Combat Sports Are the Strangest Propaganda Vector in the Ukraine War

Vladimir Putin and his allies have long used combat sports to glorify themselves. Now they're tools of wartime propaganda—and provide a pool of fighters.
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On March 7, 2022—approximately two weeks into Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine—footage of a Ukrainian mixed martial arts fighter being tortured began to circulate online.

The footage first appeared on Telegram, which has gained popularity in Ukraine during the current conflict. It appeared to show former MMA fighter and sambo champion Maxim Ryndovskiy being abused by a group of unknown assailants. One of the videos showed the victim seated on a chair with a pool of blood at his feet, while a second one showed him with his hands tied behind his back. In both, the victim has a shirt duct-taped to his head, making it difficult to confirm his identity. 

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According to the Telegram channel that broke the story, Ryndovskiy was being tortured by Ukrainian “patriots” for associating with Akhmat MMA, the fight club belonging to Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator at the helm of the North Caucasus enclave of Chechnya and a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“This is the torture of a peaceful citizen, which is another war crime and does not represent us all,” read the post on Telegram. “In Kyiv, our patriots took him hostage and are torturing him, as can be seen from his condition in the video. His only fault is that he trained with the Chechen club ‘Akhmat’.”   

One of the assailants can be heard accusing the victim of “drinking [with] and hugging those who fight against Ukraine” before making fun of the phrase “Akhmat Sila,” the battle cry used by Kadyrov loyalists, which translates to “Akhmat Power.”

Ryndovskiy’s last MMA fight took place at the Ukrainian Professional League of Horting (UPLH) in 2017; he defeated his opponent by technical knockout. He has since spent time in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), both of which are occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. 

It remains unclear whether he was released after being tortured, though several unconfirmed reports suggest he was murdered by the assailants. Motherboard attempted to reach out to Ryndovskiy, but has not received a response as of publication. 

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The incident caught Kadyrov’s attention; he claimed on his own Telegram channel that his soldiers had captured the men responsible for torturing Ryndovskiy. “The Nazis naively thought that they would not be found and the crime would go unpunished,” Kadyrov said in the caption accompanying a video showing the soldiers allegedly responsible for the war crime. 

Rynodovskiy’s torture was among the first examples of the strange role that MMA has played in the ongoing war, and would prove far from the last. Martial arts have long been viewed as traditional sports utilized for self-defense, discipline, and confidence building. However, authoritarian leaders have also employed these combat sports as propaganda tools. Putin has used sports like judo to further his constructed image as a masculine leader; Kadyrov has weaponized MMA as part of a socialization strategy to reform his traumatized republic following decades of war with Russia, as well as a platform to further his political agenda and warmongering intentions. All of this is now playing out on new communication channels like Telegram, as the propaganda around a war is turned into content just as surely as the war itself is.

Putin’s Performative Machismo  

In the 22 years since he was elected president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin has transformed from an inexperienced politician who inherited a country in disarray to an icon of machismo capable of commanding sycophantic displays of devotion. His presidency has inspired novels, plays, and songs, as well as a range of products imprinted with his image, including t-shirts emblazoned with the leader wearing camouflage, clutching weapons or riding a horse bare-chested. 

Determined to present himself as the living embodiment of modern masculinity in Russia, Putin utilized public relations photo-ops that captured him swimming, weightlifting, and taking part in judo training sessions. The latter was particularly significant, as images of Putin boasting a black belt and hip tossing opponents were widely circulated to symbolize his strength and physical prowess. 

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Putin has  associated with celebrities such as action star Jean-Claude Van Damme in an attempt to bolster his hard-man image. He also orchestrated photo-ops with d-list actor Steven Seagal, who was later rewarded with Russian citizenship for his efforts—a strategy that Putin later employed to reel in other notable combat sports figures such as American boxer Roy Jones Jr. and MMA journeyman Jeff Monson. 

Putin has also been pictured at local MMA events over the years, most notably at shows featuring Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko. During an S-70 event in 2012, he paid American fighter Anthony Ruiz $150,000 above his disclosed pay after watching him fight through severe injuries at the hands of his Russian rival in the main event. 

“I also knew it was coming from Putin, and he's one of the wealthiest persons in the world,” Ruiz told Bleacher Report at the time. “So, really, $150,000 ain't that much to him. That's what I'm telling myself to justify it.”

Putin’s successful political legitimation through the formation of a macho personality cult rooted in combat sports has led to other Russian politicians following in his footsteps, mostly notably Chechen dictator Kadyrov. 

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Kadyrov’s MMA Empire  

Since his rise to power in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom. 

Endowed with a hefty budget from the Kremlin in exchange for the continued suppression and pacification of Chechnya—a once-independent republic that had undergone two bloody wars with Russia in the 1990s—Kadyrov cemented his authority by orchestrating brutal human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings and abductions while stomping out all potential rivals to his rule. He has also been accused of torturing and killing LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya. 

After cementing his authority over the republic, Kadyrov launched the Akhmat MMA fight club in 2015, which consists of an MMA promotion 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, thereby connecting it to the Kadyrov personality cult. 

Through his fight club, Kadyrov was able to establish relationships with a seemingly endless list of celebrities, including boxing legends like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. 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.

