AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Pro MMA, mixed martial arts, fighting is big business in the U.S. In Chechnya, the Muslim republic within Russia, it's far more than that. It's become an extension of the government. That's what reporters from HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" found on a recent trip there. They were the first Western journalists to sit down with Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, in years. Now, Kadyrov took over the republic after his father was killed in a bombing attack back in 2004. And since then, the younger Kadyrov has built up a mixed martial arts empire, one that not only exports fighters to the UFC league here in the States but serves as a propaganda tool and farm team for the Chechnyan leader's special forces militia.
Here to talk more is David Scott of HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." Welcome to the program.
DAVID SCOTT: Thanks for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: So just to give people a sense, just how involved is the country's leader in this MMA league - because you show, like, events in huge arenas. These aren't little kind of stadium routes.
SCOTT: Right. He could hardly be more involved. I mean he founded it. He funds it. He oversees it. He's named it in honor of his martyred father. And every single decision that gets made only gets made at his direction. He's put in charge of the fight clubs the man who's probably his closest and oldest friend and comrade, a guy who still goes by his nom de guerre Patriot and who is simultaneously the president of Akhmat Fight Club and also the head of the Chechen commandos and the secret service. So it is an unusual professional MMA promotion that is really part and parcel of a military dictatorship.
CORNISH: How big are we talking about? Like, how many young men are involved in this?
SCOTT: Well, the fight club really took off two years ago. And in two years, the roster has swollen to 5,000 Chechen men and boys, mostly Chechen men and boys. And now that it's become, you know, so popular, other fighters from other parts of the North Caucasus region are joining, too. It's truly a cultural phenomenon. As soon as the leader sort of blessed this as, one, the national pastime but also as a means of social mobility and a way to gain favor with the political elite in Chechnya, the word went out, and legions of men and boys lined up to join.
CORNISH: Social mobility - what do you mean by that?
SCOTT: Well, Chechnya is this sort of remote and recently devastated land of a million people. And it's suffered two really just brutal wars in the last couple of decades at the hands of their overlords in Moscow. And Grozny, for example, the capital of Chechnya, was carpet-bombed by the Russians in the 1990s to the point where not a single building was left unscathed. So this is a place of utter devastation, and people who have grown up really truly, you know, hunkered down in bunkers, dodging bullets and bombs are just emerging from that with very few opportunities for rebuilding their lives.
And the economy is bankrolled by the Kremlin. So outside of the state, there are very few opportunities. And because, you know, fighting has become a kind of way of life for the Chechen people over generations and generations, it's a kind of unfortunate natural resource. And so these young fighters know that one way to improve their lives, to elevate their status, to even protect their family from falling out of favor with the ruling elite is to join the fight club and fight for Kadyrov.
CORNISH: And if you don't become a pro fighter, you can, I assume, go into a militia or go into the armed forces.
SCOTT: Well, that's just the thing. It's kind of like a full employment program for the security apparatus. Most of those 5,000 Chechen men and boys will never see the inside of a professional MMA cage. And so what happens to them then? They are funneled into the Terek special forces or one of the many SWAT units or the commandos or Kadyrov's secret service.
In the ever-growing military and police state that Kadyrov is building, there will always be a place for fighters willing to die for him. Lots of dictators have used sports to glorify themselves and their governments, but what Kadyrov is doing is something new. He's actually using sport as a way to not just promote himself and propagate a certain image of Chechen manhood but literally to fuel his military with manpower.
CORNISH: In your report, you talk about this idea of Chechen manhood and the image that President Ramzan Kadyrov kind of puts out there as he promotes the league and himself. You also ask him about a very contentious topic that made headlines over the last couple of years, which is his persecution of gay men. Here you are in that moment.
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SCOTT: I wanted to ask you about the alleged roundup, abduction and torture of gay men in the republic. What, Mr. President, do you want to say about that?
PRESIDENT RAMZAN KADYROV: (Foreign language spoken).
CORNISH: And he says, "OK, now we know why he came here," referring to you and these questions. And he says, "this is nonsense. We don't have such people here. We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada." And he goes on from there. But this is a kind of standard reply from this government, right? Gays don't exist.
SCOTT: Right. Yeah, that was the initial response to the Novaya Gazeta, the Russian independent newspaper that broke the story. And remarkably, they've stuck to it even while, you know, going on to denounce and decry gay life in ways that seem to support the truth of the reporting.
You know, for example, he very clearly defended the practice of honor killing as it relates to gay men in Chechnya - so condoning a practice by which a family will, from their point of view, correct the disgrace of homosexuality by simply taking the life of their relative. Kadyrov put a very fine point on it in our interview, saying, I'll tell you officially, you know, even if it's punishable under law - because it's technically illegal in Russia to commit an honor killing - we would condone it. It's a strange denial that you really can't even fathom after you hear him talk with such contempt and snigger about gay life.
CORNISH: Your interview ends with Kadyrov's view of the tensions between Russia and the U.S. How does he see this dynamic playing out or, more specifically, his role in it?
SCOTT: Yeah. He really does believe that the U.S. and the West are enemy powers, that they are acting to undermine Russian leadership, to defame himself. And what you hear from him - and I think this - you know, this may be a portent of things to come - is a kind of revival of Cold War rhetoric that both the East and the West have moved away from over the last couple generations. And so it's shocking to hear him talk about, you know, the use of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. But that's the kind of language that he's now prepared to use and the Kremlin is, you know, tacitly supporting.
That's the takeaway far beyond the realm of sports - that we now face this escalating tension where we're on the opposite sides of major foreign policy issues like Syria, like Ukraine, like Crimea. And what is happening with Russia in our own body politic is something of a distraction, you know, from the bigger issue, which is the real prospect that relations could worsen to the point of reviving, you know, this kind of Cold War rhetoric. And in a way, I think Kadyrov gives us an early window into that possible outcome.
CORNISH: Correspondent David Scott, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SCOTT: Thank you very much for having me.
CORNISH: And you can see David Scott's reporting on "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" on HBO.
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