Last night I was able to find an online stream of the WBA Heavyweight title fight from Grozny, where the champion Ruslan Chagaev, an Uzbek now based in Germany, fought Australian Lucas Browne.
To my knowledge, it was the first world class sporting event to be held in Chechnya, certainly in its period as an independent state within Russia. Given where Chechnya was twenty five years ago, that is some achievement. In terms of the fight itself, few gave Browne a prayer. Although Chagaev is clearly past his best at 37, he has always been a class act, and was in his second period as world champion. His only two defeats, to Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin. Browne, a former martial artist, was unbeaten, but had never fought anyone in Chagaev's class. Good quality heavyweight sparring is hard to find in Australia, and Browne has actually spent chunks of his career fighting minor opponents at the bottom end of boxing bills here in the UK.
A curious backdrop to the fight was the towering presence of Chechnya's strongman leader, the pugnacious Ramzan Kadyrov. The former head of a pro-Russian militia who has held power in Grozny since 2007, Kadyrov rather looks like he should be in the ring himself (he is pictured above, pre-fight, with Browne). Indeed during the 2014 terrorist attacks on his territory, Kadyrov raced to the scene himself, armed, in order to help put down any insurgency. It is hard to imagine David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn doing that.
Whilst Kadyrov has broadly ensured Putin's need for stability in the troublesome Muslim south, it has come at a high price. Karima Bennoune's excellent "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here" has a detailed section on Chechnya - the status of women, and political freedom's generally, have worsened under Kardyrov. Indeed his main trick seems to be repeating that practised by a series of Arab dictators - giving ground to Islamist actors in terms of civil law and broader society, but rigidly excluding their armed factions from political influence.
In terms of the fight itself, Chagaev did the classier work, and should really have stopped Browne in the sixth and eight rounds. Ramzan Kadyrov positioned himself at the ring apron, occasionally slapping the ring floor with excitement, and yelling Chagaev forward. If the most famous stories of politicians and boxing focus on the Rumble in the Jungle and Mobutu Sese Soko, Kadyrov seems to have got considerably closer to the action than his African counterpart. And then, it all went wrong. Browne put Chagaev on the seat of his pants. The chance of a lifetime beckoned, and he threw furious haymakers as a dazed Chagaev got himself stuck on the ropes. The referee, correctly in my view, stopped the flight. Mrs Chagaev, who had now moved almost as close to the ring as Ramzan Kadyrov, struggled to decide whether to keep her hair covered with both hands, or to slap the cameraman who was clearly invading her personal space. Kadyrov made his anger at the referee's decision clear, whilst a thousand Chechens booed.
But it was over. The decision was accepted, and one of boxing's greatest upsets had ensued. That at least will ensure that Grozny earns its footnote in boxing history. Whilst the WBA and other authorities probably need to pass a ruling against allowing politicians untrammeled access to the ring area (Kadyrov's presence could easily have intimidated the officials) all was fair on this occasion, in love and war. Chagaev almost certainly heads back to Germany and retirement, and for Browne some huge pay days await. But not, I suspect, in Chechnya.