To Clip an Eagle’s Wings7 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics
Khabib. The Eagle. The undefeated ex-UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fighter is perhaps the most famous sportsman in the Caucasus and likely the most famous Dagestani around the globe. Born Khabib Nurmagomedov in 1988 in rural western Dagestan, his fighting career began at the age of nine with a wrestling match with a bear. Twenty-three years later, he announced his retirement, in October 2020, which was made official in March of this year. Having fought his last bout, he must have thought that things would generally be smooth sailing from there. However, this was not to be, as Khabib became ensnared in regional politics at the beginning of the summer.

Over the course of his fighting career, Khabib emerged as a male role model throughout the Caucasus, and understandably so. Khabib portrayed himself as a champion for all ethnic groups, shared messages of interethnic harmony, and displayed the expected Kavkazi veneration of Imam Shamil, the leader of the North Caucasus resistance to the Russian Tsar. Khabib also served as the embodiment of his father’s work: teaching martial arts to Dagestani youth as an alternative to jihad. However, his history of espousing socially conservative viewpointsー including in the form of misogynistic commentsー has brought doubt about his suitability as a regional role model. 

Less in the spotlight than he once was—logically, as he is no longer fighting on the world’s largest stage—one might have thought Khabib could enjoy retirement by simply utilizing his broad acceptance across the Caucasus, and beyond, to promote mixed martial arts competition throughout the region. Alas, the Eagle’s continued efforts to raise the profile of the sport that made him internationally known have not been without incident, as he has become caught in the sticky web of geopolitics.

A canceled trip

His first problem arose when a thirty-year-old territorial dispute forced Khabib to cancel a trip to Abkhazia just days before he was supposed to depart. According to his manager, the United States threatened to cancel his US visa if he traveled to the region internationally recognized as part of Georgia. Whether they know for certain is not clear, but both Khabib’s team and Abkhazian authorities assume Georgia pressured the US to take such actions. They are probably not wrong.

Khabib was set to give a talk ahead of the selection of Abkhazian athletes to train at the former gym of his father Abdulmanap, who passed away ahead of Khabib’s final UFC fight. The event billed as part of a “Future Abkhazia” initiative, was free to the public.

While Abkhazia is not trying to use martial arts as an alternative to radicalization, it is safe to say that the region’s development of even a single high-profile international fighter would help in two ways. First, it would provide Abkhazia with some international recognition—not in the sovereignty-granting way that they desire, but in a broader, hey-we-exist manner. Having their own “Khabib” would enable Abkhazia to garner some of the international spotlights, just as Khabib has done for Dagestan. Importantly, it is unclear to what degree a professional Abkhazian fighter would need to be endorsed, officially or legally, by Georgia to fight internationally; UFC fighters need a work visa from the United States, which does not recognize Abkhazian passports, however, Russia has widely distributed passports in Abkhazia.

Second, establishing a network of professional Abkhazian fighters could provide some much-needed economic respite, as some of the winnings of such fighters could flow back to Abkhazia. At this point, any diversification beyond cryptocurrency mining and tourism would be welcome. While Khabib himself is only offering training slots at his gym, the ex-fighter’s presence in the breakaway region would have provided some hope of a brighter future for Abkhazia and its people.

A lost patron

Khabib’s second problem is more straightforward: it would appear he has fallen out with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. During Khabib’s reign at the top of UFC, he and Kadyrov became quite close, particularly after Khabib defeated Irish superstar Conor McGregor. Their relationship gradually built up from visits with Kadyrov’s Akhmat Fight Club to Khabib thanking Kadyrov for giving ten million rubles to Dagestani fire victims, to, eventually, Khabib speaking up on the Chechen-Dagestani border demarcation—an extremely contentious issue and potential trigger of local conflict that remains unresolved today.

The transformation evident here is not budding friendship, but the cultivation of an asset. Kadyrov was attempting to demonstrate that he could influence, and to a certain degree control, the Dagestani legend—this is merely Kadyrov’s perspective, not reality. This idea of control would seem to be at the root of their relationship’s collapse. While the two have had spats in the past, Khabib’s retirement could not be solved by apologies. Announced abruptly at the behest of his mother, it is doubtful Khabib had alerted Kadyrov to his intention to quit fighting. Losing his prize fighter obviously frustrated the Chechen strongman.

Following Khabib’s retirement, Kadyrov went out of his way to belittle the Dagestani legend and his achievements, attributing his success to a personal friendship with UFC president Dana White and questioning Khabib’s national pride. Both Kadyrov and Khabib have played down any falling out and supposedly reconciled, but this is undercut by Khabib throwing one final jab. Explaining his muted reaction to Kadyrov’s fighting words, the Dagestani simply claimed the comments were not offensive and did not warrant a reaction, a clear snub of Kadyrov’s importance. 

Meanwhile, Kadyrov quickly acquired himself a new pet fighter, Chechnya’s own Khamzat Chimaev, by convincing him to not retire. This makes Kadyrov responsible for Chimaev’s future success, placing Chimaev in the Chechen leader’s debt. Around the time of Khabib and Kadyrov’s arguments, Chimaev attempted to provoke Khabib into a fight, which he would not have done without permission from his new patron.

Khabib’s exit and Chimaev’s entrance into Kadyrov’s favor provides a different explanation of the Kadyrov-Khabib relationship. While it is entirely possible that Kadyrov was trying to use Khabib to bolster his influence in Dagestan, it is just as likely that he was really biding his time. With the Chechen leader, a high-profile global patron of UFC, any fighter from Russia—themselves likely being from the Caucasus—that sought to succeed at the highest professional level would have to come into contact with Kadyrov at some point.

Despite Kadyrov’s prolonged efforts to generate a high-profile fighter from Chechnya, it was Dagestan which first broke out on the world stage with one of the UFC’s greatest ever champions. Thus, Kadyrov needed to ensure Khabib came under his lucrative umbrella of support, until such a time that a fighter more amenable to Kadyrov arose. Chimaev fits such a profile and, while not yet reaching Khabib’s level of success, will play better domestically.

The consequences of “sportswashing”

While the geopolitical tale of an ex-UFC fighter, even one of Khabib’s status, may seem to be more of a special interest story, it is a part of the “sportswashing” phenomenon, which Khabib himself has played a role in thanks to his ties to Kadyrov, regional oligarchs, and Bahrain’s monarchy. “Sportswashing” is the practice of authoritarian leaders attempting to improve their global image through the use of sport and, while existing as long as there has been sport, has been increasingly utilized over the past decade. There are a multitude of examples in the region, involving everything from the Olympics, to soccer, to Formula 1 racing.

While these events are international and feature teams, it is different when individuals are targeted. Khabib is hardly the first athlete to be targeted by dictators to whitewash their regime, Muhammad Ali fought in the “Rumble in the Jungle” bout sponsored by Congolese dictator Mobuto Sese Soko and Mohamed Salah was given honorary Chechen citizenship by Ramzan Kadyrov. Ali and Salah, also two of the most famous Muslim athletes ever, differ from Khabib in an important way: they continued their careers, generating new spectacles to distract from their problems. Now retired, if Khabib wants to escape the controversies he has become caught in—and there is absolutely no guarantee that he can—he will have to come up with an alternative method.

Featured image: Khabib Nurmagomedov / Amanda Sonesson
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