The battle for the soul of Russian masculinity never ends. Just when you thought strong-arm leader X had ended the argument by posing shirtless on a horse or dictatorial leader Y had won the day by demanding that women be locked up in their homes and never let out, just when all those pictures of Russian leaders posing with professional mixed martial artists had started to leave you cold and unimpressed, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, ups the ante to impossible levels by broadcasting an MMA tournament featuring boys as young as 8—three of them his own sons.
On Tuesday, Kadyrov, a former rebel-turned-Kremlin-loyalist who has been linked to the killings of political rivals, investigative journalists, and human rights advocates, and who uses torture and death squads to maintain an iron grip on his country's government, included the "youth division" tournament as part of the latest event put on by his own World Fight Championships of Akhmat (WFCA). None of the children wore helmets or shin guards or protective gear of any kind. All three of Kadyrov's sons won their fights, which should come as no surprise, and the tournament was won by the dictator's 10-year-old, Akhmad, who knocked out his opponent, also a child, in the first round. After the fights the brothers posed with gold title belts.
Like any proud father, Kadyrov posted footage of the fights on his Instagram account and lauded his sons' performances. He wrote that Akhmad had shown "real masculine character."
But the response to the child fights outside Kadyrov's small circle was less glowing. Even in Putin's Russia, where masculinity and fighting prowess are revered, condemnation of the fights was swift. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin (a Kadyrov ally without whose support the Chechen dictator's hold on his country would be tenuous) told journalists that the "knockout of a child, especially on television, is a reason for the appropriate oversight agencies to get involved," and it was reported that the Russian Sports ministry would be launching an investigation into the fights. Under the rules of Russian MMA, children under the age of 12 are not allowed to compete and all fighters under the age of 21 are required to wear headgear.
But perhaps the most stunning condemnation of Kadyrov's child fights came not from the Putin administration but from Fedor Emelianenko, the great man of Russian MMA, whose longtime friendship with Putin has granted the Russian president a depth of masculinity by proxy that he otherwise wouldn't have. The day after the event, Emelianenko, both a legendary fighter and the president of the Russian MMA Union, wrote on Instagram, "What happened at the tournament in Grozny is unacceptable and, moreover, cannot be justified. Needless to say that kids under age of 12 cannot even attend MMA fights (in Russia) as spectators, but here we had little ones as young as eight beating each other up in front of happy adults.
"I am outraged by the fact that the head of Chechnya was watching over it. Didn't [the Chechen] sports minister tell him about the fact that children under 12 cannot participate in MMA under any circumstances?"
Of course, what Emelianenko may not have known (but what the Chechen sports minister surely did) is that you don't get in the way of Ramzan Kadyrov if you don't want to reap a whirlwind. Which is exactly what has happened to Emelianenko, a man who, until two days ago, seemed like an untouchable legend in Russia.
The response to Emelianenko's criticism was fierce, coming from Kadyrov flunkies and even Emelianenko's fellow fighters and promoters. WSOF flyweight champion Magomed Bibulatov and Akhmat MMA president Abuzayed Vismuradov all attacked Fedor on social media. Valid Edilov, director of the Akhmat fight club, accused Emelianenko of doping and argued that fighting is part of Chechen children's upbringing. State Duma Rep Adam Delimkhanov, a close ally of Kadyrov, seemed to threaten Emelianenko, saying he will be "held responsible for his words against Kadyrov's children." But it was Timur Dugazayev, Kadyrov's representative in Europe and general director of the leader's Akhmat MMA promotion, who did the unthinkable: doubting the Last Emperor's masculinity: "Fedor should look at the situation from a man's point of view," Dugazayev said.
For those of us who have been following Russian MMA it's a bizarre day indeed when Fedor Emelianenko is being accused of not being manly enough in his own country. One wonders how Putin will take it
And the attacks on Fedor didn't stop there. Fellow Russian MMA superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov questioned Fedor's concern for Russian children and voiced his support for Kadyrov's tournament and for child fighting in general. And former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, who ended Emelianenko's legendary unbeaten streak back in 2010 and who, alongside fellow UFC fighters Chris Weidman and Frank Mir, got paid an undisclosed amount by Kadyrov back in March 2015 to act as a legitimizing prop at an Akhmat MMA event in Chechnya, sold his soul again by voicing his support for his tyrannical patron and his little-boy fights on Instagram: "I support that kids should do and compete in any sport if the event are safe and well prepared for that. [Akhmat MMA] put a great show and have 6 kids competing MMA with different rules than adult MMA. Kids compete all around the World in contact sport …" We assume Werdum then made one of his patented adorable faces.
As for Kadyrov, it remains to be seen what the Russian Sports Ministry's investigation will come to, or how Putin will respond to all the attacks on Emelianenko, but for now he seems unconcerned. On Wednesday, the day after he put on a cage-fighting tournament for prepubescent boys, he was celebrating both his 40th birthday and his re-inauguration as the head of Chechnya after winning an impressive 98% of the vote in last month's election. And, to top things off, on the very same day the first episode of his new reality show, The Team, aired on Russian state television. On the show 16 contestants vie to become Mr. Kadyrov's assistant. According to reports the show is modeled on the American show The Apprentice, which, you may remember, starred Republican presidential candidate and Putin favorite Donald Trump.
So that's the world today.