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The ‘Ural Hulk’ and friends: We identified the trained fighters trying to break up protests in Yekaterinburg

Source: Meduza
Natalya Chernokhatova / URA.ru / TASS

Protests against the destruction of a city square in central Yekaterinburg have entered their third day. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of the city’s residents have taken to the streets to oppose the planned construction of a cathedral in place of the square. Protesters began their first day of protests on May 13 by knocking down the fence surrounding the proposed construction site. Several hours later, groups of young men wearing athletic clothing pushed them out of the square. Although the men acted aggressively, the police officers present did not interfere. Meduza asked journalist Grigory Leiba to find out who the young men were. The bands of ‘cathedral defenders’ turned out to include champion martial arts fighters, members of the recently founded RMK Martial Arts Academy, and regulars at local gyms. The latter group, sources told Meduza, were offered money in exchange for dispersing protesters.

The MMA fighter

Ivan Shtyrkov is a well-known figure among fans of mixed martial arts (MMA), which some viewers have (inaccurately) dubbed “fights with no rules.” On the evening of May 13, many of those present at the Yekaterinburg protests recognized Shtyrkov, also known as the “Ural Hulk,” in the crowd. He arrived after protesters occupied the square. The fighter explained his presence in simple terms: “I’m standing here and enjoying nature, enjoying the good weather. People are fighting against the cathedral? I already said it’s stupid. Just the fact that people have done what they’ve done [knocked down fencing and stood up to police] proves, at the very least, the stupidity of their point of view. Plus, it’s against the law. I mean, we know this area has already been designated for construction. When people behave like this, they probably deserve to be punished.”

Shtyrkov made his MMA debut in Yekaterinburg in 2015. By then, he had already earned a reputation as a formidable athlete: he had won awards at various levels of the Sambo World Cup. After his first MMA fight, commentators called Shtyrkov a promising competitor: then 25 years old, the sambist had dealt handily and aggressively with experienced kickboxer Vitaly Oparin. The fight’s organizers at Titov Boxing Promotions, one of the oldest Russian promotion companies, soon offered Shtyrkov his first professional contract.

In 2016, Titov Boxing Promotions and Igor Altushkin, the director of RMK, founded a collaborative company called RCC Boxing Promotions; the project’s name is derived from the English translation of RMK. Altushkin, an ardent boxing fan, offered to boost the promotional team’s financial support in exchange for a radical change in branding, the renaming included. The new firm’s owners also decided to make Ivan Shtyrkov, who had recently settled in Yekaterinburg, the face of the operation.

That same year, Shtyrkov went head to head with his most prominent opponent yet: the fighter, who was already working as the frontman of RCC Boxing Promotions, made a painful example of UFC legend Jeff Monson, who had a 60-25-1 career record at the time. That fight was soon followed by other matchups against high-profile opponents: three months after the match against Monson, Shtyrkov faced off against former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez and won once again. After another month, he beat Antonio Silva. Medical staff had to carry Shtyrkov out of the ring after the fight, but referees still named him the victor. His opponent from Brazil didn’t look much better.

Ivan Shtyrkov poses during an awards ceremony for the UFC Fight Night 149 tournament in St. Petersburg’s Yubileyny Sports Palace. April 19, 2019
Valery Sharifulin / TASS/ Scanpix / LETA

Shtyrkov’s current professional MMA record is 16-0 with one draw. Six of his wins have been knockouts. Shtyrkov has fought all of his matches in the Urals the umbrella of RMK’s promotion. Nonetheless, he realized before long that there was a definite ceiling to his growth in Yekaterinburg, and the “Ural Hulk” decided his next step would be a UFC contract. “I want to help my fans enjoy some good fights. I’m ready for the UFC — I just have to negotiate the conditions. I’m willing and able to do it. I think I can compete with fighters from abroad,” Shtyrkov said at the time. The fighter signed a contract with the UFC in March of 2019 for a series of four matches.

Nonetheless, Shtyrkov still has obligations to the Russian Copper Company. In May 2018, the RMK Martial Arts Academy opened to great fanfare in Yekaterinburg. The academy was built to teach boxing, sambo, Asian martial arts, grappling, Greco-Roman wrestling, and MMA fighting under one roof. Ivan Shtyrkov was named the academy’s president.

“We made RMK Martial Arts Academy so that professionals and amateur fighters could train and compete in cutting-edge conditions, so that a passion for martial arts can become a real trend for the next generation,” the academy’s founder, RMK head Igor Altushkin, said at the facility’s opening. “I’m sure that Ivan [Shtyrkov] and his victories can set an example and inspire beginning athletes to work diligently and achieve great things,” he added.

The academy’s building was built next to Zelyonaya Roshcha, one of the few parks in central Yekaterinburg. The building’s first five floors are fully stocked: they contain a well-equipped training hall, about a dozen rings, grappling equipment, strength training gear, showers, and locker rooms. The sixth floor is dedicated to competition spaces for municipal or regional tournaments and less formal contests for beginners.

