for committing widespread human rights abuses such as kidnapping, forced disappearances and murder.
And while the Kadyrovtsy are mostly used as tools of domestic oppression, they are occasionally deployed to war zones such as Syria and Ukraine, where they go on to commit countless war crimes.
Kadyrov has gone out of his way to elevate athletes who moonlight as soldiers. Among them is Beslan Ushukov, a former champion in Kadyrov’s organization who is also a member of the Special Chechen Forces unit. Ushukov competed as recently as December 2022, earning a KO victory at an Akhmat show in Moscow.
Ushukov has emerged as a household name in Chechnya, primarily thanks to Kadyrov’s continued support for the fighter. Ushukov was regularly seen alongside Kadyrov, whether dressed in military garb or in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt following a training session.
The links between Kadyrov’s fight club and his private army do not end there. The Akhmat MMA fight club is managed by Abuzayed Vismuradov, one of the most powerful and influential men in Chechnya. Vismuradov, best known by his nom de guerre “Patriot,” is in charge of Chechnya’s Special Forces, the Terek Special Rapid Response Team, as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail—a national security trifecta that makes him indispensable to Kadyrov’s government.
Vismuradov, who is regularly pictured inside the Akhmat training facility, is also among the officials responsible for overseeing the deployment of Chechen troops to fight in Ukraine. Considering that Vismuradov is supposed to be in charge of Kadyrov’s fight club, his involvement in the ongoing war in Ukraine underscores the fight club’s role as an extension of Kadyrov’s tyrannical government.
Last year, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) confirmed the links between Kadyrov’s fight club to his private militia.
“Kadyrov has recruited for Russia’s war efforts through mixed martial arts clubs, which enables him and his units to continue their activity in Ukraine,” the OFAC said in a news release.
The OFAC had previously placed sanctions on Kadyrov and his Akhmat MMA fight club in 2020 for “gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings.”
MMA has emerged as one of the strangest vectors in the Ukraine war. Even Denis Kapustin—the Russian neo-Nazi MMA fighter who currently leads an anti-Kremlin militia making incursions into Russia—threw his support behind Prigozhin, stating on Telegram that the Wagner founder was a “real patriot of Russia, without sarcasm or irony.”
Nevertheless, the short-lived uprising emerged as an unprecedented convergence of combat sports and politics. Over a period of less than 24 hours, fighters from various combat sports gyms were among the soldiers who found themselves embroiled in a power struggle for Russia’s future, further blurring the lines between the ring and the battlefield.
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