RT Sport brings you the second part of its big interview with the founder of Russian MMA promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB), Mairbek Khasiev.
While in the first part of the interview Khasiev spoke about his background in medicine and the business model of his brainchild ACB, the second part of the talk focuses on signing new names, future plans, and competition with the world’s biggest MMA promotions, Bellator and UFC.
RT: You recently announced that you’ve reached an agreement with Russian TV company Channel 9, which will soon broadcast your tournaments. Do you plan to agree any TV deals outside of Russia?
Mairbek Khasiev: We have a good relationship with [Mexican] media magnate Carlos Slim – if you don’t know who he is, you might want to search for information on him. It won’t be hard, he’s one of the richest men in the world, and is extremely influential in the North and South American media markets. We’re planning to broadcast all over the world throughout his network. We’re working on it slowly but surely. This year I can’t promise you any major developments in that regard, but next year should be the year of ACB.
RT: One thing that has been a topic for discussion in the global MMA community is the weight cut. What is ACB’s and your own personal take on this issue?
MK: I can tell you for sure – I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I know what it is – as I mentioned earlier, I’m a doctor myself and I know this issue really well. When a fighter is cutting weight using water, he’s not only losing weight, he’s losing all the vital elements such as calcium, potassium, magnesium. Then they develop problems with their bones, blood vessels, the heart. I’m categorically against weight cuts. I like how they do it in Jiu-Jitsu. I really like it. You come, you step on the scale and you fight. Right there. It would be great if all organizations agreed to use this system. We’ve been calling for it for some time already. We even developed a system concept: the idea is to have the minimum weight class at 60kg [132lbs], then go up in 5kg to 65kg, then 70kg, then 75kg and so on, but other organizations don’t seem to be interested in it. This system would allow athletes to perform in the optimal weight category, as it is in Jiu-Jitsu. Of course they cut the weight in Jiu-Jitsu as well, but definitely not as much as in MMA.
This way fighters can avoid many injuries and health issues, because we’re responsible for them too. To be honest with you, every tournament I watch, I pray to God that nothing bad will happen to the fighters. Maybe legally it’s not our responsibility, but if something bad happens, it’ll rest on my conscience. It’s a big issue for me. But if we’re going to be the only promotion to implement this system, we ourselves will be in a losing situation – the fighters won’t sign contracts with us because they’re used to their weight categories already. They cut the weight, they get it back and look to have an advantage in the fight, hoping that the opponent won’t recover properly. I think that’s very, very silly. It results in a situation where we’re just creating jobs for pharmacologists, helping them to develop business opportunities. In many cases we see fights not between the fighters but between their medical teams – well then, let’s have medical teams fighting each other instead! They’ll throw syringes and test tubes at each other. That sounds like nonsense, but that’s what we have right now. We have to stop this somehow. An international system should be created to control that with very strict punishment for the promotions, all the way to the threat of bankruptcy for organizations that don’t follow the rules. Each fighter should fight in his real weight category. When I was young and competing in martial arts, my weight was 72kg, while I’m 180cm [5ft 11in] tall, and I was in great condition. I could easily break bricks with my hands and champagne bottles with my legs. I didn’t need to be 90kg, cut my weight and go back to 90kg to successfully perform.
RT: Probably another issue that involves all MMA organizations inside and outside of Russia is the migration of fighters from one promotion to another. How do you see that situation? And what’s ACB’s policy on that?
MK: I really don’t want to talk about different [Russian] promotions, but I will tell you how we work in that regard in ACB: if a fighter wants to leave, he can go at any time, not a problem. Anyone can leave. First of all, the fighters are not my property. They are free people. They have a right to leave at any time. But if you leave, you can’t come back to ACB. A promotion that’s looking to reach global success has to respect itself first of all. If top level fighters leave the organization, they aren’t doing it any favors, they’re rather dragging it down. So if you’re leaving, you’re cutting off completely from us. We can stay friends, still talk and so on. But the topic of a return is closed. That’s how we keep our roster stable and solid. We don’t want our fighters going from one promotion to another.
RT: Not so long ago ACB signed ex-UFC fighter Albert Tumenov, who wasn’t happy with the offer from the American promotion. Another move that seems logical to a lot of people is Mairbek Taisumov in the same direction. How would you rate the possibility of such a move?
MK: I know Taisumov really well, he and my son are close friends. We visit each other often There’s something I must tell you about him – he’s a true, honest fighter. He’s the only fighter, at least from those that I know, who trains at least twice a day, every day. He’s always ready to perform, and he’s constantly asking UFC to give him a fight. He can fight anytime, because he’s always in fighting shape. That’s something I keep telling fighters in Berkut – you always have to be in shape, so you can always step up at short notice when needed. You can call Taisumov any time and ask him where he is and he’ll tell you that he’s training. It’s very important to have a high level of out-of-competition fitness. Regarding his possible move – that’s not our goal to bring back Russian fighters. If they’re in UFC, they’re there to represent Russia. We want to see them winning fights and getting the belts.
If we talk talented Russian fighters – we have more than enough in Russia. What we want to bring to ACB is a good amount of solid foreign fighters to make sure we have a good level of competition. That’s the right way for us, that’s how I see it at least. Let’s take Petr Yan [ACB flyweight champion], no one had ever heard of him before ACB.
