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Former interim lightweight UFC champion Justin Gaethje has publicly acknowledged a photograph of himself attending a birthday party for the teenage son of Ramzan Kadyrov, but has denied ever meeting the sanctioned Chechen Republic head and Vladimir Putin ally.

‘Never met the guy,’ Gaethje wrote in a tense Twitter exchange with Barstool Sports president Dave Portnoy.

However, when presented with a weeks-old tweet showing him firing guns with Russian solders in Chechnya ‘at the invitation’ of Kadyrov, Gaethje appeared to acknowledge the controversial trip: ‘Went for the kids (sic) birthday party. I also like to shoot guns.’

Former interim lightweight UFC champion Justin Gaethje (left) has publicly acknowledged a photograph of himself attending a birthday party for the teenage son (right) of Ramzan Kadyrov, but has denied ever meeting the sanctioned Chechen Republic head

Former interim lightweight UFC champion Justin Gaethje (left) has publicly acknowledged a photograph of himself attending a birthday party for the teenage son (right) of Ramzan Kadyrov, but has denied ever meeting the sanctioned Chechen Republic head

Kadyrov (right), the head of the Chechen Republic, is a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin (left)

Kadyrov (right), the head of the Chechen Republic, is a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin (left)

The meeting is part of a growing number of troubling connections between Kadyrov and UFC fighters – something that the mixed martial arts promotion has discouraged due to US sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The UFC claims no business relations with Kadyrov and insists it has followed US laws.

However, the New York Times reports that US government officials are aware of ties between UFC fighters and Kadyrov, the strongman who first faced treasury sanctions in 2017 amid allegations of human rights violations, such as the kidnapping and murder of LGBTQ people in the Chechen Republic.

In November, Gaethje and fellow former UFC champions Kamaru Usman and Henry Cejudo were pictured testing weaponry at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya, where many soldiers are trained before being deployed to the warfront in Ukraine.

In November, Gaethje and fellow former UFC champions Kamaru Usman and Henry Cejudo were pictured testing weaponry at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya, where many soldiers are trained before being deployed to the warfront in Ukraine

Gaethje pictured after firing guns in Chechnya

In November, Gaethje and fellow former UFC champions Kamaru Usman and Henry Cejudo were pictured testing weaponry at the Russian Special Forces University in Chechnya, where many soldiers are trained before being deployed to the warfront in Ukraine

Former UFC champion Kamaru Usman is seen firing weapons with Russian special forces

Former UFC champion Kamaru Usman is seen firing weapons with Russian special forces

Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman

former UFC flytweight title holder Henry Cejudo

Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (left) and former UFC flytweight title holder Henry Cejudo (right) are just two MMA fighters with troubling connections to Kadyrov

UFC's Henry Cejudo is seen with a rocket launcher while meeting with Russian special forces

UFC’s Henry Cejudo is seen with a rocket launcher while meeting with Russian special forces

Kadyrov also publicized video footage of the three firing grenade launchers and assault rifles. The 46-year-old often referred to as ‘Putin’s attack dog’ has helped supply soldiers for Russian forces in Ukraine and has encouraged the Kremlin to use a supposedly low-yield nuclear weapon in the ongoing war.

All three fighters attended the birthday party for one of Kadyrov’s teenage sons, according to the Times. Usman has allegedly visited Chechnya twice since the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on one of Kadyrov’s businesses, Akhmat MMA, a gym that has produced a number of UFC fighters, including rising UFC star Khamzat Chimaev.

In fact, Chimaev was pictured ringside at UFC 280 in the United Arab Emirates with two of Kadyrov’s children back in October. Furthermore, both Chimaev and one of Kadyrov’s sons were pictured at the fight with UFC president Dana White. That image has since surfaced on Instagram.

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Perhaps worst of all, Chimaev was seen working out with Kadyrov in a training video back in May. 

Khamzat Chimaev (left) was trained at Akhmat MMA, a Kadyrov-owned gym that has produced a number of UFC fighters

Khamzat Chimaev (left) was trained at Akhmat MMA, a Kadyrov-owned gym that has produced a number of UFC fighters

Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov (top) trained with UFC star Khamzat Chimaev

Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov (top) trained with UFC star Khamzat Chimaev

Chimaev, who was born in Chechnya, is pictured training with Kadyrov (in blue) last May

Chimaev, who was born in Chechnya, is pictured training with Kadyrov (in blue) last May

The Akhmat MMA gym in Chechnya has produced several MMA fighters, including Chimaev. The gym is owned by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov (pictured on the back wall)

The Akhmat MMA gym in Chechnya has produced several MMA fighters, including Chimaev. The gym is owned by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov (pictured on the back wall) 

In its statement to the Times, the UFC said it has ‘no contractual relationship or any commercial dealings with Ramzan Kadyrov.’ The promotion conceded that its hundreds of fighters are independent contractors, ‘who have control over many aspects of their careers, including where they train or where they live when not competing.’

The UFC has barred its fighters from working with Akhmat MMA.

Recent treasury sanctions against Kadyrov specifically mentioned his connections to MMA fighters, adding that he helped recruit fighters for the war in Ukraine through his gyms.

‘With that specifically noted in the designation, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with his MMA associates,’ Shahroo Yazdani, a lawyer who specializes in Treasury sanctions, told the Times. ‘We may well see more fighters stopped at airports and potentially even more designations related to those working with his MMA club.’

Kadyrov has even boasted of his access to MMA stars, once writing on Instagram that he ‘personally’ helped mediate a disagreement between Chimaev and former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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Later, one of Kadyrov’s militia chiefs, Abuzayed Vismuradov, posted a picture of both Chimaev and Nurmagomedov to prove the dispute was resolved. Another UFC fighter, Islam Makhachev, is also seen in the picture.

Chimaev was pictured ringside at UFC 280 in the United Arab Emirates with two of Kadyrov's children back in October. Furthermore, both Chimaev and one of Kadyrov's sons were pictured at the fight with UFC president Dana White. That image has since surfaced on Instagram

Chimaev was pictured ringside at UFC 280 in the United Arab Emirates with two of Kadyrov’s children back in October. Furthermore, both Chimaev and one of Kadyrov’s sons were pictured at the fight with UFC president Dana White. That image has since surfaced on Instagram

Some issues may have already surfaced for Russian MMA fighters.

In November, one of Akhmat MMA’s athletes named Maxim Grishin had his upcoming fight abruptly canceled. Later he told a Russian news agency that he struggled to get a visa for the bout.

Grishin did reveal that he was warned about associating with Kadyrov.

‘I was told that it is better not to associate myself with the Akhmat Fight Club, which I am a representative of,’ Grishin told Match TV. ‘But this is not just a contract, we have brotherly relations. I considered it cowardly. Sport is separate from politics, why should I hide something? I don’t do anything bad to the universe, why should the universe do bad things to me?’

The UFC declined to answer the Times’ questions about Grishin.

Likewise, an agent who represents Usman, Gaethje, Cejudo and Ankalaev did not respond to the Times’ request for comment.

In November, one of Akhmat MMA's fighters named Maxim Grishin (pictured) had his upcoming fight abruptly canceled. Later he told a Russian news agency that he struggled to get a visa for the bout

In November, one of Akhmat MMA’s fighters named Maxim Grishin (pictured) had his upcoming fight abruptly canceled. Later he told a Russian news agency that he struggled to get a visa for the bout

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