Should the UFC "Tap Out" of the Russian Market?

Originally Published in April 2019 Journal, A New Normal, page 24 cont. page 39

Russian President Vladimir Putin with UFC Fighter Conor McGregor– Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin with UFC Fighter Conor McGregor– Wikimedia Commons

When the Soviet Union, a pseudo-federation of ethno-territorial republics tied together by a shared political economy, collapsed, it left in its wake a breeding ground for nationalist movements and, more importantly for the international community, a new economic market. After long years of negotiations, The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has finally breached the Russian market, having hosted its first Fight Night in 2018 with future events planned for 2019. While the Russian Federation consistently provides a large pool of fighters, this is the first time the competitors will fight in their home country. With Russia estimated to be the future largest market for the UFC, it is already clear that the sport is just as popular as in the United States, the fighting promotion’s base.

Inevitably, there are differences between the two countries, namely the rise of nationalist sentiment following the USSR’s collapse. Naturally inclined to these tendencies due to the region’s ethnic diversity, they were further perpetuated by the lack of consistency between ethnic, religious, and linguistic borders and the overlaid political ones. Nationalism thus rose as the unifying ideology for ethnic groups long craving autonomy. These sentiments, having spurred independence movements for over 200 years, carried on through the 20th century as exemplified in both of the Chechen wars and are attributed with current ethnic tensions within the Federation. It seems, however, the UFC doesn’t plan on taking this history into consideration as it begins this journey of international growth, leaving the potential for increased violence within the sport and the Federation a very possible reality.

Nationalist rhetoric is viewed as dangerous to the Russian population, specifically to ethnic minorities within the Federation, yet the UFC, the largest combat event promotion company in the world, views it as generating a prime market for its mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions. While MMA is built on qualities of respect and humility, the sport loses these defining characteristics when placed in the theatrical competitive UFC atmosphere. Participants are often filled with overcharged emotion and a sense of national pride that become increasingly apparent in the weeks leading up to any fight. Promotion of the long anticipated bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Dagestani native, and Ireland’s Conor McGregor exemplified the exploitation of nationalist rhetoric, and was condoned by UFC officials. In a press conference leading up to the fight, McGregor addressed Nurmagomedov saying, “My Chechen friends, the soldiers, they told me that they had chicken jaws in Dagestan,” alluding to the ethnic conflict between Dagestan and Chechnya, both ethnic regions and subjects of the Russian Federation. American fighter Ben Askren later expressed similar nationalism saying, “America-Russia is always a great storyline, it always is since the Cold War...I’m gonna get on his [Nurmagomedov’s] back and chant U.S.A.” Nurmagomedov later responded, choosing to focus his dissatisfaction with UFC promotion for playing on these sentiments, saying, “Media little bit changed MMA. This is not trash talking sport. This is respect sport...You cannot talk about religion, you cannot talk about nation, guys, you cannot talk about this stuff.”

But the UFC did not blindly enter the Russian market. This was a calculated action. The country and surrounding region are known for MMA’s deep rooted history both in culture and government. The development of the most dominant form of MMA in the region, Sambo, can be traced to the trenches of World War I. By 1938 the All-USSR State Sport Committee adopted it as the martial art of the nation and declared it the national combat sport. However, even Sambo was not disencumbered from nationalist connotations. Oshchepkov, one of the sport’s founders, having spent years training in Japan, was executed by Stalin for apparent anti-nationalism associated with this foreign influence. Only with Oshchepkov’s student Kharlampiyev’s, strategic reshaping of the sport’s past did it rise in prominence. Having already hosted an event in 2018, with another Fight Night planned for 2019 and plans for large payper-view events guaranteed to attract well established fighters like Nurmagomedov, it seems the UFC urgently seeks growth in the region regardless of its effect on the local population.

MMA’s prevalence only continues to rise in Russia and the surrounding provinces. Dagestan has established a culture of MMA as a way to structure the life of youth and is now one of the leading providers of talent for the UFC. Still attempting to recover from civil war, Chechnya’s relationship with MMA is more systemic. Chechen President Kadyrov owns MMA gyms around the area advertising an appealing life of opportunity for young Chechens and a distraction for the remainder of the population. President Vladimir Putin for his part is not subtle with his endorsement of the sport as stated on his personal website, “Vladimir Putin firmly believes that martial arts teach such knowledge, abilities and skills that every politician needs. It develops...the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Putin and Kadyrov’s mutual love of MMA should not be misinterpreted as social harmony between Russia and Chechnya. After his appointment as president by Putin at the conclusion of the Second Chechen War, Kadyrov took on the responsibility of a strongman meant to bring stability to Chechnya, establishing a personalist regime dependent on his leadership. To him this meant adopting a persona of cultivator to the population’s Islamic identity and attempting to gloss over the region’s ethnic diversity. Although no official conflict has broken out since the late 1990’s, the independence movements and ethnic tension that exists between the respective populations cannot be forgotten simply with the cooperation of two personalist leaders. Kadyrov is clearly loyal to Putin alone rather than the Russian system. What consequences could arise in the future if these two personalities clashed or independence fighters within the populations chose to disregard leadership?

As the UFC breaches this market, it must recognize the complicated ethnic past of the region, the reality that MMA culture exists in, and the sentiments its atmosphere promotes. Luckily, capitalizing on nationalist sentiment to promote the Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor fight only resulted in a quickly contained brawl. If the UFC chooses to exploit ethnic tension for publicity in its eastward expansion, they could catalyze much more dangerous events between Chechnya and Russia proper. The UFC is not simply a promotion company. Unamended, they have the power to incite violence far beyond the scope of their events.

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