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Mike Tyson a big draw in Chechnya

Published Oct. 24, 2005

He has had trouble in many venues, but former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson got an enthusiastic welcome Thursday in Chechnya.

Russian television showed Tyson shaking hands with and then hugging his host, First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, a former boxer who invited Tyson as a guest of honor for a boxing tournament held as part of a growing effort to project a sense of normalcy in the war-torn republic.

"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, and NTV television quoted him expressing hope for the war in Chechnya to end.

Chechnya 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 a good outlet for the republic's often unemployed young men. 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 bomb attack 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 in Chechnya 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."

Tyson has been on a tour of Ukraine and Russia sponsored by Ukraine's Nemiroff vodka company, which reportedly is in negotiations with the former champion to have him promote its products.