Edmen Shahbazyan has been punished by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) for displaying an “illegal regime” flag before his main event fight against Derek Brunson at UFC Vegas 5, sparking international controversy. Shahbazyan lost that bout in the third round via technical knockout (watch the finish here).
Shahbazyan is a proud Armenian and most people watching the fight on Aug. 1, 2020, probably just thought he was displaying a provincial flag from the country as he was introduced in the cage. But it turns out the flag he displayed was that of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, an internationally-unrecognized breakaway region technically belonging to Azerbaijan.
This displeased Azerbaijan.
Here’s Consul General of Azerbaijan to the western United States Nasimi Aghayev on the subject:
On Aug. 1, #Armenian #UFC #athlete @edmenshahbazyan displayed fake “flag” of a fake regime established in #Azerbaijan’s occupied #Karabakh region. The same night I sent a letter of protest to @UFC. Grateful to hear that necessary actions have been taken https://t.co/WEsZVNkGIY pic.twitter.com/SjhSUX7dco— Nasimi Aghayev (@NasimiAghayev) August 11, 2020
Now, I’m no Karim Zidan so I can’t get in-depth on exactly what’s going on in that region. But here’s a little context: there’s a lot of nasty history between Armenia and Azerbaijan stemming from the genocide of Armenian people carried out by Turkey and other countries in the region (a controversial statement in and of itself depending on who you ask).
The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is full of Armenians, and there was a full-scale war for control of the region in the early 90s between Armenians and Azerbaijan. There have been further flare ups of violence and war over the past decade. As it stands, NKR is an autonomous region in practice, but not recognized by international law.
So displaying the flag of the NKR is a sensitive issue, and it turns out it also happens to be against UFC’s rules. Here’s an article from APA.az on the Shahbazyan situation:
Let us remind you that E. Shahbazyan entered the octagon within the framework of the UFC Fight Night 173 tournament with the flag of the unrecognized NKR. In connection with this incident, the Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles (USA) sent a letter of protest to the UFC President. The letter notes that the illegal regime is the result of Armenia’s military aggression against Azerbaijan. The UFC leadership has been informed that the United States unequivocally supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. With reference to the UFC rules, it was noted that it is allowed to raise the flags only of states recognized at the international level and a requirement was made to take appropriate disciplinary measures against a fighter of Armenian origin for trying to politicize the competition and not repeat such cases in the future.
And what punishment was met out to Edmen? According to AXAR.az, “The Armenian athlete and his coaches apologized to the UFC,” “Reebok immediately stopped cooperating with the provocative Armenian and refused to finance it,” and “Dana White expelled from the UFC a 20-year-old employee who allowed the so-called flag to enter the ring.”
So Edmen lost his Reebok uniform compliance money ($5,000) and some poor employee who probably couldn’t point out Azerbaijan or Armenia on a map was fired.