• Andrew Starc

Why does Dagestan produce so many UFC fighters?

Dagestan, birthplace of Khabib Nurmagomedov, has become all too familiar to UFC fans in recent years.

A multitude of UFC fighters, bearing exotic names the stuff of a commentator’s nightmare, have unceasingly bubbled forth from the tiny Russian republic’s seemingly inexhaustible spring of talent.

Dagestani UFC fighters are not only taking part, they’re taking over, “smeshing” their way to victory in 87% of their fights.

So why are so many UFC fighters from Dagestan? The reasons, as you’ll see, are many.

Dagestan’s is a culture where smiling at a stranger can get your ass kicked. Children, instead of playing with teddy bears, wrestle actual bears. And it’s home to warlords who saw the bloody conflict in the Balkans and said, “hold my beer,” turning Dagestan into the most dangerous place in Europe.

But there’s more to it. Let’s dive deeper into what makes Dagestan such a crucible of UFC talent.

Who are the people of Dagestan?

Dagestanis are mountain people. Their home is a narrow slice of territory along the Caspian Sea in the North Caucasus – an unforgiving landscape given to harsh winters and brutal summers.

Ethnic groups of Dagestan
Ethnic groups of Dagestan

Approaching 3 million, Dagestan’s population is the most diverse in Russia. It’s divided along the region’s sharp ridges and yawning canyons into often mutually hostile ethnic groups.

You’ve probably seen representatives of most among the UFC's roster of Dagestani fighters, including Avars (Khabib Nurmagomedov), Akhvakhs (Zabit Magomedsharapov), Chechens (Khamzat Chimaev), Darwars (Ali Bagautinov), Kumyks (Muslim Salikhov), and Laks (Islam Makhachev).

These ethnic groups may all seem alike to the Western eye. However separating them are deep, broiling historical tensions, cultural idiosyncrasies, and sharp linguistic divides. Despite living miles from each other, they speak mutually unintelligible languages.

A history of violence

Hard times, so the reasoning goes, beget hardened people who aren't afraid of a scrap. For Dagestan's UFC fighters, theirs is a history of generational conflict stretching back almost two millennia.

Dagestan sits at the historical crossroads of empires. When the nation’s tribes weren't fighting each other, they were fiercely battling successive waves of imperial invasion.

Fighting way above their weight class, the people of Dagestan definitely took some Ls throughout its history.

They fought the Persian Sassanid Empire for more than 100 years. The Islamic Umayyad Caliphate for 150 years. The Mongol Empire for about the same. More recently, the Russian Empire and the Ottomans, in between fending off constant raids from Cossacks.

From these conquests Dagestan bears indelible marks. It’s people practice Islam, speak Russian as a lingua franca, and remain under Russian dominion. During the Soviet-era, many were forced to migrate to Central Asia and Siberia. Only some returned.

Similarly drenched in violence is Dagestan’s recent history. From 1980, Islamic extremists slowly gained a bloody foothold in the republic.

In 1999 they invaded. The locals, followers of a more moderate variety of Islam, took up arms to defeat the radicals in just six weeks – something the Russian military took years to accomplish in the Chechen War.

Radical Islam still loomed large however, its utopian ideals and calls to violence a flashy lure to Dagestan’s youth. A low-level guerilla insurgency has gripped the republic for much of recent history.

For today's crop of Dagestani UFC fighters, this is the only world they ever knew – one where the constant background noise of bombings, gun battles, kidnappings, and political assassinations were part of the normal course of life.

Dagestan's culture of fighting

The difference between Dagestan's culture and that of the West are glaring.

As embracing your feminine side is a virtue for Western men, so is the ability to choke another man unconscious in Dagestan.

Dagestani man in traditional dress

Theirs is a hyper-masculine culture idealizing physical prowess and toughness, formed by the harsh realities of mountain life, historical battles against neighboring tribes, and imperial occupation.

It's one where fighting is deeply rooted, and encouraged from a young age.

"It's impossible to grow up as a boy in Dagestan and not fight,” said Dagestani fighter Jalil Alizhanov in an interview with Vice.

