Gazdovici Horia, 11F
Khabib holding Connor McGregor in a brutal chokehold. Islam Makhachev landing a swift kick to Alexander Volkanovski’s head. Said Nurmagomedov needing no more than 73 seconds to take his opponent down in his first title card event. These moments make us stand in awe of these brilliant fighters, whilst at the same time asking ourselves a question: how did people from a relatively small and not too densely populated area of Russia overtake the UFC in the last years?
To answer that question, we must look back to their environment and work our way through figuring
out why some of the best fighters from today come from Dagestan.
It’s important to first look back at Dagestan and its people as being a part of Russia, and understand how the Soviet method of training in combat sports differentiates Russian fighters from U.S. or European ones. In the U.S., for example, the usual MMA fighter will train three to four days a week with great intensity, and rest and maybe do some cardio on the side. However, in Russia, the usual MMA fighter will train every day with lesser intensity.
When the time comes to fight, no matter how intensely the U.S. fighter trained, the Russian fighter will have almost double the amount of practice hours, which makes a big difference. Judging from their results, Russian fighters have proven that volume and consistency trump intensity when it comes to MMA, and not only.
But speaking about Dagestan only, the region has a prominent culture surrounding combat sports, an activity which is highly encouraged onto boys from a young age (it seems that the same doesn’t go for girls, who throughout their life maintain a vaguely “traditional” role, something which has increased under the Kadyrov administration), not to mention the harsh post-USSR environment that they all grew up in, in which fights among boys and men were likely a daily occurrence. It is also worth mentioning that while hate runs deep between different groups in the Caucasus mountains (there are 30 to 40 languages being spoken there), what they all share in common is violence.
Dagestanis also fight in a very typical style which focuses on Russian martial arts such as Sambo (acronym for “self-defense without weapons”), which takes a highly-defensive Greco-Roman wrestling approach to fighting and Systema. Systema, although some say that it embodies stoic philosophy and so forth, it really is the martial art created for the Spetsnaz special forces, designed to take enemies down as quickly as possible, and it is something that some Dagestani fighters learn, although the main focus remains Sambo as well as kickboxing and other such mixed martial arts.
Furthermore, something which also distinguishes them from other fighters is them all being devoutly Muslim. Apart from making Islam something that is now associated with groups of people other than terrorists, their faith adding another layer of exoticism to their collective persona, they managed to make phrases such as “Alhamdulillah” seem threatening and be associated with fighting (“Alhamdulillah” means “praise be to God”). It was said by Khabib Nurmagomedov at the press conference just before his fight with Connor McGregor and was followed by “Tomorrow night I will smash your boy,” which he did.
To talk about Dagestani martial artists without talking about Khabib Nurmagomedov would be plainly stupid. On one of his podcasts, UFC commentator and interviewer Joe Rogan has said that Khabib is probably the greatest fighter in UFC history, and it is hard to contradict him when we take into consideration the fact that Khabib has fought some of the best fighters in the world from his weight category and never lost. In his fighting days, Khabib managed to do something that few fighters ever accomplish, he was respected by nearly everyone, including his opponents, and while some may say that Connor McGregor didn’t, thrash-talking him at all the press conferences, that didn’t prevent him from eventually tapping on Khabib’s arms.
Just after Khabib retired in 2021, due to his father dying and various other reasons, the spotlight shifted to Dagestan’s no. 2 and Khabib’s trainee, Islam Makhachev. Islam is also in the lightweight division, and has made short work out of every fighter that has come across his path, securing the World Champion belt after defeating Charles Oliveira by submission on Oct. 2022. Other fighters such as Alexander Volkanovski have come since to take the belt for themselves, but none have succeeded.
Fighters like Magomed Ankalaev or Said Nurmagomedov, while they are quite good and certainly do not lack any skill, have not yet broken into the truly mainstream area of the UFC, certainly not the one Khabib was and is in. However, this isn’t to say that they aren’t about to, given the fact that both of them have had fights on the main card for one of the most important events this year, UFC 294, and will likely be strong contenders in their respective weight classes when the time comes for them to take a shot at the World Champion belt.
While we looked at the past, and what makes Dagestani fighters to be truly the greatest fighting demographic, we must also take a glimpse at the future. Islam Makhachev will continue to defend his title, likely against either Charles Oliveira or Justin Gaethje, sometime next year, Ankalaev will fight Johnny Walker in a rematch after the brusque ending of their UFC 294 bout, and nothing is yet known about Said Nurmagomedov’s next fight.
However, one certainty remains. These men, born and bred in the Caucasian mountains, will continue to dominate and show their prowess to the entire world.