Umar Kremlev

International Boxing Association President Umar Kremlev (second left) presents Pope Francis with a miniature boxing ring during his audience with the pontiff at the Vatican on Wednesday last week.

| Pool | IBA

Boxing crisis: Papal visit, Putin ties cement Kremlev’s all-round powerful status

What you need to know:

  • Russian IBA president says ‘faith and sports should always go hand in hand and in the same direction’ in an address at the Vatican as he seeks broader support. 
  • Under his watch, IBA has provided development funds running into millions of dollars to continental confederations and national bodies and helped organise competitions giving him huge influence in the world of sports and attracting interest from governments and politicians.

Jet set International Boxing Association (IBA) President Umar Kremlev is a charismatic man, a go-getter who will stop at nothing to achieve his target.

Besides wielding massive financial muscle and rallying elite boxers behind his efforts to have the IBA reinstated into the Olympic family, the 41-year-old Russian knows he needs spiritual guidance and political goodwill.

Which, perhaps, informed his visit to the Vatican last Wednesday where he met with Pope Francis and declared that “faith and sports should always go hand in hand and in the same direction.”

And also, his hosting of President Vladmir Putin at the official opening of a boxing centre at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium last year ascertained that he is at close quarters with the Russian strongman.

Kremlev knows he needs divine intervention as he prepares for IBA’s Ordinary Congress in Dubai on December 9, just days after the rival World Boxing (WB) organisation will have held its inaugural elective Congress in Frankfurt next week.

“Faith and sports should always go hand in hand and in the same direction. Each athlete should be spiritually enriched, and every believer should take care of their health!,” Kremlev said at the Papal audience, describing the IBA as a “boxing temple.”

“For each of its participants, be it an athlete, coach, or official, the IBA is a boxing temple where everyone can find warmth, care, protection, and family support.

“We aim for peace worldwide and the complete unity of all people on the planet. Believe, and then surely the world will be brighter and kinder, and you will be filled with grace. Amen,” the Russian said in a statement released by the IBA from the Vatican.

Umar Kremlev

Kremlev - Pope: International Boxing Association President Umar Kremlev presents Pope Francis with a miniature boxing ring at the Vatican on November 15, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool | IBA

From the session with the Holy Father “to foster understanding and harmony between diverse communities,” Kremlev then flew to Paris for Thursday’s global press conference where he also rallied support for next year’s controversial “Friendship Games” to be hosted in Moscow besides vowing to continue fighting against IBA’s suspension by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

And as Estelle Mossely, France’s World and Olympic champion, and Sofiane Oumiha, France’s three-time World champion and Olympic silver medallist -- who had flanked Kremlev for the presser -- engaged journalists in boxing demonstrations on the first floor of the five-star Shangri-La Hotel, the flamboyant Russian dashed off to the Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The next stop on his private jet: Addis Ababa for the African Boxing Confederation elections, and then on to Kampala…

“We came here today to unite all Africa, and I am happy to see a close-knit team. In order to take our business to the next level, we need further events, where athletes can have the opportunity to earn money.

“I see a lot of countries in Africa that need our support, and in the past we have been extremely supportive of them,” Kremlev told the African delegates in Addis.

Born on November 1, 1982, Kremlev took up boxing in the quiet city of Serpukhov, some 100 kilometres south of Moscow, and studied at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, graduating with a Masters in State and Municipal Administration in 2021.

 Umar Kremlev

International Boxing Association President Umar Kremlev during a press conference in Paris on November 16, 2023, flanked by French champion boxers Estelle Mossely (right) and Sofiane Oumiha.

Photo credit: Pool | IBA

His fighting stable, Patriot Boxing Promotions, was involved in high-profile bouts featuring great boxers such as champion Val Baker Trophy-winning fighter Roy Jones Jnr of the USA and Russia’s Dmitry Chudinov, a former World Boxing Association middleweight world champion.

Since Kremlev took over IBA (formerly AIBA) in 2020, he maintains that he has kept his pre-election promises that include personally wiping off IBA’s debts that exceeded $20 million (Sh3 billion), restoring communication with the International Olympic Committee and delivering a roadmap towards IBA’s reinstatement by the IOC.

The Russian, who has kept his family away from public glare, also credits his administration at IBA of providing development funds to continental confederations and national associations besides supporting the development of continental competitions and introducing prize money for fighters.

It is with such a vantage point that Kremlev has gained Putin’s support to help organise the lucrative yet controversial, Olympic-styled “Friendship Games” in Moscow next September, days after the Paris Olympic Games’ closing ceremony.

But already, the IOC has warned National Olympic Committees against travelling to Moscow with the World Anti-Doping Agency also weighing in with concerns of their own.

With Russia’s anti-doping agency (Rusada) currently considered non-compliant to the World Anti-Doping Code, Wada argues that anti-doping management at the “Friendship Games” will remain suspect.

“We have no information about what kind of anti-doping programme, if any, will be in place during that event or which body will be implementing such a programme given Rusada is still non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code,” Wada Director General Olivier Niggli said on Friday.

“Under the Code an international event such as this should not be awarded to a country whose National Anti-Doping Organisation is non-compliant so in that context, how can athletes have any confidence that they would be competing in a safe and fair environment?”

The “Friendship Games are scheduled to take place in the Russian capital Moscow and Yekaterinburg, a city famous for its performing arts heritage, from September 15 to 29 and will feature at least 27 summer sports.

Russia is sparing no resources in organising these games that will cost about Sh17 billion with approximately 10,000 athletes from about 137 nations expected.

A further Sh9.4 billion has been set aside for prize money at these games – that will subsequently be held after every four years -- a tempting bait for cash-strapped athletes considering the fact that there is no prize money at the Olympic Games.

The “Friendship Games” are seen as the biggest threat yet to the traditional Olympic Games, hence the jitters at the IOC’s Lausanne headquarters.

Interestingly, Moscow hosted similar Friendship Games in 1984 after boycotting the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Organisers of the latest edition deny competing with the Olympics, from where athletes competing under the Russian flag remain banned as the Russian Olympic Committee is serving an IOC suspension.

“This is not an alternative to international competitions; this is a powerful addition with a significant prize pool. We do not plan to build new infrastructure; we will be based on excellent facilities that already exist in the country,” experienced administrator Alexei Sorokin, the head of the latest “Friendship Games” organising committee, maintains.

And as he fights IBA’s suspension from the Olympic movement with an appeal pending at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), Kremlev – whose wealth revolves around interests in security and construction -- has promised that by 2027, boxers will be earning $1 million (Sh151.5 million) for winning gold at the IBA World Championships.

Tomorrow: Will Kenya embrace the “Friendship Games” in Moscow?