“When I was about six years old my older brother grabbed me and said, 'Ok, are you ready to fight?' and then he looked for another six year old, and we fought. You can't say no, it would be a disgrace."

What’s considered borderline child abuse in the West is evidently a cultural norm in Dagestan, and the greater North Caucasus. On Sherdog’s forum, a Chechen describes his childhood in Dagestan’s culturally identical neighbor thusly:

“When I was little the older boys would put me and my friends to fight each other. This happens to everyone here. Even when you are not in the gym, your father will teach you stuff at home. Seriously, half the techniques I learned at home from my father.”

“At four years old I was put in Judo classes. This is normal. It is weird if you are from Chechnya and you have never practiced a combat sport. It's not about becoming a professional athlete. It's about being a man.”

In Dagestan, "wrestling rules"

There's little mystery why Dagestan produces some of the UFC's best grapplers.

Mountains of Dagestan

Wrestling – widely regarded the most foundational discipline in MMA – is deeply entrenched in the culture of Dagestan. High up in its mountains, traditional bouts between villages have taken place since time immemorial.

"Wrestling rules," a local saying, becomes a way of life for just about every child. The republic's youth participation rate in the sport is one of the highest in the world.

"People here are hot-blooded. The love for competition begins in childhood. I think it comes from our ancestors," said Shamil Aliyev, a freestyle wrestling Olympian who trains children in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala, in an interview with Russia Beyond.

From an early age, children enter a brutal Darwinist system of training and competition not seen since the days of Sparta. Only the best ascend to the next level in a ladder culminating in Olympic gold.

So steeped in the discipline are Dagestan's children that wrestling a bear, famously showcased by an eight-year-old Khabib Nurmagomedov, is a not uncommon rite of passage for boys.

Dagestan's obsession with wrestling makes it one of the sport's global powerhouses.

Of the twenty Olympic medals won by Russia in freestyle wrestling since 2000, Dagestan contributed nine. Other North Caucasian wrestlers account for the rest, in addition to many more for other nations.

However Olympic success isn't the only goal of Dagestan's state-sponsored youth wrestling system.

It's a "way of controlling the masses," said Dagestan's three-time Olympic champion Adam Saitiev in an interview with TIME.

Wrestling offers young men, in a desperately poor region wracked by high unemployment, an alternative to “going into the forest” – a colloquialism for joining the Islamic radicals.

It also provides a gateway into other martial arts. The vast overflow of young men culled from the wrestling system often take up Judo and Sambo – a Soviet martial art which is basically MMA in a ghi.

Khabib Nurmagomedov followed such a path, training Judo and becoming a two-time Combat Sambo World Champion before his UFC career.

Why are so many UFC fighters from Dagestan?

Dagestan seems to have all the ingredients for producing scores of talented UFC fighters.

A society shaped by generational conflict and ideals of physical toughness, where fighting starts in childhood.

A brutal state-sponsored wrestling program that channels the best athletic talent into grappling ubermenschen.

Poverty that makes becoming really good at punching someone in the face an attractive career prospect, promising riches and fame abroad.

Dagestan's UFC fighters are a different breed, growing up with societal pressures only experienced in the West's toughest neighbourhoods, and then perhaps only partly.

But what really separates Dagestan's UFC fighters from the pack is their wrestling.

"The most important thing for [an MMA] fighter is to be grounded in freestyle wrestling. Ten to twelve years are devoted to this, only then can you go on to MMA," said Abdurahman Gitinovasov, 28, one of Khabib's sparring partners, in an interview with Russia Beyond.

Their savage mentality, one that drives them to extreme ends of training, also separates Dagestan's UFC fighters. In an interview with MMA Fighting, VICE reporter Alzo Slade described his experience training with a group of MMA fighters in the mountains of Dagestan.

"What those guys do is the real deal.”

"We wake up right when the sun’s coming up [and[ run about a mile or two across some rough terrain in the mountains. There was a 50 foot patch of ice, these guys ran across the ice, feet plunged into icy cold water."

“Then they come back and do some pad work for an hour. Then we take a nap. After we wake up, we hike two to three miles up the mountain, then we wrestle when we get to the top."

"These dudes just want to fight all the time. I legit thought I was in Rocky 4.”

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