GUDERMES, Russia (AP) - Mike Tyson opened a boxing tournament in Chechnya, becoming the first international celebrity to visit the war-ravaged Russian republic.
The former world heavyweight champion traveled to the eastern city of Gudermes Thursday as a guest of honor at the all-Russian tournament, held in memory of assassinated Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov.
Mike Tyson is greeted by a Chechen boy as Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, center, looks on during a sports show in Gudermes, Chechnya. (Artur Magomadov / Associated Press)
He was accompanied by Kadyrov's son, Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a boxing enthusiast. The hall was filled to capacity with spectators — mainly men — who burst into applause and cheers and asked for Tyson's autograph.
"I always watched the situation in Chechnya on television, but it is a much more difficult occasion with you today," he said.
Chechnya, a mainly Muslim province in southern Russia, has been torn by a guerrilla conflict between separatist rebels and Russian troops for most of the past decade.
Tyson told the crowd that when he boxed, it wasn't for himself but for all Muslims in the world, including Chechens whom he considers to be his brothers.
He converted to Islam during his time in prison on a 1992 rape conviction.
Boxers from around southern Russia and St. Petersburg stood in line next to the ring, dressed in red and blue boxing robes as spectators crammed into the sports complex to get a glimpse of Tyson.
Before the opening of the tournament, Tyson attended a performance at the stadium by 15 bikers dressed in black who had come from Moscow on a friendship mission.
He was mobbed by spectators in the 2,000 strong crowd as he walked along, shaking their hands.