Frodo Khasbulaev was primed to be one of Bellator's next big stars.
He had beaten flashy knockout artist Mike Richman convincingly to win the organization's season eight featherweight tournament. Before that, the Dagestani sambo specialist had finished both Marlon Sandro and Fabricio Guerrero. His Bellator record stood at a perfect 5-0 and he was next in line to face champion Pat Curran for the title.
That was almost two years ago. Khasbulaev, now 28, has not had a pro fight since then. And he and his team understand the fragility of MMA, how small the window is to make money. The sport is Khasbulaev's only means of income for the time being.
"He's been depressed," Khasbulaev's manager Rizvan Magomedov told MMAFighting.com. "He doesn't know what to do."
So where has the promising young fighter been? Caught up in a political, bureaucratic web, without a visa to fight in the United States and without the contract leverage to sign with another organization.
Before Khasbulaev was going to get his title shot against Curran, his visa was revoked. It remains unclear exactly why. Khasbulaev's team blames Bellator, while Bellator, now under a new regime, denies having anything to do with it.
The good news for the Dagestani fighter is that he was released by Bellator last month and is free to sign anywhere he wants. Magomedov said there are multiple organizations outside of the United States vying for his services.
The question still remains, though: Why was Khasabulaev not able to get into the U.S. to compete?
Magomedov said Khasbulaev was given something of an ultimatum after the tournament win. Bellator wanted him to sign a new deal and Khasbulaev didn't like the terms. He wanted to negotiate. Magomedov said Bellator brass told Khasbulaev "there would be problems in the future" if he didn't re-sign the deal.
"Bellator was in a rush," said Magomedov, who was not Khasbulaev's manager at the time. "They were really in a hurry. They were really pushing him."
Khasbulaev wanted to wait and discuss it more. A few months later, when he attempted to re-apply for a visa, he was turned down. Magomedov said it wasn't until Khasbulaev tried another time to come to the United States last year, after new Bellator president Scott Coker took over, that he was told by the consulate that Bellator was the one who rescinded his visa.
"They said his original petition was revoked by the petitioner, by Bellator," Magomedov said. "That's what he was told by the consulate."
Bellator denies that allegation. The organization told MMAFighting.com in a statement that they "encountered difficulties obtaining a working visa" for him.
"As a result we are releasing him from Bellator, so he can continue fighting elsewhere," Bellator said in the statement. "Frodo is a great fighter and we wish him the best moving forward."
Internal e-mail exchanges obtained by MMAFighting.com back up Bellator's claims. Tracy Lesetar-Smith, Bellator's lead counsel, tells Coker in one of the correspondences that the U.S. government revoked Khasbulaev's visa and that Bellator believed "he was flagged for a security check, which usually means that the government has red-flagged him for organized crime or terrorism ties, and once flagged, the Department of State will not issue a visa unless it is conclusively proven to be false."
Other e-mails show both Lesetar-Smith and Cliff Rosenthal, a third-party immigration lawyer commissioned by Bellator, actively attempting to get Khasbulaev's visa renewed. Lesetar-Smith wrote in one e-mail that the sanctions battle between the U.S. and Russia were also making things difficult.
Sam Caplan, Bellator's matchmaker under the previous regime, backed up some of that information in November, tweeting that someone from Khasbulaev's Champions gym in Dagestan had ties with terrorists. Caplan said in no way did he have anything to do with Khasbulaev's visa issues and he seriously doubts that former Bellator MMA president Bjorn Rebney did.
"The claims made by Mr. Khasbulaev and his manager with reference to me are 100 percent false," Caplan told MMAFighting.com in a statement. "Up until my departure, Bellator's attorneys were working to resolve his visa situation. He claimed publicly that he has documentation that claims I was involved in revoking his visa application. Both he and his management have failed to produce the documents as promised because they do not exist. My question is whether Mr. Khasbulaev is guilty of lying or whether he is being manipulated and purveying false information provided to him by an additional source."
Magomedov, who took over for Khasbulaev's previous manager Alexei Zhernakov last year, admits that he does not have any kind of documentation implicating Bellator.
"The problem is that we don't have any papers, any proof or stuff like this because the consulate, they don't give papers like that," Magomedov said.
Khasbulaev and his team deny any ties to terrorism or organized crime. Magomedov said UFC heavyweight Ruslan Magomedov (no relation) was able to get a visa to fight in the United States and he and Khasbulaev train at the same gym. Magomedov fought at UFC Fight Night 57 in November in Austin, Texas. Rustam Khabilov, a ranked UFC lightweight, also trains at Champions when he is in Dagestan.
"This is just an excuse," Magomedov said of the terrorism claims. "There is no facts and no proof, no paperwork or documents and evidence of that."
Magomedov said when Coker was hired he did his due diligence to get Khasbulaev cleared, but the process was going to take too much time -- between six and 12 months -- and Khasbulaev was sick of waiting. He requested his release again and it was granted.
"I was very happy when my manager told me the release news," Khasbuleav told MMAFighting.com through an interpreter. "Not because I'm leaving Bellator, but it gave me some hope that I'll get in action soon"
Khasbulaev has not given up on his dream of winning a title in a major organization. Magomedov said he will likely try to apply for a visa again at some point.
"It's a fact that UFC is the best promotion in the world today," Khasbulaev said. "Top-ranked fighters compete there. I want to challenge, test myself with the best in world. This is why I'm doing it my whole life."
Khasbulaev was on his way to doing just that until his career grinded to a halt, likely through no fault of his own.
"Honestly," Magomedov said, "this is one of the saddest stories in MMA."