Earlier this month, Eli Kadyrov—one of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s four fighting sons—stepped into the ring in his latest amateur boxing match broadcast throughout the Russian Federation.
Dressed in a pair of white and gold shorts with a matching vest and a black headguard, the Eli confidently picked apart his opponent, Khetag Khatkarov, in a fight designed to showcase the Kadyrov princeling’s technical superiority. The fight, which took place in Grozny, Chechnya under the “Time of Legends-7” banner, lasted the better part of three rounds before Khatkarov opted to simply stop fighting.
Though amateur boxers are not awarded physical titles, Eli was handed a championship belt while being applauded by his father and his henchmen, all of whom were in attendance. The event’s MC then went on to declare Eli the next Muhammed Ali, which drew even more cheers from the local crowd.
While the fight drew ire from critics and Chechen human rights defenders alike, many of whom questioned the legitimacy of Eli’s victories, the event served as the latest example of Kadyrov’s longstanding approach of using sports as a tool to cement his rule in Chechnya. In this case, the dictator accused of countless human rights atrocities over the past decade is weaponizing his sons and their supposed achievements in combat sports to cement his legacy and ensure the dynastic future of the Kadyrov clan as Chechnya’s supreme clan.
Child Fights in Chechnya
On October 4, 2016, Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov hosted an MMA event to celebrate his 40th birthday. As part of the festivities, he assigned fights for three of his sons, 11-year-old Akhmad, 9-year-old Eli, and 8-year-old Adam. The three youngsters, the heaviest of whom was 37kg, even participated in the pre-fight weigh-in ceremony, including the posturing theatrics that occasionally accompany the more official task of making weight.
Less than 24 hours later, all three children stepped into the cage wearing only shorts and 6oz gloves—they donned no rash guard, no padding, nor protective headgear. Accompanied by various members of the Akhmat Fight Club like former UFC fighter Abdel-Kerim Edilov, the three princes won their respective fights. The oldest, named after his infamous grandfather who sided with Vladimir Putin during the Second Chechen War, won by technical knockout. Despite the swift kick to the body that ended the fight, Akhmad’s terrified opponent appeared grateful to be done with the traumatic experience.
All three of the Kadyrov princes were awarded miniaturized championship belts for their efforts, while members of the Akhmat team celebrated their win as though the victory was their own.
The news prompted popular figures like legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko—who at the time was president of the Russian MMA Union—to condemn the fights, which were deemed illegal in Russia. In a social media post, Emelianenko explained that “what happened in Grozny is unacceptable & cannot be justified.” This then prompted an official investigation from the Kremlin and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Russian Federation.
Emelianenko’s comments led to a torrent of abuse from Chechen fighters affiliated with Kadyrov. State Duma rep Adam Delimkhanov, one of Kadyrov’s closest allies and a member of Russian parliament, even threatened that Emelianenko would be “held responsible for his words against Kadyrov’s children.”
Days later, Emelianenko’s daughter was attacked and hospitalized after being kicked in the chest on her way home from school. No direct link was ever made between Kadyrov’s threats and the attack on Emelianenko’s daughter. However, Kadyrov’s decision to place his three princelings in MMA fights was not merely for entertainment purposes, but as deliberate propaganda to further his own political goals.
Sports in the North Caucasus region are not just used for entertainment purposes and societal concerns, but for political gain and the strategic realization of particular ambitions. For Kadyrov, athletes are versatile tools used to whitewash crimes and human rights abuses, exercise control over a population and even as a sports socialization tactic to impose a fabricated model of Chechen machismo.
Kadyrov popularized combat sports in Chechnya by elevating Chechen fighters to elite social status, creating structured facilities and gyms, and propagating the idea that proficiency in combat sports such as MMA is part of Chechen manhood. By doing so, the dictator has been able to create a farming system to assimilate Chechens en masse into combat sports programs. He founded the Akhmat MMA fight club—a training facility with more than 15 branches across the region—as well as an MMA promotion (World Fighting Championship of Akhmat, later rebranded Absolute Championship Akhmat). Several of the fighters who represent his fight club have gone on to compete for the UFC.
Dating back to 2015, Kadyrov’s fight club has hosted over 80 events, many of which took place at the Colosseum Sports Complex in Grozny, where Kadyrov sat on a raised dais surrounded by his closest henchmen and celebrities paid for their appearance. Previous celebrities included Steven Seagal, Badr Hari, Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson, and former UFC champions Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum, Chris Weidman, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Frankie Edgar.
The crowd in attendance usually wear Akhmat MMA shirts emblazoned with pictures of Kadyrov’s late father, while chants of “Akhmat Sila” (which translates to Akhmat Power) reverberate through the arena. The typical scene is a perfect encapsulation of the hyper-masculine society that Kadyrov has gradually imposed on his people, and the role that combat sports plays in cementing his authority.
Kadyrov has long used his fight club and visiting celebrities as a form of “sportswashing,” whereby the dictator uses sports to distract from ongoing human rights abuses. It is a tactic popularly employed by authoritarian leaders attempting to rebrand themselves or improve their image abroad. While Kadyrov is no exception, he continues to evolve his strategic approach, as is evidenced by his decision to weaponize his children.
By weaving his children into his sportswashing displays, Kadyrov is taking part in a form of dynastic propaganda that aims to secure the Kadyrov clan as the rightful leaders of Chechnya. The dictator hopes that by presenting his children as capable fighters from a young age, he will therefore be able to secure future generations of Kadyrov leadership in the troubled North Caucasus republic.
It is worth noting that Kadyrov’s dynastic propaganda extends beyond his sons. His nephew, Magomed Delimkhanov—related to Kadyrov’s henchman and State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov—also competed on the “Time of Legends” boxing tournament in November. Following his victory, he thanked Kadyrov, stating he owes his success to his “dear uncle.”
“I made a successful debut in the professional ring,” Delimkhanov wrote on Instagram page. “I owe my victory to my dear uncle, Hero of Russia Ramzan Kadyrov. He believed in me and created all conditions for sports achievements in the region.”
The boxing event also featured former UFC light-heavyweight Abdulkerim Edilov, who was also victorious against his opponent. Edilov, who previously threatened an HBO journalist in Chechnya while employed with the UFC in 2017, is also a relative of Kadyrov, as well as a glorified nanny and coach for the dictator’s children.
All the aforementioned bouts have been criticized as fixed fights with predetermined outcomes. Human rights defenders Oyub Titiev and Ruslan Kutaev noted that such fights are often arranged by coaches and tournament organizers, and that opponents are intimidated into lose so as not to upset the Chechen strongman or his associates.
Kadyrov has also invited the likes of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman to Chechnya, where footage showed him sparring with one of the dictator’s children at the Akhmat MMA training facility. The photo-op, which took place in December 2020, served to elevate the Kadyrov princeling’s status as a serious fighter training with champions from a young age. This further emphasizes Kadyrov’s propaganda display, which is effectively to use fabricated and performative theatre to hype his children as the future of Chechnya.
While Kadyrov is happy to employ dynastic propaganda to weaponize his children for political gain, the remainder of Chechnya and its citizens continue to live under the tyrant’s oppression. In May 2021, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov used his Instagram account to threaten a person who called him “Satan” during a live broadcast, saying, “You won’t sleep at night. You’ll be writing your will…. I have destroyed many Satans and I will destroy you.” Two days later, Chechen state TV broadcast a video of a man apologizing for his son.
“I ask for your forgiveness for the poor upbringing of my 15-year-old son,” the father said during the broadcast. “I was unable to bring up a respectable son.”