He became popular in ACB. It wouldn’t be right to let him go to UFC. We aim to keep him in Russia. The same goes for Yusuf Raisov, he’s a nice, young, talented guy. Fans like him, ladies especially [like] those kind of guys. He’s one of our most popular fighters, so I think those fighters that are in the UFC right now should represent our country, while we develop local stars. Talking about Taisumov, he might move to ACB one day. We never know what life will throw up. But at the moment I wouldn’t want to see that move.
RT: Is that why you’ve let your champion Zabit Magomedsharipov move to UFC? To represent Russia?
MK: Zabit is an amazing fighter. He’s kind of a mystery for me to be honest. A guy who is 6ft 1in and only 145lbs and has a record of 12-1. If you meet him in day-to-day life, you’d never think he was a fighter. Especially if some meatheads wanted to test themselves against him. I’d probably feel bad for them. He can really prove his class in UFC. I just hope that they don’t give him a top opponent right away. He needs one or two bouts to get used to fighting over there. After that I’m pretty sure he can beat anyone.
RT: Another great fighter who’s also previously fought in ACB is Mamed Khalidov, who’s now a free agent. We know you’re in talks regarding a move. How important is it for you to sign him?
MK: I’ve known Mamed for quite a long time. If we talk about him as a person, he’s a very nice, very intelligent guy. He’s a man of his word. If he says ‘yes,’ that means ‘yes.’ On the fighting scale if we take Russian fighters, I don’t want to offend anyone, but I consider him the best fighter. Throughout his career, he had really hard fights and very strong opponents. He’s in the top 15 in his weight class. We’ve been talking to Mamed about a possible move for a long time, but he had obligations in Poland. Now as he doesn’t have them anymore, I think we’ll see him in ACB soon. I think he’ll have two or three fights with us and then he might finish his fighting career. Although you can be a fighter as long as you feel that need to compete. But even if he doesn’t fight in ACB, we want him to be part of our organization. In any role, in any position. We’ll not give up on this sort of person with that much experience. If we’re talking about him as a fighter, he’s a complete fighter that presents a perfect combination of the striker and grappler. He’s valuable not only for ACB, but for MMA as such.
RT: Khalidov is a superstar in Poland, but he’s not so well known in Russia. How about in his native Chechnya?
MK: I guess because of his ethnicity he’s known in Chechnya quite well. Unsurprisingly, Chechens follow Chechen fighters the most. So out of 100 percent of MMA fans [in Chechnya] I’d say 90 percent consider him to be the best fighter. Although not all the fighters from Chechnya could get to the top level in sports because of the recent history of our region. But we have what we have. I’d say Mamed is our best fighter. Probably next to him is Beslan Isaev. As a fighter and as a person, I really like Isaev a lot.
RT: Keeping in mind the size of his popularity in certain regions, where would you want to use Khalidov, if you get to sign him? Would you want to have him at a tournament in Poland? And wouldn’t that be an issue because of his previous relationship with the main Polish promotion, KSW?
MK: We have a very good relationship with Poland. We hosted a number of tournaments there. So that shouldn’t be a problem. Apart from Poland, fans really love him in England, where they also have a big Polish community. Of course he’s an idol in Poland. Plus, people really love and respect him in Turkey. So if he agreed to three fights with us, we’d go to these three countries. Poland, England and Turkey. I think we can even aim for a stadium show in Turkey with Khalidov. We’ve already been working on a possible event in Istanbul for some time.
RT: Talking about future plans, ACB also has a branch called ACB Young Eagles, which hosts tournaments for fighters looking to compete in the main league, ACB MMA. Could you tell us a little more about that?
MK: The idea is to find young talent. I can assure you that there are many fighters that can be more than competitive, but we just don’t know about them yet. We have to find them and give them a chance. We do research all over Russia and all over Europe. We’re even making a qualifying tournament for the guys that want to compete in Young Eagles. We had over 800 applications! Just think of that number. But we’ll have around 400 fighters competing there. Then the 16 best will receive three-fight deals with the Young Eagles. Ruslan Khamzaev [head of ACB Young Eagles] is working on this in all the regions of Russia. So we have this program in process. And I think that if we keep working on it in the next few years, we’ll develop many great fighters. I have no doubt about it.
RT: That’s work for the future of ACB. Where do you see ACB in the near future. Let’s say in two years?
MK: I’m a pragmatic person. So I don’t plan to do things that I won’t be able to do. Of course I know that we can’t overtake UFC in such a short period. But what would be good for us is if we would develop as quickly as possible while UFC stays at the same level. I wouldn’t mind if they move back a little. That would be perfect for us. The thing is, I don’t really see much positive development in UFC in the past two years. They are focused on certain fighters. And that’s a big mistake. You can’t put money ahead of sporting aspects. It’s a sport first of all. I understand that many will say that money decides everything. That’s not true. It doesn’t. So if they stick to that strategy, we have a very good chance of overtaking them. The longer they keep acting the same way, the easier it’s going to be for us. If we’re talking about Bellator, I hope to overtake them by the end of this year. At least if we’re talking about the system that’s presented on fightmatrix.com. I know that many people disagree with their ratings. But I agree with their system 100 percent, because everyone’s in an equal position for them. By their ratings, our average rating per fighter is 53-54 at the moment. But we already have more fighters signed than them. If we can get an average rating of our fighter at the level that they have, let’s say in KSW which is 76, we’ll overtake Bellator quickly. All our weight divisions are solid. Some of them have an even better rating than Bellator. So it’s only a question of time for us to overtake. When we do that and become the next biggest promotion after the UFC, you should expect our next big move right away. That’s going to be a surprise. Believe me.
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