He’s had trouble from Indianapolis to Sardinia, but former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson got an enthusiastic welcome Thursday in Chechnya.
Russian television showed Tyson shaking hands with and hugging his host, First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, a former boxer who invited Tyson to a boxing tournament held as part of a growing effort to project a sense of normality in the war-torn republic. He is being received as a guest of honor.
“Tyson has a lot of fans in Chechnya, particularly among young athletes, who used to admire his boxing skills and learn from him,” Chechen presidential press secretary Muslim Khuchiev told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Tyson was shown speaking to the crowd in the eastern city of Gudermes, and NTV television quoted him expressing hope for an end to the war in Chechnya.
The republic is predominantly Muslim, and one of the welcoming speakers referred to Tyson by a Muslim name he adopted in the 1990s, Malik Abdul Aziz. In Arabic, Malik means “king” and Abdul Aziz means “servant of the mighty.”
Kadyrov, viewed by many as the dominant figure in Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin administration, has promoted boxing as an outlet for the republic’s young men, many of whom are unemployed. Kadyrov and his entourage even held out the possibility that he and Tyson might get in the ring together and exchange a few blows.
The tournament, which runs through Tuesday, is expected to bring together hundreds of boxers from across Russia. It is being held in memory of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a bombing at a Grozny sports stadium in May 2004. The attack was blamed on separatist rebels.
Elections for a local parliament in the southern Russian republic are scheduled for Nov. 27, and authorities have been promoting the view that the situation there is stabilizing.
Tyson’s visit “is very, very interesting, because it’s done on the eve of the election,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Kadyrov tries to show his authority, his popularity. It is a part of the campaign.”
Chechens exercised self-rule after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces returned in 1999, installing a pro-Moscow government and largely driving the rebels underground. In the last few years, the Kremlin has increasingly sought to have the local Chechen administration carry the burden of imposing order.
The situation in Chechnya has become more stable in the last year, Malashenko said. “But almost every day someone is murdered,” he added. “When I speak to my friends, they say that something like war continues.” Malashenko believes several thousand separatist guerrillas still make the mountains their home.
Tyson has been on a tour of Ukraine and Russia sponsored by Ukraine’s Nemiroff vodka company, which reportedly is negotiating with the former champion to have him promote its products.