On Saturday night, IBF and WBC champion Artur Beterbiev will attempt to further unify the light heavyweight championship when he takes on WBO titleholder Joe Smith Jr at Madison Square Garden.
However, when Beterbiev steps foot inside New York’s squared circle, he will do so with the shadow of a murderous tyrant hanging over him.
For years, the Chechen-born boxer considered by many to be the best active heavyweight in the world enjoyed a friendly relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator in charge of the Russian region of Chechnya and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov has been accused of well-documented human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, torture, summary executions and an ongoing purge of Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community.
Like many strongmen before him, Kadyrov has long used sport to bolster his cult of personality, bolster his reputation as a benevolent leader and distract from ongoing abuses in Chechnya. Over the years, the dictator has hosted notable athletes such as Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, as well as a host of UFC champions, including current welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman.
In 2015, Kadyrov founded the Akhmat Fight Club, a government-funded combat sports complex in Chechnya with separate divisions for MMA and boxing. Fighters received stipends to train full-time at its facilities in hopes of gaining international recognition. Several of these fighters are now part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and other international organizations, while the Akhmat brand has expanded across the Russian Federation and Central Asia.
Kadyrov is also known for rewarding fighters who successfully represent his regime with lavish gifts. Beterbiev, himself a member of Kadyrov’s fight club, received a Mercedes Benz and awarded the title of “honorary citizen of Grozny” – one of the highest honors in Chechnya – in December 2021.
“Arthur Beterbiev also received the title of honorary citizen of Grozny,” Kadyrov wrote on his social media at the time. “He received this honor for his great achievements and his great contribution to the development of the sport.”
Beterbiev, 37, was born in Chechnya and represented Russia at the Beijing and London Olympics. He then moved to Montreal, Canada to pursue a career as a professional boxer and fought almost exclusively in his adopted country, as well as in the United States. He has since become a Canadian citizen.
Yet despite his status in Canada, Beterbiev continued to have ties to the Chechen dictator. Each time he returned to Chechnya, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome as well as state parades in his honor. He posed with Kadyrov for numerous photo ops and broke bread with the tyrant’s family.
In January 2022, Beterbiev posted a montage of his various appearances alongside Kadyrov and included a quote from the dictator wishing him a happy birthday. “Thank you for always being there,” Kadyrov said in the post.
It should be noted that Beterbiev appears to have limited his posts in support of Kadyrov following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kadyrov has been one of Putin’s most committed supporters in the ongoing war and provided troops from his own private militia for the cause. According to sources close to Kadyrov’s fight club who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, several of the Chechen soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine were drafted from the fight club itself.
1Adat, an anonymous Telegram channel run by Chechen human rights activists, suggested that Beterbiev, who competes under the Russian flag, was hiding behind his Canadian citizenship in order to avoid sanctions faced by Russian athletes.
“Ukrainian boxers Lomachenko and Usyk stood up to defend their homeland against invaders while Beterbiev and [UFC fighter Khamzat]Chimaev, who called Kadyrov a brother and convinced people to support Akhmat’s path, remains silent, sitting in America and Europe,” read one of the Telegram messages. “Beterbiev suddenly became Canadian and Chimaev Swedish. And no one, even out of decency, has renounced his past beliefs, but acts only with the maximum personal benefit for himself.
World Boxing Council president Mauricio Suleiman, who banned Russian athletes from competing in the WBC after the Russo-Ukrainian war, defended the decision to allow Beterbiev to defend his title, saying the boxer “has been in Canada for 15 years old, lives in Canada”. , his children were born in Canada, he has a Canadian passport, a Canadian residence permit and a Canadian boxing license.
Bob Arum, whose Top Rank Promotions represents Beterbiev, also argued that Beterbiev’s status as a Canadian citizen shields him from possible sanctions, falsely stating that his client had “nothing to do with Russia. “.
While Beterbiev may have avoided the wave of sanctions facing Russian athletes, it’s worth noting that Kadyrov and his fight club Akhmat are currently sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department. The sanctions prevented U.S. citizens and those present or doing business in the United States from doing business with Kadyrov.
According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the measures against Kadyrov and his companies are intended to prohibit “any contribution or provision of funds, goods or services by, to or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or the provision of funds, goods, or services by any of these persons.” Beterbiev’s continued association with the dictator could be a violation of ongoing sanctions, especially since the boxer competed on the floor American several times, and will do it again on Saturday night.
While Beterbiev may arguably be the best light heavyweight boxer alive today, his unsavory connection to Kadyrov is an undeniable stain on his reputation and should raise concerns about the dictator’s growing influence in soft science.