The latest episode of HBO's Real Sports presented to the outside world a reality mixed martial arts fans have been aware of for quite some time: that there's a dictatorial madman in Chechnya using sports as a propaganda tool to impose on his people a poisonous vision of masculinity and oppress anyone who would stand in the way of that vision.
The stories are familiar by now: all the brutality of the regime of warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, which, acting with the support of the Putin government in Moscow, has ruled the small Russian Republic of Chechnya with an iron fist for a decade, killing journalists and human rights advocates, assassinating political rivals, employing death squads, torturing, disappearing citizens, using rape as a tool of coercion and oppression, etc., etc., etc. All of which didn't seem to make much of an impression on the world, though that changed earlier this year when stories starting circulating about a concerted effort on the part of the Kadyrov regime to round up, torture, and even murder gay men in the country: an act of "protective cleansing" to rid the country of homosexuality. The government denied the reports, of course, pointing to the fact that such a "prophylactic sweep" wouldn't be necessary since there are no homosexuals in Chechnya. See? Problem solved.
In this week's Real Sports episode (which includes an interview with Bloody Elbow writer Karim Zidan, whose brilliant and brave reporting on the Kadyrov government's use of MMA and other sports as propaganda tools, made the show possible) correspondent David Scott sits down with Kadyrov to talk about the relationship between MMA and might in Chechnya. Kadyrov, who in addition to being the country's president also runs an MMA gym and the Akhmat MMA promotion, draws a straight line from one to the other, holding up Chechen MMA champions as proof of the country's strength and using them as recruitment tools for the military. The personal is political and vice versa.
"This is how they teach us from childhood," Kadyrov says. "My father told me when I was a little boy, 'If you're coming home because you got scared, don't come home. I have no need for you. You're not a girl, you're a man.' … Our motto is: Death is better than second place." Which may sound like the motto of a lot of mixed martial artists (it could even pass as the slogan for a boxing glove manufacturer or a CrossFit gym), but in Kadyrov's conception of Chechnya, it should probably not be viewed as hyperbole. In fact, if this week's Real Sports episode shows anything it's that Kadyrov and his favored Akhmat MMA fighters do draw a straight line between mixed martial arts prowess and "successful" (i.e., warlike) masculinity, and that any conception of masculinity that is not considered successful is not just corrupt but worthy of being snuffed out. And so, when asked about his regime's purges against gay men, he first denies their existence (both the purges and the men) and then says that if there do happen to be any homosexual men Chechnya, they should be sent "to Canada" in order to "purify our blood."
In other words, in the Kadyrov imagination, homosexuality is the ultimate manifestation of weakness and fear, of a lack of strength and masculinity and militaristic sentiment. Which should be a terrifying thought for anyone, gay or straight, living in Chechnya and anyone living outside Chechnya fearful of a republic and a country whose notions of itself (as strong and male) are tied up so completely in its belief in its military might. How terrifying is the notion of a super power like Russia viewing military policy as simply a psychic outgrowth of its personal conception of masculinity? Hence Kadyrov's threat to the United States should we, for some reason, choose to engage militarily with them: "Even if they completely destroy our government, our nuclear missiles will launch automatically," he says. "We will turn the whole world over and screw it from behind."
All of which would be deflating enough, geopolitically, but for fans of MMA there's also the question of the effect this has on our beloved sport. Let's not forget that much-respected UFC stars like Chris Weidman, Frank Mir, and Alexander Gustafsson have all visited Chechnya as guests of Kadyrov: all of them perfect, well-paid pawns in the dictator's propaganda chess match. And UFC legend Fabricio Werdum is, as far as we can tell, still getting a paycheck to act as "ambassador" for Akhmat MMA, smoothing the road toward international acceptance for Kadyrov's league and normalizing his particular brand of toxic masculinity and, it follows, his policies of extreme oppression. And let's not forget that Conor McGregor's dance partner for the Greatest Fight of All Time™, Floyd Mayweather (who never met a money-making opportunity or a misguided notion of manliness or a strong-arm leader he didn't like) was an honored guest of Kadyrov's in Chechnya in April, further boosting the fighting bona fides of Kadyrov's regime and normalizing the horror show he calls a government.
So here's hoping Real Sports stirs up enough indignation and shame in the MMA community that no one—not Werdum, not Weidman, not Gustafsson, and certainly not UFC President Dana White (see Mayweather description, above), to whom Kadyrov issued a challenge on the show: a UFC/Akhmat tournament "to the death"—ever feels right about cavorting with the Kadyrov regime again. 15 years ago MMA saved itself from extinction by drawing a clear line between sport and spectacle; now to save its soul it has to draw an even bolder line between achievement in the cage and toxic militarism outside it.