On October 3 UFC light-heavyweight Alexander Gustafsson is scheduled to fight champion Daniel Cormier, which means he must make sure his wrestling is correct. The Swedish boxer grappled well with former division 1 wrestler Phil Davis when they fought in 2010 and managed to take down Jon Jones in 2013, something that had never been done before. But Cormier is a different kind of beast, a former Olympian no less, and if Gustafsson’s wrestling isn’t correct come October 3 Cormier will toss him around like a sack of flour. So to prepare himself, last month Gustafsson did a little training in Chechnya, the Russian Republic where wrestling is so deeply entrenched in the culture that many see it as the best hope for keeping young men from running off and joining the Islamic insurgency. In Chechnya wrestling is a bulwark against religious extremism.
So it makes sense Alexander Gustafsson would go there to train. But man, they say, cannot live on wrestling alone, and everyone needs to blow off steam, especially a mixed martial artist deep into a fight camp, when things can get very harsh and very dark. So it also makes sense that while Gustafsson was in Chechnya he would relax by indulging in some of the culture’s other pastimes, eat some of the local cuisine, perhaps, or take in a concert, or maybe fire off automatic weapons in the countryside with the president’s security forces.
Pictures of Gustafsson and two of his training partners holding up machine guns and axes appeared on Instagram last month, but it wasn’t until this week, at a press conference to promote UFC 192, that the Swedish press got around to asking Gustafsson about his day out shooting and whether the fighter was sending the right message to the youth of Sweden by doing so. Gustafsson laughed off the questions, saying the shooting excursion was not his idea, that he and his friends had been invited by the security forces of Chechen President and MMA patron Ramzan Kadyrov. “It’s a fun thing to do,” Gustafsson said (very roughly translated). “Everyone thinks it’s fun to shoot. It’s a funny thing.”
Yes it is a funny thing, firing off guns in Chechnya. As is the increasingly tight-knit relationship mixed martial artists and Russian dictators. For years Russian President Vladimir Putin has been throwing his arms around fighters to buttress his image as the toughest, most masculine world leader around. These days, though, for sheer enthusiasm you can’t top Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin may attend the occasional sambo match or pose for pictures with Fedor Emelianenko, but the Chechen president started his own MMA league, Akhmat MMA, and you may remember back in March he flew Fabricio Werdum, Chris Weidman, and Frank Mir to Chechnya to attend an Akhmat MMA event, where the three UFC stars watched fights, posed with guns (of course!), and danced the national dance of the North Caucasus, the lezginka. All while Kadyrov laughed and cheered and made Werdum and Mir stand behind him like palace guards. The fighters returned home hungover and well paid, though it’s hard to know just how well. Rumor had it that Kadyrov offered Jon Jones $100,000 to appear. A small price to pay when you’re a president with a love for MMA.
Then, not a week after the Akhmat event, videos started appearing on Instagram of former UFC star Roger Huerta and current fighter Vinny Magalhaes roaming the Chechen countryside like Gustafsson would do six months later, shooting (yes!) assault rifles and even grenade launchers with members of the Chechen security forces. Suddenly it seemed like Chechnya was the place to be for MMA fighters, a land where they could be respected and admired, even adored, unlike, say, the United States, where mixed martial artists are still considered shadowy figures and would never ever be invited to the White House or asked to shoot guns with the Secret Service.
Yes, it seems that Ramzan Kadyrov is quickly becoming MMA’s greatest champion: a friend to the common man and his sport. So what does this people’s champion do when he’s not feting UFC champions and sending them out for a day of shooting in the countryside?
Well, rumor has it that the former rebel-turned-Kremlin-loyalist-turned-pseudo-theocratic-hardliner has many, many hobbies: He enjoys being the only leader of a Russian republic in control of his own security forces and having carte blanche from the Kremlin, being linked to the political killings of investigative journalists and human rights advocates, possibly assassinating political rivals both in Chechnya and abroad, torturing political prisoners, executing rivals with impunity, maybe beheading Islamic insurgents and signing off on the mass torture of militants, employing his security forces as a death squad thought by human rights groups to be responsible for 75% of the murders and rapes in his country, kidnapping and disappearing countless civilians, reprimanding residents of the republic for minor offenses (like, say, wearing short skirts) on state-sponsored television, and, occasionally, demanding the interrogation of hundreds of people after losing his cell phone at museum openings.
But still the man finds time to love MMA. Ramzan Kadyrov loves MMA so much! And he loves inviting famous MMA fighters out to do fun things, like watching fights and doing dances and shooting guns. He loves seeing MMA fighters have fun! And MMA fighters love to have fun! So much fun was had by all. So much fun is yet to be had.
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