Opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday hailed an unprecedented show of public protest after the Russian strongman was loudly booed by the crowd at a no-holds-barred fight night.
Putin faced whistles and boos on live television as he congratulated a Russian champion in the fighting — a sport in which the tough guy premier has always shown great interest — after his victory over an American.
He climbed into the ring on Sunday evening after the blood-spattered bout between Russian heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko and Jeff Monson, but the start of his speech was drowned out by boos and whistles.
Viewers uploaded the television footage to YouTube, where it had been viewed more than 500,000 times on Monday morning.
Putin hugs Emelianenko and launches into a speech, but appears to pause as the crowd greets his opening line with whistles and low-pitched booing. It only breaks into cheers as he praises Emelianenko as a “real Russian hero”.
The speech was a rare public relations failure for the premier, whose television appearances are usually tightly stage-managed, although opinions varied on Monday as to whether the boos were specifically directed at Putin.
Blogger Alexei Navalny, famed for exposing corruption, posted the video on his site and wrote that it was “the end of an era”.
“Up till now there have never been any displays of dislike of Putin at any public event,” wrote the Gazeta.ru news website.
But the director of the Olimpiisky stadium which hosted the fight, Mikhail Moskalyov, told Lenta.ru news website that the audience was reacting as the American fighter left the ring.
Putin’s speech at the match would appear to fit in with his strongman image and passion for judo, in which he has a black belt. But he rarely speaks impromptu to untried audiences.
Emelianenko competes in the brutal Russian sport called mixed martial arts, which allows blows with legs and hands. It is also known in the country, somewhat appropriately, as “fight without rules.”
Monson finished the match limping and covered in blood after a blow to his face. The sport, a mixture of boxing, wrestling and kick boxing, is known in the West largely as ultimate fighting or no-holds-barred fighting.