Putin takes Van Damme to ultimate fighting match

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, never shy of a macho photo opportunity, has visited a championship match of Ultimate Fighting with a fellow strongman -- Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Ultimate Fighting -- helpfully known in Russian as "Fight Without Rules" -- is a vicious combination of boxing and karate where virtually anything goes, save eye-gouging and biting. It is wildly popular in the south of Russia.

So it seemed a perfect night out for the man who has dominated Russia for the last decade and the film star known for a string of martial arts films.

The pair, who have known each other for years, sought to catch up Wednesday evening at a restaurant in the Black Sea resort of Sochi known for its fish specialities and an Italian chef, Putin's spokesman said.

"They just talked," Dmitry Peskov told AFP, speaking of the two men's fine dining experience at the Sineye More (Blue Sea) restaurant. "They also spoke about the upcoming match."

After the restaurant outing, Van Damme and Putin, sporting snow-white dress shoes, attended the Ultimate Fighting European Championship where the premier bestowed a prize on the winner and singled out French and British sportsmen.

"It was quite a spectacular show," Putin's spokesman Peskov said.

Television pictures showed judo specialist Putin applauding enthusiastically as the combatants pummelled each other with their fists and knees in the ring.

At the championship former KGB agent Putin indicated however he was not one to switch his allegiances and used the chance to promote sambo, once known as the official in-house martial art of the Soviet security service.

"The so-called fist fights have always been in favour in Russia," Putin said in comments released by the government. "All types of fights in our recent history originate from sambo."

"He is not a fan of Ultimate Fighting, he is a fan of judo and sambo," Peskov said.

Putin is keeping the world in suspense over whether he is plotting a return to the presidency in 2012 and summertime provides his minders with a wealth of opportunities to promote Putin as a photogenic, healthy, intrepid leader.

Last summer Putin dived in a mini-submarine to the floor of the world's deepest lake, Baikal, and rafted down fast flowing rivers in Siberia. He also clipped a radio transmitter onto a beluga whale and rubbed shoulders with bikers.

© 2010 AFP

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