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Muslim Champions of Mixed Martial Arts

baulker profile image Jenny ・17 min read

The Muslim Champions of Mixed Martial Arts — The Dagestani Dynasty

By Karim Zidan

First published on Medium

Mixed Martial Arts was never the plan that he had for his son. It was a sport that few understood in Dagestan, and even fewer ventured to experiment with in the United States. In fact, he didn’t want his son near professional sports; he wanted him to study, and find success outside of athletic competition.

There was little he could do to stop him though. Khabib’s mind was made up — he was going to be a UFC fighter.

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On May 24, 2013, for the first time in his entire career, Khabib Nurmagomedov missed weight ahead of his fourth UFC Octagon outing. He stepped off the scale at the traditional weigh-ins, drained of energy, hungry for solid food and in no mood to deal with the remainder of the pre-fight formalities.

He stood in front of his next opponent, Abel Trujillo, who took a step forward so that their foreheads touched uncomfortably. Khabib, who took the approach as a sign of disrespect and confrontation, drove his palms squarely into Trujillo’s chest. The American was pushed several steps back. UFC President Dana White intervened to cut the tension, and the crowd went wild.

Longtime friend of the promotion, Mike Tyson, stood next to White and smiled in approval, clearly impressed with Khabib’s ferocity.

The Dagestani, however, did not return the smile. He was not here to make jokes. He was here to dominate.

Khabib was the eighth fighter to make the walk from the backstage area to the Octagon the following night in Las Vegas. He came out in his traditional Papakha, a distinctive hat that belongs to the mountain clans in Dagestan, a red ‘Bad Boy’ shirt, and to the song Hall of Fame ft. will.i.am. Scheduled to compete in the first fight on the FX portion of the preliminary card, there was little promotion done for his bout. This didn’t bother Khabib, as he planned on being a topic of discussion after the fact.

The music quieted steadily while the lights gradually brightened. Bruce Buffer’s voice boomed through the speakers in the arena. The fighters were introduced — it was fight time.

30 seconds into the fight, Abel burst forward and swung first. He threw a few more punches, then shot in and took down the Combat Sambo champion. Unfazed, the Dagestani defended with a pair of submission attempts before he used his guard to hoist himself back to his feet — all while holding on to his opponent’s waist.

Khabib got up, lifted Abel over his head and suplexed him onto the canvas. It was the first of many throws that Trujillo would have to endure over the next 14 minutes. A look of dread settled on his face — how was he going to stop this?

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Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Situated firmly in Trujillo’s corner, renowned coach Henri Hooft pleaded with his student, “Abel, don’t give up.” But there was little he could do about it. As the fight went on and the clock counted down, Trujillo hollowed out, becoming a shell of the his earlier, more successful self. Overall, he endured 21 takedowns from Khabib — a UFC record for a single fight.

Abel Trujllo was broken.

Khabib celebrated emotionally with his corner, but they were missing an instrumental figure from the team. One who had never seen him perform in the octagon upfront, but had spent nearly half of his own life preparing Khabib for this stage: his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.

“My main motivation is my father. He invested a lot of time into me. He brought me up and made a man out of me, and his happy face after the fight is the best reward for me. I cannot let him down.” Khabib said.

Abdulmanap, a well-respected coach in Dagestan, was pivotal in the success of his firstborn, Khabib, as well as in the gradual development of his younger child, Abubakar. His love for combat sports is rooted in his life journey — a half-century voyage that took him from the mountains of Dagestan to the Ukraine and around Russia before he returned home in a time of rising tensions. It hardened his perspective on life but he still managed to plant the seeds for the latest influx of Dagestani fighters.

This is his story.

Situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, Dagestan is the largest republic in the North Caucasus. Presently, it has over 40 districts and more than 30 distinct languages and cultural identities. However, the past few decades have been characterized by an exhausting period of mass reintegration and a rise in Wahhabi Islam. The latter development played an integral role in the religious invasion that took place in the region in the 1990s.

