Ukrainian soldiers

Artem Priymenko had a bright future ahead of him in the martial arts world. Having been described as one of the most promising young martial artists in Ukraine, Priymenko captured the country’s 16-and-under championship in sambo in 2021, then went on to qualify for the national team and the upcoming world cup competitions. With Ukraine being one of world’s foremost producers of sambo talent and with the sport recently gaining recognition from the International Olympic Committee, not to mention being a breeding ground for MMA champions, Priymenko’s future seemed limitless. But that’s all gone now.


Artem Priymenko

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Last week, the 16-year-old’s life was cut short by a Russian air attack. Priymenko — along with his parents, grandmother and two younger brothers — were all reported killed in the city of Sumy when Russian bombs leveled their house. The attack left the Priymenko family among the 636 civilians who have been reported killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his military invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago.

Although the martial arts play a very minor role in the physical and ideological warfare being waged between Russia and its foes, it’s still worth examining what the martial arts world is — and isn’t — doing in the midst of this tragic conflict.

Following the violence of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution against its own pro-Russian government and the subsequent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions, interest in martial arts and self-defense training surged in Ukraine, said Tetiana Kryzhanivska. A martial arts instructor and the editor of the Ukrainian martial arts magazine Warrior of Light, Kryzhanivska is attempting to chronicle the efforts of the martial arts community in her besieged country, even as she and her family struggle to remain safe.

In an email interview with BlackBeltMag.com, Kryzhanivska described the shock of waking up on February 24 in her home in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to the sound of explosions followed by a frantic effort to evacuate her family, including three children, to her father’s home in another part of the country. From there, she said, her family would join the rest of Ukraine, including its martial arts community, in participating in the country’s defense by all possible means.

“I do not know of any martial arts school that does not take part in defending Ukraine from Russian aggression,” she said. “Moreover, world-famous champions have joined the ranks of the Armed Forces and Territorial defense: champions in karate, judo, boxing, kickboxing and even representatives of peaceful aikido. Even adherents of medieval combat joined the defense of the country, changing [their] swords to machine guns.”

Indeed, the list of world-class fighters, many of whom could have stayed outside the country in safety but who instead volunteered to defend their nation, is an impressive one. Among those who have joined Ukrainian defensive forces are Bellator MMA champion Yaroslav Amosov, Olympic karate bronze-medalist Stanislav Horuna, world heavyweight boxing titlist Oleksandr Usyk, three-division world boxing champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and, perhaps most notably, hall-of-fame boxer Vitali Klitschko, the current mayor of Kyiv who remains in the city defending it along with his brother, fellow hall-of-fame boxer Wladimir Klitschko.

The international martial arts community has taken note of the situation, as well, with most major organizations falling in line with the IOC, which recommended strong sanctions against Russia. The World Karate Federation, World Taekwondo, the International Savate Federation and several other international bodies have suspended the participation of competitors from Russia and its ally Belarus in their events. In a rare show of unanimity, all four of professional boxing’s major sanctioning bodies agreed to prohibit championship fights inside Russia or Belarus, with three of the four bodies also prohibiting fighters who currently live in those countries from competing in their championships anywhere.

But while much of the martial arts world has moved to show its disapproval of Putin and his country’s act of aggression, some are either reluctant to express disapproval or even openly supportive of the Putin regime.

Although one of its world champions is currently fighting for Ukraine, the Bellator MMA promotion has remained largely silent on the issue, continuing to use Russian fighters with two athletes from Russia appearing in its most recent show on Saturday in St. Louis. The most notable comment from Bellator President Scott Coker on the crisis was to announce that a retirement fight for Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko, planned for later this year in Moscow’s Red Square, would be moved to another site. Bellator promoted its first event in Russia in 2021.

The spectacle of a major MMA show in one of Russia’s most iconic locations would have been a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, which reportedly approved the fight a year ago. Although the Russian government will now be forced to live without those PR benefits, it’s not unreasonable to ask, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, why Bellator was so willing to work with a country that has a long record of human-rights abuses and international aggression.

Dana White - UFC

Shutterstock.com / Kathy Hutchins

The UFC, meanwhile, has remained, if anything, even more reserved on the issue of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Having also promoted fights in Russia in the past, UFC President Dana White has always stressed his wish for the company to remain apolitical. The UFC continues to use Russian athletes on its cards with Russian fighter Magomed Ankalaev headlining this past weekend’s Fight Night show and Russian Alexander Volkov slated to compete in the main event of this weekend’s event in London. As he expressed it, White’s prime concern is ensuring that his fighters can travel from Russia to the West to participate in UFC shows.

PR-wise, the company is in a delicate position. Two weeks ago, at UFC 272, Ukrainian fighter Maryna Moroz opened the ESPN preliminary card with a submission victory. Having previously delivered an expletive-filled message to Putin on TMZ, Moroz broke down, crying during the post-fight interview while talking about her family in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the crowd roared its support. Russian fighters on the same card met with scattered boos.

Moroz came into the octagon displaying her nation’s flag. In the days prior to the show, preliminary-card fighter Brian Kelleher had announced that he too would carry a Ukrainian flag into the cage but then claimed controversy over the decision made him decide to change to a world peace flag. But he later reported he was being prohibited from displaying it. It’s unclear who in the UFC made the decision to prohibit his use of a peace flag, and Kelleher wouldn’t comment, telling BlackBeltMag.com via text message that he was no longer interested in talking about politics. (Neither the UFC nor Bellator responded to requests for comments on this story).

