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Tim Graham: A UFC debut in Buffalo brings with it the complications of Chechnya

Colin Kaepernick said Buffalo Bills fans treated him worse than any others last season.

Kaepernick, having tested America's fabric by daring to kneel for the national anthem, made his first start for the San Francisco 49ers here. In parking lots outside New Era Field, T-shirts depicting Kaepernick in a sniper's cross hairs were sold.

Kaepernick has been unable to find employment this year. Many suspect it's because his politics are so controversial.

Magomed Bibulatov will earn a paycheck Saturday night in Buffalo. The Chechen flyweight is expected to defeat Jenel Lausa on the undercard of UFC 210 in KeyBank Center.

The bout is Bibulatov's UFC debut. He's in the major leagues, and he thanks an Islamic extremist warlord for the opportunity.

Bibulatov in a preflight questionnaire listed his hero as Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya, a man linked to war crimes, assassinations and kidnappings, a man who believes in sharia law, that women should be beaten if they don't cover their heads, a man who claims America was behind the Boston Marathon bombing.

"As an athlete, I'm not into politics; I'm not into religion," Bibulatov said through a translator Wednesday morning in the Buffalo Marriott HarborCenter lobby. "But I support Ramzan fully."

An hour later, Charles Rosa walked through the hotel's seventh-floor lobby with a panoramic view of the city. He also is on the UFC 210 undercard. Rosa's nickname is "Boston Strong," the slogan created as a rally after the marathon bombings killed three and injured hundreds more.

Rosa hadn't heard of Bibulatov until Wednesday. Once filled in, Rosa regretted he's in a higher weight class but mulled the idea of fighting twice Saturday night.

Bibulatov was known as "Gladiator" until Kadyrov gave him a new nickname. "Cha Borz" translates to "bear wolf." The Chaborz M-3 is a military dune buggy Kadyrov test drove last month.

Kadyrov staged a nationally televised news conference in January when Bibulatov signed a UFC contract.

"The UFC is a dream come true for every fighter," Bibulatov said. "The UFC's the top level. It was a dream to step into the octagon one day. It's an honor."

Kadyrov loves mixed-martial arts and has used the sport to symbolize raw Chechen power. He frequently uses social media to post videos and photographs of himself training or hobnobbing with fighters.

He founded the Akhmat Fight Club, named after his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, a top Muslim cleric and Chechen president for seven months before his assassination 2004. Ramzan took over three years later.

Kadyrov made international headlines in October for televising children's MMA without protective gear. Three of his sons – 8, 9 and 12 years old – competed. All of them won.

Fedor Emelianenko, an MMA superstar and head of the sport in Russia, condemned the fights. A week later, Emelianenko's 16-year-old daughter was beaten on her way home from school in Moscow.

Kadyrov bankrolls the Akhmat MMA Grand Prix tournaments. University at Buffalo graduate Desmond Green, also on Saturday night's undercard, competed on a Kadyrov card in March 2016.

Former UFC middleweight champ Chris Weidman  – he's on the UFC 210 card, too – took some heat two years ago for letting Kadyrov use him as a prop. Kadyrov paid Weidman, former UFC heavyweight champs Fabricio Werdum and Frank Mir appearance fees to promote an Akhmat MMA card in March 2015.

Asked if he regretted the decision, Weidman shook his head with an incredulous no.

"We got treated amazing over there, like kings," Weidman said. "We gave a little bit of a seminar, went through different moves, saw their facilities and how they trained.

"We went to Ramzan's palace. It was a great experience, a completely different culture than I've ever seen. It's a different world than we live in."

Kadyrov's reputation could put UFC in a tricky spot if he continues to throw money at its fighters and fund a Chechen pipeline. UFC needs the talent, especially in the flyweight division, where Demetrious Johnson has held the title since 2012.

UFC has addressed Kadyrov's presence by stating its fighters are independent contractors who can do whatever they choose away from the octagon. UFC fighters don't belong to a union or collectively bargain policies like athletes in most big-league sports.

"Without the proper support and people to push sport," Bibulatov said, "it's almost impossible to achieve and to have fighters going overseas to represent Chechnya. He created a fight club and helps to push us internationally. It's very important.

"Before his support, when I was an amateur, I had won five different titles, and it seemed like I was just circling around."

That Bibulatov comes from Kadyrov's system isn't as significant as the fighter's public testimony for such a warlord.

Asked which is more tiresome to discuss, Kadyrov's politics or fighting Johnson for the flyweight title someday, Bibulatov replied with a laugh: "Both subjects are very painful."

Chechnya, population about 1.1 million, is a Russian republic in the mountainous North Caucasus region. The capital is named after Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible).

Kadyrov has professed his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin has backed the Kadyrov's leadership.

But their relationship is an uneasy balance between nationalism and hard-line religion.

Bibulatov will need to navigate his MMA career delicately as American fans learn his name.

His notorious hero has declared sharia law supersedes Russia's authority. Kadyrov has publicly encouraged honor killings of women believed to be unfaithful, beating and shaming women for not wearing headscarves by shooting them with paintball guns and polygamy for men wealthy and healthy enough to handle it.

Kadyrov has espoused obligatory sharia teachings in Chechen schools.

Kadyrov and his heavily armed parliamentary forces – the Kadyrovsty reportedly is 20,000 soldiers strong – have been tied to several killings, kidnappings and disappearances of his critics, including journalists and rights activists. He has denied involvement in them all but praises the acts on social media.

A New York Times story this week, citing a Russian opposition newspaper, reported Chechen authorities were arresting and killing gay men. Kadyrov's spokesman essentially denied gay people exist in Chechnya because if they did, their families would make them disappear.

But Kadyrov has brought stability to Chechnya, and that itself is valuable to Putin.

"Before him, as the world knows, it was postwar destruction, rubble," said Bibulatov, who began his interview by snapping an iPhone photo of The Buffalo News reporter seated across from him. "Since he's been in control, everything has been rebuilt. He's a good manager all around."

Rosa, the fighter known as Boston Strong, wasn't impressed by the tale.

He nearly fought a Chechen and ponders whether it might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings somehow. Rosa was scheduled for a match against Ibragim Todashev in November 2012. The fight was cancelled because Todashev had a knee injury.

Six months later, Chechen-American brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left two backpacks containing homemade bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line. In a few weeks, an FBI agent shot Todashev dead. Todashev, a friend and MMA training partner of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's, was being questioned about the bombing and a 2011 triple-murder in which they might have been involved.

Tamerlan was shot to death by police the night of the bombing. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted of 30 charges and sentenced to death.

Kadyrov claimed the Tsarnaevs were framed, that U.S. intelligence agencies committed the bombings.

"I wonder if I whooped his ass," Rosa said of the cancelled Todashev bout, "if the bombing still would've happened."

Bibulatov's translator, Magomed Imakaev, is from Boston and conceded it was difficult for a while to be a Chechen there.

That was four years ago next week.

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