UFC Abu Dhabi: Dodging Sanctions, Silencing Solidarity
The UFC, so-called champion of free speech, has found a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Ramzan Kadyrov while simultaneously censoring pro-Palestine expressions within its platform.
After defending the UFC lightweight championship with a thunderous KO in the main event of UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, Islam Makhachev opted not to celebrate the victory in solidarity with Palestine.
“I am not celebrating [the] win today because [of] the crazy things that are happening around the world. Palestine, we stand with you,” he said in a post-fight interview while carrying the Palestinian flag.
While the spectators at UFC 294 had the opportunity to witness Makhachev's act of solidarity, it remained concealed from others as the UFC chose to censor the clip on YouTube.
Makhachev was not the only fighter who had his pro-Palestine statements censored. The UFC edited out a statement of solidarity from British-Dagestani fighter Muhammed Mokaev, who called for peace in the region.
Makhachev and Mokaev’s show of support comes amidst the ongoing war in Gaza, where more than 4,300 people have been killed and 11,000 wounded in Israeli air raids. Another 1,200 people across Gaza are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead, according to health authorities.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began on Oct. 7 in response to a surprise attack by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that killed roughly 1,400 people in Israel. Hamas has also taken more than 200 hostages.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas served as a litmus test for the UFC—an organization that has long claimed to be a champion of free speech. Over the years, UFC President Dana White has proclaimed that the organization would never compromise fighters’ freedom of expression.
“When you look at the UFC, we’re truly a global business. People from all over the world face things that other people would never understand,” White said in 2020 amidst global unrest over the Covid-19 pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. “To have the ability to tell people, ‘You can’t express yourself,’ whether it’s anger, happiness, fear – it’s crazy. We would never do that. We’d never try to do that.”
In contrast, the UFC did not censor Brazilian fighter Michel Pereira, who came out for his fight draped in an Israeli flag and voiced his support for the state following the Hamas attack. Nevertheless, when fighters expressed solidarity with Palestine a week later, their support was scraped from the UFC’s various platforms.
Beyond the UFC’s censorship of pro-Palestine sentiments, the organization appears to be dodging U.S. sanctions by hosting fights featuring athletes affiliated with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov in Abu Dhabi instead of on U.S. soil.
Saturday’s UFC 294 event featured five fighters with ties to Kadyrov, whose list of crimes include well-documented purges of sexual minorities, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, forced conscription, and appalling acts of violence to quell all forms of dissent. Three of those fighters—Khamzat Chimaev, Magomed Ankalaev, and Said Nurmagomedov—are official members of the dictator’s Akhmat MMA fight club and were featured on the UFC 294 main card.
In December 2020, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued sanctions targeting Kadyrov and his Akhmat MMA fight club.
According to the OFAC, the measures against Kadyrov and Akhmat MMA are broadly designed to prohibit “any contribution or provision of funds, goods or services by, to or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods or services from any such person.”
The sanctions marked the first time that a country had targeted Kadyrov’s sports investments, paving the way for governments to scrutinize his affiliations with American athletes and organizations such as the UFC.
When I wrote about this for The New York Times last year, the UFC argued in an official statement that its fighters were independent contractors and that it entered into contracts with them directly, without intermediaries. The organization also said it had no affiliation with Akhmat MMA and that it was in compliance with all laws and regulations.
Nevertheless, it appears that several of the UFC fighters affiliated with Kadyrov have since struggled to enter the United States. UFC light-heavyweight Maxim Grishin, who is officially affiliated with Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club, revealed in an interview last year that he was struggling to secure a visa into the U.S..
“I was told that it is better not to associate myself with the Akhmat Fight Club, which I am a representative of,” Grishin told Match TV in an interview that was also picked up by Russia Today, the country’s state-controlled English-language news outlet. “But this is not just a contract, we have brotherly relations. I considered it cowardly. Sport is separate from politics, why should I hide something? I don’t do anything bad to the universe, why should the universe do bad things to me?”
Chimaev, who is likely to challenge for the UFC middleweight title next, has also reportedly faced difficulties entering the U.S.. In a recent interview, Chimaev’s coach revealed that his fighter had moved to the UAE because he believed it would alleviate his travel issues, especially if he were to secure an Emirati passport to supplement his Russian citizenship.
Several sources with knowledge of the situation revealed to Sports Politika that Chimaev is currently unable to secure a visa to enter the U.S.. However, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department refused to confirm whether that was the case, noting that visa records are confidential under U.S. law.
“All options remain on the table when it comes to imposing costs on Russia in response to its atrocities and full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” the spokesperson said. “However, we do not preview sanctions actions.”
Nevertheless, Chimaev and his fellow Kadyrov loyalists were able to compete on the UFC’s annual show in Abu Dhabi, as the Chechen dictator is not facing any sanctions in the Emirates. In fact, Kadyrov previously attended a UFC show in Abu Dhabi in 2019 alongside the UAE’s Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan.
Chimaev, who defeated former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in the evening’s co-main event, added to the controversy when he included two of Kadyrov’s sons, Ali and Adam, as his cornermen for the fight. While neither of the sons are under U.S. sanctions—both are currently underage—Adam was recently involved in a scandal where he assaulted a detained Russian prisoner for insulting Islam.
And though Chimaev offered a message of peace in the English portion of his post-fight interview, he followed up by addressing Kadyrov in Chechen and requesting permission to go fight in Palestine.
“Chief, may Allah be pleased with you, it is not difficult to perform here and fight for you here. If you give me permission, I swear by Allah, I will be the first to go there [to Palestine]. For God's sake, give me weapons so I can go to Palestine. I swear, I wasn't raised to fight in shorts. I swore allegiance to our chief and I swear, if he gives me the right, I am the guy who will go and die there. I don't worry about my own death as much as I worry about [the death of] my Muslim brothers."
Kadyrov subsequently shared video footage of himself picking up Chimaev in a private jet from the UAE and returning to Chechnya, where he received a hero's welcome. He also posted a photo of his sons posing with White following the event.
These occurrences marks the most recent instance of Kadyrov harnessing the achievements of his favored UFC fighters for political advantage.
Given the UAE’s cordial relationship with Kadyrov, it comes as little surprise that the UFC would attempt to dodge U.S. sanctions and visa concerns by hosting all Kadyrov-affiliated fighters in Abu Dhabi.
Nonetheless, the UFC's tactical rearrangement of its fighters addresses the organization's short-term visa concerns, but it does not absolve the organization from its responsibilities regarding U.S. Treasury sanctions. These sanctions apply universally to all U.S. citizens and individuals engaged in U.S. business activities.
In short: even though the UFC is refraining from affiliating with Kadyrov and his fighters on U.S. territory, its status as an American enterprise operating within the U.S. necessitates strict compliance with these sanctions.
The UFC’s delicate dance around U.S. sanctions and its censorship of pro-Palestine sentiments transformed an otherwise forgettable event into a stage for geopolitical intrigue. It also exposed the organization’s ethical quandaries and its seemingly contradictory stance, where free speech is muzzled while sanctions are sidestepped in the relentless pursuit of profit.
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