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SBD Global/July 18, 2017/Media

David Scott Of 'Real Sports' Talks Chechen Leader's Use Of MMA To Raise Profile

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A professional MMA club owned by military dictator Ramzan Kadyrov is gaining prominence in the combat sports world, just as reports of gay men being persecuted in Kadyrov's Chechnya are making waves internationally. For Tuesday night's episode of HBO's "Real Sports," correspondent David Scott interviewed Kadyrov. In the piece, the president of the Chechen Republic addressed the role his fight club is playing in his accumulation of power, the alleged purge of gay men and his thoughts on the U.S.

ACCORDING TO PLAN: "Real Sports" decided to examine how Kadyrov is using MMA for political gains late in '16, Scott said. In January, Kadyrov held a news conference that was carried nationally when Chechen Magomed Bibulatov signed with UFC. The flyweight, who won his UFC debut on April 8, reportedly listed Kadyrov as his hero in a pre-fight questionnaire. Bibulatov and fellow UFC fighters Abdul-Kerim Edilov and Ruslan Magomedov are all products of Kadyrov's Akhmat MMA Fight Club. The club is named after Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, who was president of the Chechen Republic until he was assassinated in '04. "[Kadyrov's] plan is clearly working," Scott told SBD Global. "He's got three fighters signed to the UFC and more fighters fighting in the U.S. in other promotions. They are an impressive and fearsome lot. But for his own dark shadow, they would probably be doing even better in the Western, sort of elite ranks of the sport. But his human rights record and his behavior as a dictator is actually casting a dark shadow over his fighters now."

UFC DECLINES COMMENT: Bibulatov won his first UFC bout days after Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a report claiming that gay men were being detained, tortured and even killed in an anti-homosexual purge in Chechnya. Amid such allegations, many are interested to see how UFC will address having fighters with ties to Kadyrov. Scott said last week that "Real Sports" contacted UFC, which declined to comment. "We're interested in knowing their perspective," Scott said. "This is sort of a novel issue of sport. What happens when a tyrant of state becomes a titan of sport? It's not really like [the fighters] are independent contractors. They all are closely associated with a fight club that [Kadyrov] has personally founded and funded, that has a close link to the security apparatus in Chechnya. They wear his insignia, they would wear it in the Octagon but for that Reebok deal that prevents it. One of the fighters that's signed to the UFC [Bibulatov], his big regret was that he couldn't wear the Akhmat MMA colors in the cage."

'SEAMLESS CONNECTION': Nearly every boy in war-torn Chechnya grows up fighting, Scott said. Kadyrov sees several ways his fight club, which now boasts 5,000 members, can capitalize on the region's warrior mentality. In addition to giving him greater influence internationally, Akhmat MMA FC is used to rally the people of Chechnya and is intertwined with the Chechen Republic's armed forces. Scott pointed out that the president of the fight club, a childhood friend of Kadyrov's still known by his nom de guerre, "Patriot," is also the head of Kadyrov's security forces. "There you can see the living embodiment of this seamless connection between the sport and the state," Scott said. "[Kadyrov] has found a way to make the security forces and the sport mutually reinforcing, and doubly reinforcing of his power." 

'BLIND FAITH'
: HBO had to go to great lengths to land the interview with Kadyrov, who Scott said had not spoken to a Western media outlet since '12. The difficulty hardly came as a surprise, as Kadyrov is, in Scott's words, "notoriously hostile to the press in general, especially to the Western press, especially to American reporters." Scott and an HBO crew first traveled to Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, in May, but returned home after nine days without the interview they were promised by Kadyrov's press office. With no guarantee a second attempt at an interview with Kadyrov would pay off, "Real Sports" decided to return to Grozny to try again anyway. "We really had no reason for optimism," Scott said. "We did have a kind of blind faith that the news gods might smile on us, and we had a strong conviction that it was worth playing out. These stories don't come around very often. We had already put a lot into it. It is our practice not to take no for an answer. We rolled the dice and it paid off."

MAKING A SPLASH: Thanks to Kadyrov's candor, it is unlikely "Real Sports" is second-guessing its persistence. The leader of the Chechen Republic made a number of memorable statements in the episode, none more headline-grabbing than his response when asked about whether he considers the U.S. an enemy. Kadyrov told Scott, "America is not really a strong enough state for us to regard it as an enemy of Russia. We have a strong government and we are a nuclear superpower. Even if they completely destroy our government, our nuclear missiles will launch automatically. We will turn the whole world over to screw it from behind." When asked about the alleged purge of gay men, Kadryov said, "This is nonsense. We don't have such people here. We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada." This week's episode of "Real Sports" has already attracted coverage from a number of prominent publications, including the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and the London Independent. 
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