‘Veni, vidi, vici – that’s how we work’ – ACB founder Mairbek Khasiev (VIDEO)
While Russian MMA promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) has already appeared on the radar of fight fans well outside of Russia, there hasn’t yet been much information about the promotion’s founder, Mairbek Khasiev. RT Sport is now making up for that.
Although Khasiev founded ACB just three years ago in Grozny, Chechnya, the promotion is already hosting events globally and not only producing high-level Russian fighters, but also signing established MMA names.
Talking to Khasiev at the Sokos Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the promotion came to host its ACB 61 tournament, we began at the very start of his journey, even before he’d moved into promoting combat sports. Other topics of discussion included the choice of the name Berkut (Golden Eagle), branching out into Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing, and many more.
RT: We know that before you started your job as a promoter you were working in medicine. Could you tell us a little more about that part of your life?
Mairbek Khasiev: I began in medicine when I went to study it in 1981. As a professional I started working as a therapist in Achkhoy-Martan (Chechnya). Then I went to St. Petersburg's Institute of Improvement of Medical Experts. I’m a specialist in medical and social expertise, I have an academic degree. I don't like to praise myself, but I can say that I’m a decent specialist.
RT: A few years ago you said that you were working on a doctoral dissertation. Did you finish your work on it?
MK: Yes, I did - two years ago. But I’d been working on it for four years in total. Prior to that, I finished my PhD thesis. Again, I really don't want it to look like I’m praising myself, but at the moment I’m a doctor and I have plans to become a professor.
RT: What was your dissertation topic?
MK: Medical and social expertise. My goal was to gather statistics on disability in the Russian Federation over a period of 12 years, and the same for the Caucasus region over eight to 12 years. Now, again I’ll have to praise myself, but among 10 people that were taking part in the course, only two passed - I was one of them. Plus, I've been told that that was one of the best doctoral dissertations of the decade. So here I am, praising myself once again (laughs).
RT: Do you still work in that field ? What position do you hold in the Chechen Republic?
MK: Yes, I do. I’m head of the main bureau of medical and social expertise in the Chechen Republic, plus I’m the head expert in Chechnya.
RT: Another thing that you described as your passion is Jiu-Jitsu. It’s an unusual sport for Russia and the Caucasus region. How did this hobby begin for you?
MK: About five years ago I was introduced to Arbi Muradov, who lives in Leuven, Belgium. He’s a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu. Back then I was already working in the field of MMA and I realized that since it’s called ‘Mixed Martial Arts,’ it should have all the best parts from every combat sport. Bring together all those elements and make it into a complete product. Those fighters who manage to do that can become great champions. Again, that might not be too humble of me, but I’ve been involved in sports since my early childhood. It all began with simple push-ups and pull-ups, then I played basketball and practiced karate. Then it was Greco-Roman wrestling. In wrestling I made it to the Chechen finals. That was a very solid level of competition. So, when Arbi introduced me to Jiu-Jitsu, I fell in love with it. We now have our own branch of ACB Jiu-Jitsu. My son Zaurbek and Arbi are taking care of this project and it’s going quite well for them.
RT: There was recently an ACB Jiu-Jitsu (ACB JJ) tournament in Poland. Do you know how many tournaments they have scheduled this year?
MK: I believe that the next tournament will be in Moscow. They have six tournaments planned for this year. We’ve already had two of them - one in the United States and another in Poland, so there are four more left. I’m not too sure where exactly they’re going to happen, except for the one in Moscow. To be honest, I’m not too involved in that branch of ACB as Arbi and Zaurbek are taking care of it. They send me all the information about their tournaments, but I’m more like an observer. For now the budget is for six tournaments a year. If they’re successful, we might plan more in the future, but as for now it will be six events a year.
So far I can't say it’s been a particularly profitable branch for us. We receive some income from broadcasting and advertising. Our roster is really solid, out of the 20 top Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, we have 10 of them competing in ACB JJ, which creates interest for broadcasters and sponsors. But as for right now, we’re mostly investing. Around 70 percent is our own investment and 30 percent is profit. But by the end of the year, we’re looking to go 50/50 or even turn it around and make it 30 percent investment and 70 percent profit. Then of course we’ll make it profitable.
RT: Another ACB branch is kickboxing - the last event was in Paris, France. Who’s taking care of this particular project?
MK: Our friend Soslanbek (Izrailov), who’s lived in the Netherlands for a long time and knows European kickboxing really well, made us an offer. We were planning to launch a kickboxing project for some time before that and had other offers as well. But as we weighed it up, we realized that Soslanbek was the best option for us. The most interesting thing about his offer is that this year he’ll take care of the majority of expenses in this project, and starting next year he’ll cover it completely. It’s our branch, so all events are under the ACB name and everything we make from there goes directly to ACB. This is the project that costs the least money as we cover only 20-25 percent of the expenses - so it was hard to turn down that kind of offer. Plus, Soslanbek promised us high-quality tournaments and we’ve been pleased with the quality that they’ve shown this year. Starting from next year, we aim to raise the bar in terms of quality, and of course in terms of profit.
