Former UFC fighter appointed a convicted rapist to coach youth national team

On Friday the 21st of April, IMMAF sent out an email to all their member federations with an updated version of their safeguarding booklet. It also came with a letter from IMMAF CEO Mr Densign White MBE. Written in the letter is an alarming paragraph.

“Unfortunately, we have recently had communication of safeguarding concerns which has resulted in a national team coach being suspended from all IMMAF events, and an independent review is underway in response to alerts received.”

Following this, national federations have began to disassociate themselves from IMMAF, including Australia, New Zealand and as of yesterday England. More are expected to follow.

We believe we’ve got to the bottom of the issue that’s currently embroiling the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation.

In 2019 IMMAF introduced a youth world championships to their calendar where athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 get to represent their country internationally. They have since hosted youth World Championships in Rome, Bulgaria and Abu Dhabi. With hosting tournaments for hundreds of young teens from all over the world, a safeguarding issue is very concerning.

In 2015, Svetoslav Zhelev was convicted of raping a 15 year old student. Translated via google from Bulgarian News outlet, it does not read well.

“An MMA coach raped a 15-year-old girl – he was sentenced to 3 years

“The Regional Court – Varna handed down a guilty verdict against an MMA coach for raping a minor girl, the institution’s press center reported to The 52-year-old Svetoslav Zhelev was brought to criminal responsibility after a report was filed by the family of a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

According to the indictment, the defendant obtained the keys to an acquaintance’s apartment and gave them to another 15-year-old girl who was involved in the same sport. It was he who invited his classmate (the injured girl) to someone else’s home.

Under the pretext that they were going to chat and smoke, the two girls bought appetizers and sweets and went to the apartment in the afternoon. In the evening, the defendant entered the bedroom of the apartment and, despite the victim’s refusal to have sex, he forced her by force.

Returning to her home by taxi, the minor told the taxi driver about the rape committed against her, and later told her relatives about what happened.

The case in the Varna District Court was heard behind closed doors. The court sentenced the 52-year-old man to 3 years of imprisonment, suspended with a probationary period of 5 years.

The defendant was convicted before, but was rehabilitated. He must pay compensation in the amount of BGN 20,000 to the victim for the non-property damages suffered as a result of the act.”

Fast forward to the 21st of June 2021, Bulgarian news outlet reported that Zhelev was the current head coach of the Bulgarian national team (BULMMAF), and he had been appointed in the role before the 2019 youth world championships in Rome. The article features a screen grab from the BULMMAF Facebook page, awarding Zhelev an honorary plaque congratulating him on a successful tournament. However, the article shines the spotlight more on the man who appointed Zhelev, and that’s the president of the Bulgarian Federation, Stanislav Nedkov. Readers may recall Nedkov from his short stint in the UFC. After a successful debut, he went on to lose his next three bouts inside the distance before getting cut by the promotion. The article highlights how Nedkov was fully aware of Zhelev’s convictions when appointing him head coach, but failed to disclose any details to IMMAF. Nedkov’s tenure as BULMMAF president hasn’t gone without incident either. He has been allegedly reported to IMMAF for sexual harassment by two female IMMAF staff, but the investigation that followed got dismissed despite strong evidence. To add to insult, IMMAF appointed Nedkov as the chairman of their disciplinary commission at the following AGM.

In July 2021 Bulgaria hosted the Youth World Championships in their capital city Sofia and Zhelev was once again in attendance as the Bulgarian head coach. We have strong evidence to believe that IMMAF’s Safeguarding department were allegedly alerted to his presence and his convictions, but the matters raised were silenced and dismissed. Zhelev also attended the following youth World Championships in Abu Dhabi in 2022.

Recently IMMAF have come into financial trouble, and questions are being asked of what happened to all the money. There are many contractors who are yet to be paid for their work at the recent World Championships in Serbia. And some contractors who have not been paid since 2021.

IMMAF founder August Wallin has began an investigation into the failings of IMMAF, but was denied permission to investigate the federation internally, and also denied access to view the official accounts. He has since made his investigation external and invited people to express their concerns to help his findings. And of course, the safeguarding issue surrounding Zhelev sent alarm bells ringing.

IMMAF have now suspended Svetoslav Zhelev and announced that there is an independent review underway. But who else should be held accountable? It’s highly likely that BULMMAF president Stanislav Nedkov knew, as it was he who appointed Zhelev, and he was also named in the expose written by the Bulgarian news publication. Who within IMMAF knew? Their safeguarding department was allegedy alerted in 2021 but failed to take action. The announcement of Zhelev’s suspension came two years later, due to a handful of national federations declaring their intentions to pull out if action isn’t taken.

The facts

  • Svetoslav Zhelev is a convicted rapist of a minor.
  • He has attended all three IMMAF youth world championships.
  • BULMMAF president and IMMAF disciplinary chairman Stanslav Nedkov allegedly knew this when appointing Zhelev.
  • IMMAF was allegedly alerted to Zhelev’s convictions in August 2021
  • IMMAF failed to take any action until April 2023

IMMAF need to answer a lot of questions,  especially with the announcement of two youth championships this summer, with the Worlds scheduled August and the Europeans in September. A mere suspension isn’t enough, and big changes need to be implemented before any national federation should even consider sending their kids to compete.

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