Vladimir Putin at a mixed martial arts match in Moscow, November 2011. 
Alexsey Druginyn / RIA Novosti / Pool / Reuters

At first glance, Grozny seems like an odd place for a gathering of the world’s best fighters. The capital of Russia’s restive Chechen Republic, Grozny is in a better place today than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was ground zero for two brutal wars between Islamist insurgents and the Russian state. But the city, like the region it inhabits, still ranks high on the misery index. Despite a major rebuilding effort on the part of the government, Chechnya’s unemployment and poverty rates are among the highest in the Russian Federation, and the region has emerged as a significant source of angry young men who have traveled to the Middle East to join the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

In mid-March, however, Grozny saw a different sort of fighting, as it played host to some of the most recognizable faces in mixed martial arts, a sport that combines multiple disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, jujitsu, and submission grappling. Among them were Chris Weidman, the reigning middleweight champion of the sport’s premier franchise, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and heavyweight contenders Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum. They had arrived for the inaugural fight show put on by the “Akhmat MMA” promotion, named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the former president of the Chechen Republic, who was assassinated in 2004. Not much is known about the company outside of Russia. But given its name—and the prominence of the sports personalities it managed to attract—it’s safe to assume that it operates with the knowledge and approval of the current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad’s son—and, by extension, of the Kremlin itself.

On its surface, the event seemed innocuous. After all, Russia has long distinguished itself as a source of topflight fighting talent. For years, Russian martial artist Fedor Emelianenko, nicknamed “The Last Emperor,” was the terror of the combat sports circuit, tearing through opponents until his decline and ultimate retirement in 2012. And in recent years, Russia’s North Caucasus region has emerged as a major hub for combat sports. The number two contender in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division, Khabib Nurmagomedov, is originally from the Republic of Dagestan, and one of the franchise’s brightest new prospects, Mairbek Taisumov, is from neighboring Chechnya.

But it’s hard not to see the event’s political subtext: mixed martial arts has become a way for the increasingly isolated Russia to interact with the rest of the world. The Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine has made it unpopular in Europe, and the West’s response, including several rounds of U.S. and European Union sanctions, has hit Russia hard. More than $150 billion fled the Russian Federation last year. The Russian government has estimated that this year capital flight might total as much as $250 billion. Most of the major credit agencies have downgraded the country’s debt to "junk" status. And Russia’s Central Bank now predicts that the national economy could contract by nearly six percent this year.

The message is clear: despite Western sanctions, Russia is still very much a global contender.

Diplomatically, meanwhile, Russia is increasingly sequestered. Over the past year, it has been ejected from the G-8 and suspended from joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s premier economic and political project, the Eurasian Economic Union, now stands on the verge of collapse. The assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in Moscow, in late February—a crime widely attributed to the Kremlin, despite official protestations to the contrary—has only reinforced the Russian government’s pariah status in the eyes of the world.

In this atmosphere, sports have once again emerged as a tool of diplomacy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used sports in general, and hockey in particular, to interact with the world despite its global isolation. (So formidable was the Soviet Union’s talent that the U.S. Olympic team’s victory over their Soviet counterparts in the medal-round men’s hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics became known in American popular culture as the “Miracle on Ice.”) This time, the language is mixed martial arts, the planet’s fastest-growing sport, and the message is clear: despite Western sanctions, Russia is still very much a global contender.

Weidman and his associates are hardly the first martial artists to be feted by Moscow in this way. The 1980s American film star and aikido black belt Steven Seagal has cut a public figure over the past several years as a guest of Kadyrov’s administration in Chechnya and as a public supporter of Putin. The connection is understandable: Kadyrov is widely known to be an aficionado of the fighting arts, and Putin is himself a black belt in judo. But it is also intensely political. Because of his contacts in the Kremlin, Seagal has become an intermediary, of sorts, between Russia and the U.S. Congress and has gained notoriety as an apologist for the Russian government.

That’s a role the 62-year-old actor seems comfortable playing. In a March 2014 interview with the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Seagal waxed enthusiastic about Putin’s policies in Crimea, which he deemed “very reasonable,” and confided that he considers the Russian strongman to be “like a brother.”

Today’s fighting superstars, however, might not be quite so sanguine if they knew that Moscow was using them to send a political statement. Perhaps someone might want to let them in on the bigger picture.

CORRECTION APPENDED (March 14, 2019): An earlier version of this article mistakenly described Khabib Nurmagomedov as hailing from Chechnya and Mairbek Taisumov as hailing from Dagestan. In fact, Nurmagomedov is from Dagestan and Taisumov from Chechnya. We regret the error. 

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  • ILAN BERMAN is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
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