RT: Let’s move on to your main brand - Absolute Championship Berkut MMA, and Berkut Fighting Club. Could you tell us how it all started and where the name ‘Berkut’ came from?
MK: I was overseeing Kyokushin Karate in the (Chechen) Republic when my friend Ruslan Khamzaev (now vice president of ACB) and Akhmed Madaev told me about a group of talented local MMA fighters. I’d had a disagreement with the people in Kyokushin and was about to leave them, and right at the same time I was offered to switch to overseeing MMA. We didn't really think of making a league back then. We didn't even think of making a fight club. But then it all eventually came to the moment when we decided to make a fight club. So we had to pick a name for it. The name ‘Berkut’ was my idea. It’s a bird that has always been respected in the Caucasus region. If you look at the flags of the many republics in the Caucasus - such as Dagestan, Ingushetia - they all have an eagle on their flags. There’s also a parable about an old eagle that I’m really fond of, you might want to google it if you’re curious. Plus eagles have big beaks and people in the Caucasus have big noses that look like beaks (laughs). That’s a joke of course. So anyway, we created Berkut Fight Club and then after putting on tournaments for our fighters we began hosting events in Grozny, where our fighters could test themselves against other clubs. We started calling it ACB (Absolute Championship Berkut).
RT: Something that bothers many people is that they wonder if you’re connected with Berkut special forces, Berkut Spetsnaz.
MK: No, we are not connected with Berkut Spetsnaz at all. To be honest, I think that special forces should never have names like that. It creates confusion. They should stick to some acronym or abbreviation and not pick names that can be used by regular organizations. I’m a colonel of the reserve medical service and so have some knowledge about the army and special forces. Of course it's their business what they want to call themselves, but they should avoid names such as eagles, bears, wolves and so on. That’s my opinion. When we were picking the name, the name Berkut came rather spontaneously.
RT: What’s happening with Fight Club Berkut today? How many fighters are in the team and how many branches do you have in other cities?
MK: We have clubs in Chechnya, namely in Grozny, plus four more in smaller cities. We had clubs in Moscow and in Leuven, but eventually we had to close them down because I wasn't happy how things were going in them. However, we’re now receiving a lot of offers to open new branches in France, Germany, Belarus, Kazakhstan... I think after we take time out for Ramadan, we’ll seriously work on opening a full-scale franchise and opening new branches. Regarding the number of fighters, originally we had a few thousand, although I think now we’ll limit the number of Berkut fighters to just 1,000.
RT: You recently announced that by the end of this year, ACB plans to host around 15 tournaments on five different continents, including in Australia, Brazil, Japan, the USA, Sweden, Germany and many more countries. That’s a sizeable amount of work - how do you manage to get it all done?
MK: Our team’s rather small, but it does a fantastic job. I understand that no matter how great a team you have, when the amount of work is constantly growing, your team won’t be able to keep up. You can’t dig a mine with just three workers, no matter how hard they work.
So I think we’ll expand our team soon. I think we’ll have two teams taking care of the event one after the other, and we’ll see which does the better job. There will be sort of a competition between them and at the end of each year, the team that does best will receive a big bonus. It should drive them to do their utmost. I’m a maximalist, but of course I understand that between the highest expectations and the bare minimum we should have a balance somewhere in the middle, but always move towards the highest standards. I think that our current team will keep working in the cities and countries where we are successful. Let’s say our event in Manchester, England - it was a great event. Why would we change anything? Our new team will work on the new cities, or the cities we went to, that weren’t as successful. So if they want to show what they can do, they’ll have to improve it. Regarding the number of events for this year, I think we’ll finish at least with our 75th event. But we might have more than that. There are also events in Makhachkala and Novosibirsk (Russia), Baku (Azerbaijan), Yerevan (Armenia), which we are still in talks to host. So there might be more tournaments. Some of them might get canceled, it’s not always up to us. The receiving side in each city also has to fulfill its obligations, but to finish with our 75th tournament is the minimum that we plan for this year.
RT: How much of the total expenses do the local sponsors of your events normally cover?
MK: It differs from tournament to tournament. Normally we agree on a certain percentage, let’s say 60 to 40 percent or 50/50. Some of them even offer 100 percent. What bothers us though is that after we agree, some people start going back and forth, saying here we had unplanned expenses and so on. I’d rather work with people who say that they’ll take care of a smaller percentage of expenses, but keep to their word and also keep in mind anything that might happen during the tournament. Regarding going to other countries, I was recently asked at a press conference about comments made by, what was his name, Joe Cocker? Or Scott Coker (Bellator MMA president). I said Joe Cocker because I’ve always liked that singer. So Scott Coker says that we shouldn’t enter the American market. How can you plan being successful in a certain market if you’ve never been there and don’t know anything about it? The first time we go there, we’ll just learn about it. The second time we go there, people are already curious about us. The third time we’ll already have fans. That’s how you become successful in the market. That’s why we go to all these different countries. Veni, vidi, vici, so to speak. That’s how we work.