It’s worth noting that Russian fighters in the UFC have not prominently displayed the Russian flag recently, although it has still appeared next to fighters’ names on broadcasts and also seemed to be displayed on background monitors at UFC Fight Night 203. While most international sporting bodies have now banned the display of the Russian flag by athletes, the UFC policy remains unclear. However, in what could at best be described as an incredibly tone-deaf move given the current climate, as of this writing, the company continues to sell UFC hoodies bearing the Russian flag in its online store.

Russian fighters also have remained virtually silent on their country’s invasion of Ukraine. UFC interim bantamweight champion Petr Yan briefly displayed a peace symbol on his Instagram account early in the conflict, but it was quickly removed. Besides that, no major Russian fighter has been willing to step forward and comment on the unfolding events.

While anyone in Russia who speaks out against the Putin regime risks consequences, thousands of citizens have done just that — and many have been arrested in protests over the past three weeks. However, notable MMA champions like Emelianenko and former UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov continue to remain silent, although in the past, they haven’t balked at allowing themselves to be used as propaganda tools, appearing in photos with Putin. Even if the sympathies of Russian fighters don’t actually lie with the Russian president, there are others in the martial arts world who’ve expressed outright support for the authoritarian ruler.

Shutterstock.com / Cassiano Correia

Brazilian UFC fighter Paulo Costa tweeted his admiration for Putin in a now-deleted Twitter post. Costa, who has expressed support for controversial Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, openly admired Putin as a man of strength.

Support for authoritarian leaders from martial arts exponents isn’t totally out of character. Although the martial arts are sometimes portrayed as a “weapon of the weak” populated by honorable warriors who’ve traditionally stood up to oppression, some elite martial artists historically have aligned themselves with unsavory figures from crime bosses to political dictators. In something of a symbiotic relationship, political strongmen frequently enjoy surrounding themselves with physically strong men whose power they hope reflects well on them, while fighters frequently need a patron to whom they’ll gladly offer their skills in violence in whatever capacity is needed.

But professional fighting leagues and the fighters who compete for them are, for better or worse, bottom-line organizations interested more in profit than in taking an ethical stand, even on the most pressing of issues. However, organizations representing more traditional martial arts are also attempting to navigate their own fine line between the ethical and the expedient when it comes to Russia.

While many martial arts groups were quick to condemn the Russian invasion and decree sanctions, the International Judo Federation’s initial response was to cancel a single upcoming event in Russia and issue nothing more than a brief statement on its website that attributed the unprovoked attack to “the result of inefficient dialogue at international level.” The federation seemed to grudgingly come around to taking further action, initially suspending — but not removing — Putin, a judo black belt, from his positions with the organization.

It was only as the ire of the international community and some of its national federations grew that the IJF took further action and permanently removed Putin and his associate Arkady Rotenberg from all their positions. It also banned the use of the Russian flag at all events. It was not until this week, however, that they joined most other IOC sporting bodies in suspending Russian and Belarusian athletes from all international competitions.

The reason for such hesitation on the part of the IJF, according to a highly placed source in the U.S. judo establishment, is likely because its president Marius Vizer has close personal ties with Putin, not to mention that Rotenberg has been a major financial sponsor of judo in recent years.

“Vizer runs the show with the IJF — the buck stops with him. And money plays a very big role,” the American judo source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I actually think he’s done a good job for judo in the last few years and has improved on matters of human rights. But I was surprised he took any action regarding Putin.”

The source said he believes the reason Vizer has reacted at all in sanctioning Putin and Russia has been pressure from the national judo federations of western European countries, where the sport has become popular on television and attracted valuable sponsorship.

“They pay lip service to the ideals of [judo founder Jigoro] Kano, but Vizer seems to be largely motivated by money and power,” the source said. “But he’s very commercial-minded, and money talks. I don’t think he expected the type of reaction he got from the European countries, which [are] the major market for judo, so he had to respond. If the situation was reversed, though, and the main market for judo was in Russia and China, I don’t think you’d see as much of a reaction as you have.”

Among the punitive measures the IJF took against Putin was stripping him of his title of honorary president. World Taekwondo, the governing body for Olympic-style taekwondo, also rescinded an honorary ninth-degree black belt it had awarded Putin in 2013. The mere fact that someone like Putin, with a history of international human-rights violationsgoing back to his attacks on Chechnya 20 years ago, was given any award by World Taekwondo would seem to fly in the face of the organization’s motto of “Peace is more precious than triumph.”

If organizations like the IJF or World Taekwondo could make any claims of ignorance about the extent of Putin’s misbehavior, such excuses should have fallen by the wayside after the Russian aggressions in Ukraine in 2014. Yet neither organization chose to act until forced to by international outrage over the current carnage in Ukraine. (The IJF and World Taekwondo failed to respond to requests by BlackBeltMag.com for comments. UPDATE: In an email received after this article was posted the IJF responded "War, discrimination and politics have no place in Sport. This is both the principle of Sport and the Olympic Charter.)

That is what has passed. It’s how all these institutions and individuals choose to act concerning Russia and its continuing war in Ukraine going forward that remains to be seen. But can relatively minor actions like banning athletes and removing flags truly make a difference in a tragedy that is far beyond the realm of sport?

“Sanctions in the field of sports — this is one of the most painful places for Putin,” Kryzhanivska said. “For many years, he built the sports image of Russia. Huge funds were invested. He considered himself personally a part of this community. Therefore, sanctions in the field of sports and depriving Russian athletes of the opportunity to participate in international competitions are an effective deterrent. They’re not like the economic sanctions that are easy to calculate. It is a matter of image and reputation. And every organization builds that reputation. Right now, nothing can be outside of politics. Neither culture nor sports.”

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