RIZIN Fighting Federation lightweight champion Tofiq Musayev (18-3) and former Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) lightweight titlist Eduard Vartanyan (20-4), two of the world’s top international mixed martial artists, find themselves on opposite sides of a major geopolitical conflict between their native countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively.
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The countries, which share a border in their place between Europe and Asia, are once again drawn into conflict over the historically controversial Nagorno-Karabakh region.
According to the BBC, Nagorno-Karabakh is “recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it is controlled by ethnic Armenians.” The predicament has led to conflict before, as war broke out between the two countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the region voted to become a part of Armenia, which did not materialize.
“Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has remained part of Azerbaijan, but is controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians backed by the Armenian government. Negotiations over decades, mediated by international powers, have never resulted in a peace treaty,” the BBC states.
The conflict was reignited in late September 2020.
“The latest outburst of hostilities began Sept. 27 and left hundreds – perhaps thousands – dead, marking the worst escalation of fighting since the war’s end,” reported the Associated Press (via USA Today).
Both countries have pointed the finger at the other for the renewed fighting, with both accusing “each other of breaching internationally brokered cease-fires,” according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
Outside countries, including the United States, Russia, and France, have all attempted to broker peace agreements to no avail, per the Journal, and the geopolitical effects of the struggle appear to be far-reaching.
Tofiq Musayev, 30, is a native of Azerbaijan.
In recent years, the newly-crowned RIZIN champion has emerged as one of the most promising athletes on the international scene. Undefeated since 2015, Musayev defeated two men – UFC and PFL veteran Johnny Case (27-7-1) and Bellator star Patricky “Pitbull” Freire (23-9) – in one night to capture the title after a tournament for the vacant belt.
Just days after the conflict began, MMA journalist Bruno Massami reported that Musayev had joined the ranks of the Azerbaijani army.
Rizin LW Champion, Tofiq Musayev will be joining the Azerbaijan Army to help his country against Armenia.
— Bruno Massami (Бруно Массами) (@BrMassami) September 29, 2020
Ruslan Fendiyev, who owns the Orion Fight Club at which Musayev trains, confirmed the news in an Instagram post. A translated version of his caption states, “Today, Tofiq Musayev was drafted into the ranks of the armed forces to defend our homeland.”
Days later, Massami shared what appears to be an image of a fatigues-clad Musayev in an army camp from a news broadcast whose headline reads, translated, “Thousands of Azerbaijani soldiers enlisted.”
First image from Rizin LW Champion, Tofiq Musayev in Azerbaijan's army camp. pic.twitter.com/on1nnpFzdT
— Bruno Massami (Бруно Массами) (@BrMassami) October 2, 2020
Eduard Vartanyan, an Armenian-Russian 29-year-old, rose to prominence among MMA fans during his title-winning reign in the former ACB, which has since merged with World Fighting Championship Akhmat (WFCA) to become Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA).
Fighting a who’s who of Russian elites including former ACA lightweight champion Ali Bagov (29-10), champion Abdul Aziz Abdulvakhabov (18-2), and longtime Bellator veteran Alexander Sarnavskiy (37-8), Vartanyan established a promising reputation as a striking talent.
Most recently, Vartanyan fought out his contract with ACA, closing out a three-fight winning streak since dropping his title to Abdulvakhabov. He has floated the idea of signing with the UFC, telling MMA Junkie, “I am a free agent now… I am eager to sign with UFC as it is my only goal now. … To fight in the UFC is my dream.”
In a four-minute video uploaded to his Instagram account, Vartanyan appears in fatigues. According to a translation of Vartanyan’s caption, the free agent fighter provided his perspective on the history of the conflict, as well as enlisted the aid of his followers to donate to charitable efforts in the region.
“It is the leadership of Azerbaijan that benefits from the war and further escalation of the conflict, because it distracts attention from internal problems,” Vartanyan wrote, adding, “The right of peoples to self-determination is one of the basic principles of international law, meaning the right of every people to independently decide the question of the form of its state existence, freely determine its political status without outside interference and carry out its economic and cultural development.”
Reports have not been confirmed regarding Vartanyan’s military status, as several online commentators have speculated that he may be serving in the armed forces, while others believe Vartanyan’s efforts in the region are exclusively humanitarian, pointing to his repeated requests for donations.
Vartanyan has been pictured in the company of Migran Arutyunyan (3-1), an Armenian Olympic silver medalist wrestler and a burgeoning MMA fighter. In an Instagram post, Arutyunyan appears in front of a decimated building while appealing to his followers for humanitarian aid.
Arutyunyan’s caption, written in several languages including English, reads, “Guys, I’m in Stepanakert. The city is constantly bombed, a large number of people have lost their roofs and need help. I am sure that together we can help those in need with the most necessary things! Those who want to leave their contribution, to make support, card number 4274 2700 1645 4035 recipient Mihran Edikovich A. We will help on the spot, control so that everything reaches the addressee. Peaceful sky for everyone!”
This is not the first time the conflict has made an impact on the world of mixed martial arts. In August, a UFC employee was reportedly fired after middleweight Edman Shahbazyn used an Artsakh – another name for the Nagorno-Karabakh region – flag in a statement for his Armenian heritage.
UFC President Dana White reportedly received a letter of protest from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as press service head Leyla Abdullayeva stated, “The letter notes that illegal organization is nothing but the result of Armenia’s military aggression and unequivocal position of the United States on support to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity has been brought to the attention of UFC leadership. According to the UFC rules, it has been noted that only the flags of internationally recognized states are allowed to be demonstrated, and taking appropriate disciplinary measures against Armenian fighter for attempts to politicize competition and not to repeat such cases in the future has been demanded.”
Shahbazyan’s coach Edmund Tavernyan, who also claims Armenian heritage, said of the flag, “I said that we are trying to show that we stand by our country, we represent Armenia, in this way we present our complaint about the recent tense situation in Tavush and that Artsakh is our country, Armenians live there. and we must defend our nation. The goal of our team in the United States is to represent the Armenians, the Armenian nation, our country in all major tournaments. Edman’s coming out of the octagon with the flag of Artsakh had exactly that mission.”
The Associated Press summarized the state of the conflict and ongoing negotiations between both countries and outside governments as the following:
“In the most recent attempt to defuse tensions, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met Friday in Geneva for a day of talks brokered by Russia, the United States and France, co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that tries to mediate the conflict.
The talks concluded with the two sides agreeing they “will not deliberately target civilian populations or non-military objects in accordance with international humanitarian law,” but the agreement was quickly challenged by reports of shelling of civilian settlements.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said to end hostilities Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. He repeatedly criticized the Minsk Group for not producing progress and insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force since international mediators have failed.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.