The academy is the only facility of its kind in Russia: no other academy unites eight different martial arts. The participants in the building’s opening ceremony included actors Mikhail Galustyan and Vladimir Yaglych, the famed fighter Fedor Emelianenko, boxer Kostya Tszyu, and Yevgeny Kuivashev, the governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast. Mike Tyson also swung by the facility in advance of its opening. Tszyu, Galustyan, and Kuivashev would all come to support plans to build St. Catherine’s Cathedral in the center of the city.

A fighting force for the cathedral

RMK Martial Arts Academy students began gathering in Yekaterinburg’s contested square on May 13 about two hours after protesters had knocked down the now-famous fence and occupied the future construction site.

The athletic young men defending the cathedral, some of whom arrived wearing RMK Martial Arts Academy gear, showed up on the scene gradually, but the more men appeared, the clearer it became that this was no ordinary crowd. Groups of them stood apart from one another as though they had formed small brigades. The teams barely cooperated with one another. About one hundred young men were involved in total.

They responded evasively to journalists’ questions. Shtyrkov, as mentioned above, told reporters on camera that he had simply gone out for a walk in the pleasant spring weather. However, once the camera lights turned off and the reporters left to cover another part of the square, the fighter spoke more openly: “Beat them? Not at all! These are just simple civilians. Ninety percent of them don’t know why they came here. I think someone will explain that to them soon enough.” The final sentence did not seem like a threat: some protesters hoped that RMK chief Igor Altushkin would soon emerge to speak with them and that the fighters would turn out to be his bodyguards.

Novaya Gazeta wrote that all 100 or so “boxers” were members of RMK Martial Arts Academy. In fact, you could have counted the number of academy fighters on two hands. Some of the athletes and their trainers even left the square several minutes before the aggression against protesters began. It was clear that somebody had warned them about what was coming.

On condition of anonymity, multiple individuals who participated in the effort to disperse protesters told Meduza that most of the “cathedral’s defenders” were regular customers from local gyms and small athletic facilities on Yekaterinburg’s outskirts. After the protests began and city residents had taken down the square’s fencing, the men were asked to participate in “a group action by the city pond.” Some of them were offered money — up to $80 to be paid at the end of the event. It took less than two hours to bring together about 100 strong young men. Many of them had no connection to RMK Martial Arts Academy, though the chance to meet champion athletes, especially Shtyrkov, served as an added incentive to participate. Meduza has not yet been able to determine who organized the effort to bring the men together.

In addition to Shtyrkov, the boxer Magomed Kurbanov was sighted in the square on May 13. A native of Dagestan, Kurbanov is the reigning WBO Inter-Continental midweight champion. He currently lives and trains in Yekaterinburg. Kurbanov has an active contract with RCC Boxing Promotions and trains at RMK’s facilities.

At around 8:00 PM, an hour after the protest began, demonstrators surrounded a green tent that is popularly rumored to contain the cathedral’s cornerstone. The tent was the only object present in the previously fenced-off area, and it was guarded by a group of police officers. The demonstrators surrounding the tent began singing and dancing; it seemed that the protest might continue indefinitely. Then, after slightly more than two hours, a brigade of fighters entered the square and forcibly dispersed the crowd. The men chanted, “We’re for the cathedral!” Within what seemed like seconds, the fencing was back in place.

After the men had finished, both Shtyrkov and Kurbanov left the scene. The two fighters dispersed the protesters alongside the other men, forcing people to move outside the planned construction zone. Shtyrkov and Kurbanov did not display any heightened aggression beyond those efforts.

The “cathedral’s defenders” on the night of May 13, 2019. Yekaterinburg
Marina Moldavskaya / Kommersant

The next day, Magomed Kurbanov wrote on his VKontakte page, “Wake me up when all this provocation is over!!! The animals who are slandering me are a herd of sheep!!! Y’all must have a hard life!” In the night following Kurbanov’s participation in the events at the square, a harassment campaign against him had developed online.

Ivan Shtyrkov was less emotional when he explained his actions to Meduza. “Yesterday, there were ten people from the academy, not a hundred. We came to help the guards reinstall the fence. There can be absolutely no question that our team was not there to threaten or start conflicts with the city’s residents. There were no threats or conflicts. There were other people there apart from us. Some of them were for the cathedral’s construction, and some of them were against it. We shouldn’t forget about respecting other opinions: that’s the basis of a stable society. All discussions should take place peacefully, and what happened last night was deeply wrong and should not happen again,” the athlete said.

RMK Martial Arts Academy press attaché Alexey Galanov told Meduza he had nothing to add to what Shtyrkov had already said. Galanov indicated that the academy’s leaders had not asked and could not have asked their athletes to go to the square, and their presence “should be interpreted as an expression of civilians’ opinions on a matter of municipal policy.” The academy did not provide any information about the other men who appeared in the square on May 13.

Grigory Leiba, Yekaterinburg

Translation by Hilah Kohen