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FILED - 04 October 2018, Russia, Grosny: Ramzan Kadyrov (l), head of the republic of Chechnya, and former boxing world champion Floyd Mayweather (r) sit on the VIP floor of the Achmat Fight Club during a mixed martial arts competition. (to dpa story "Kadyrov's dictatorship turns Chechnya into a time bomb") Photo: Emile Ducke/A4897/Emile Ducke (Photo by Emile Alain Ducke/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Kadyrov’s emerging MMA empire faced resistance in December 2020 when the U.S. Treasury levied sanctions on Kadyrov’s fight club for providing the dictator with “pride and profit.” Though the dictator had previously faced sanctions in 2017, this marked the first time that the U.S. government attempted to block people present in the United States from doing business with Kadyrov’s fight club. The measures were 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,” according to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Despite the ongoing sanctions, several fighters affiliated with Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA continue to compete for the UFC, which has furthered Kadyrov’s use of sports as a soft power strategy since he can now boast about his fighters’ success competing for the world’s leading MMA organization. Rising star Khamzat Chimaev, who defeated welterweight contender Gilbert Burns at UFC 273, was among those who recently competed.  

The UFC, which has a lucrative multi-year deal with The Walt Disney Company through ESPN, maintained in a statement to the New York Times that it has no affiliation with Akhmat MMA and that its fighters were independent contractors and that it entered into contracts with them directly. 

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Beyond his sportswashing ambitions, Kadyrov has also utilized his MMA fight club as a reservoir of soldiers for his burgeoning war machine—a concerning development given his staunch support for Putin’s war in Ukraine. 

Chechnya’s MMA Soldiers

When Kadyrov first declared his intention to join Putin’s war in Ukraine on Feb. 25, 2022, he did so at an official speech in the heart of the Chechen capital Grozny while flanked by some of his most loyal henchmen. Among them was Abdul-Kerim Edilov, a former UFC fighter who was later elevated to vice premier of Chechnya. 

Edilov, who fought for the UFC in 2017, stood armed with a machine gun, a tactical vest packed with extra ammunition, and a skull cap emblazoned with the “Akhmat Sila” battlecry. He later posted a photo of himself at the gathering with the caption: “Proud to die in this path.”

Though Edilov was not deployed to Ukraine, he was pictured alongside Kadyrov during the strongman’s unconfirmed visits to the frontlines, including an alleged trip to Kyiv. Though investigative reporting into Kadyrov’s phone data suggests the strongman did not visit Kyiv, his decision to include Edilov in the photo-op underscores the troubling connection between Kadyrov’s fight club and his private army. 

Kadyrov’s fight club is run by Abuzayed Vismuradov, a life-long friend and ally to Kadyrov who commands Chechnya’s Special Forces as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail. Vismuradov is also sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury under the Magnitsky Act for allegedly being in charge of an operation that “illegally detained and tortured individuals on the basis of their actual or perceived LGBTI status.” 

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Vismuradov has also played a role in Russia’s ongoing war, primarily by rallying troops set to be deployed to Ukraine. This emphasizes the fact that Kadyrov’s fight club is not an ordinary MMA gym, but rather an extension of his government. 

Of the thousands of Chechen men who train at Akhmat MMA facilities, only a handful go on to become professional fighters. Many of those who don’t achieve that goal can still put their hand-to-hand combat skills to use by joining military and police regiments in Chechnya, including the Terek SWAT forces (which is controlled by Akhmat MMA president Vismuradov) among others. This was further explored in a 2017 HBO Real Sports documentary on Kadyrov’s MMA fight club. 

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 February 2022, earning a decisive victory at an Akhmat show in Moscow. The fighter could regularly be seen alongside Kadyrov, whether dressed in military garb or in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt following a training session, and quickly emerged as a household name in Chechnya. 

Many Chechen fighters also joined the so-called Kadyrovtsy paramilitary unit—Kadyrov’s private militia known for committing widespread human rights abuses such as kidnapping, forced disappearances and murder. The group is considered among the most feared organizations in Russia, having been used as tools of domestic oppression, as well as occasionally being deployed to warzones such as Syria and Ukraine. 

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Kadyrov has routinely posted videos of his men fighting in Ukraine on Telegram while claiming to have successfully rebuffed the “Nazis” in Ukraine. His videos show troops fighting in locations such as the captured port city of Mariupol, as well as occupied territories such as Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Most recently, the Chechen warlord threatened to attack Poland over its support for Ukraine. Speaking in a video published on social media, Kadyrov demanded that Poland take back the weapons it supplied to Ukraine or face dire consequences as a result. 

While reports suggest that Chechens are fleeing their homeland in order to avoid being drafted to Ukraine, sources close to Kadyrov’s fight club have confirmed that the dictator continues to recruit from the pool of fighters at his disposal. 

The wartime videos published by Kadyrov and his government are in stark contrast to those published by Ukrainian soldiers, including several MMA and boxing champions. Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion turned mayor of Kyiv, regularly posts updates on the war from his office and various unknown locations, including a clip announcing that the heads of two village councils in the Zaporzhye region had been released from captivity. “Eight Ukrainian mayors continue to be held captive. Their fate remains unknown,” Klitschko wrote on his Telegram channel. 

Bellator welterweight champion Yaroslav Amosov, who withdrew from his scheduled title fight to join the military in Ukraine, shared a video of himself crawling out of an underground dwelling holding a bag with his championship title tucked safely inside. “Mom hid him and he survived the bombing,” Amosov said in the video. 

Several Ukrainian boxers also took up arms against Russia, including Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk, the latter of whom is also expected to rematch Briton Anthony Joshua later this year and use the opportunity to raise relief funds for Ukraine.  

While Kadyrov and Putin have weaponized combat sports such as MMA for political gain and to further their warmongering intentions, Ukraine appears to be utilizing its fighters to rally and uplift its nation during a time of intense strife. No matter the distinction, it is difficult to deny that combat sports have played a bizarre yet prominent role in the ongoing war.