On Saturday night, IBF and WBC champion Artur Beterbiev will attempt to further unify the light heavyweight championship when he faces WBO titleholder Joe Smith Jr at Madison Square Garden.
However, when Beterbiev sets foot inside the squared circle in New York City, he will do so with the shadow of a murderous tyrant looming over him.
For years, the Chechen-born boxer considered by many to be the world’s best active light heavyweight has maintained a friendly relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator at the helm of Russia’s Chechnya region and ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov has been accused of well-documented human rights abuses, including forced disappearances, torture, summary executions and an ongoing purge of Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community.
Like many strongmen before him, Kadyrov has long used sports to enhance 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 were given stipends to train full-time at his facilities in the hopes of gaining international recognition. Several of those fighters are now featured in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and other international organizations, while the Akhmat brand has expanded across the Russian Federation and Central Asia.
Kadyrov has also been known to reward fighters who successfully represent his regime with lavish gifts. Beterbiev, himself a member of Kadyrov’s fight club, was awarded a Mercedes Benz and bestowed the title of ‘Honorary Citizen of Grozny’ – one of the highest honors in Chechnya – in December 2021.
“Arthur Beterbiev was also awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Grozny,” Kadyrov wrote on his social media channels at the time. “He was awarded this honor for his high achievements and great contribution to the development of sports.”
Beterbiev, 37, was born in Chechnya and represented Russia during the Beijing and London Olympic Games. He later relocated to Montreal, Canada to pursue a professional boxing career and has fought almost exclusively in his adopted homeland, as well as in the United States. He has since become a Canadian citizen.
Yet despite his status in Canada, Beterbiev continued to maintain ties with the Chechen dictator. Whenever he returned to Chechnya, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome along with 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 is worth noting that Beterbiev appears to have limited his posts in support of Kadyrov in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Kadyrov has been among Putin’s most committed supporters of the ongoing war and has contributed troops from his own private militia to the cause. According to sources close to Kadyrov’s fight club who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, several of the Chechen soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine were conscripted 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 the sanctions facing Russian athletes.
“Ukrainian boxers Lomachenko and Usyk stood up to defend their homeland from the invaders while Beterbiev and [UFC fighter Khamzat]Chimaev, who called Kadyrov a brother and convinced people to support Akhmat’s path, keep silent, sitting in America and Europe,” read one of the Telegram posts. “Beterbiev suddenly became a Canadian, and Chimaev a Swede. And no one, even for the sake of decency, has renounced his past convictions, but only acts with the maximum personal benefit for himself.”
World Boxing Council President Mauricio Suleiman, who barred Russian athletes from competing in the WBC following the Russia-Ukraine war, defended the decision to allow Beterbiev to defend his title, stating that the boxer “has been in Canada for 15 years, 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 shelters him from potential sanctions, falsely stating that his client has “nothing to do with Russia”.
While Beterbiev may have avoided the wave of sanctions facing Russian athletes, it is worth noting that both Kadyrov and his Akhmat fight club entity are currently sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury. The sanctions blocked US citizens and people present or doing business in the US from doing business with Kadyrov.
According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the measures against Kadyrov and his businesses are designed 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 provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person”. Beterbiev’s continued association with the dictator could be in violation of ongoing sanctions, especially since the boxer has competed on US soil on several occasions, and will do so again on Saturday night.
Though Beterbiev could arguably be the best light heavyweight boxer alive today, his unsavory connection to Kadyrov is an undeniable stain to his reputation and should raise concerns about the dictator’s growing influence in the sweet science.