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Photo: De Agostini/Getty Images

Following the mass deportations that took place throughout the Caucasus under Stalin’s iron-fisted rule, during which millions were forced to flee their homes for generations, approximately 80,000 people returned to Dagestan between 1957–1962. The state built tens of thousands of new homes for the returning citizens and welcomed them generously to their long-lost land.

In that final year of resettlement, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov was born.

The Dagestan of his youth was a rivet within a well-oiled soviet machine. Under the direction of the Kremlin, many Dagestani mountain dwellers were forcefully relocated down to the plains, which brought several large, ethnic areas into existence, including the Lakhs, Lezghians, and Abdulmanap’s own people, the Avars.

A predominant ethnic group in Dagestan, the Avar people have several thousand years worth of history in the Caucasian region and have produced notable figures throughout that period. Among them are renowned poets, writers, a Soviet Union war hero, and an Olympic Gold Medalist.

While Abdulmanap may not make the list of notable Avar figures, he played an instrumental role in the development of their most recent product, his son, UFC contender Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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Abdulmanap took part in his first wrestling class at age eight, which was a typical starting age for children in the area. Parents expected children to defend themselves and saw grappling as an effective tool to instill discipline. It was also a way to keep high-energy youths off the streets.

While wrestling was certainly the foundational basis of his martial arts discipline, Abdulmanap did not find his true competitive potential until he decided to join the army when he was 19-years-old.

“In 1981 I joined the Russian army and participated in all sorts of sports competitions during my time there. It was a school of discipline for me.”

Once his time with the army came to an end, Abdulmanap ventured out to the Ukraine where he attended one of the country’s top universities, the Institute of Poltava. It was there that he studied Judo under renowned coach Petr Ivanovich Butriy, and later found himself on the Ukrainian Judo team.

Accolades and titles soon began to pile: Abdulmanap won the Ukrainian National Championships in both Judo and Combat Sambo. Upon his return to Dagestan, he added the Dagestan National Championships in freestyle wrestling to his trophy mantle, and regarded it as one of his brightest achievements. Dagestan offered a wealth of wrestling pedigrees, so a national title stamped him as one of the most renowned wrestlers of his era.

As the years went by, Abdulmanap transitioned from an active competitor to a dedicated coach. In tough economic times, it was an easy progression to make as coaching allowed him to remain an important part of the community while he earned a living.

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Abdulmanap began coaching youth classes in 1987, which was over a decade before the start of the war. He was a firm believer in training children in martial arts and wrestling — largely as a tool to prepare them for the imminent onset of conflict.

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Photo: Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov

“I’ve trained children for 20 years,” he said. “From the age of five, kids can begin gymnastics class. Once they reach the age of eight, they can begin any martial art, but only for three days a week; or it can be other sports like football or basketball. At sixteen, a boy must choose one sport according to his achievements. That is what he will focus on.”

Abdulmanap believed it was instrumental that children were taught the importance of discipline through sports, and encouraged confidence-building mechanisms by introducing combat sports at a young age. His was a pragmatic approach, one that stemmed from first-hand experience in navigating a complex societal context. The North Caucasus was ravaged by a tempestuous political and religious climate and, for a period of time, war was the inevitable result.

“I believe every man must be ready for war … even in peaceful times. It is always a topic of discussion in the Caucasus.”

In retrospect, his decision to train children was pivotal. The following decade was one of turmoil, bloodshed and violence at the hands of radical fundamentalists with separatist intentions. It was Abdulmanap’s firm belief that Dagestani youth should have a realistic outlook on their surroundings; war was a necessary reality that the citizens of Dagestan should be prepared for from a young age. The fiery political climate demanded it.

Tensions rose in Dagestan with the arrival of Wahhabism in the 1980s. The radical Sunni Islam religious movement seeped into the republic in gradual stages. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that militant cells were established in Islamic Djamaat, a district in Dagestan comprising the Kadar, Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi localities (also known as selos).

After the Djamaat managed to break free from government control, what began as a trickle of violence in a controlled region soon became a stream of bloodshed that flowed through Dagestan. Led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, the separatist rebels mounted a full-fledged invasion of Dagestan with the hopes of being received by the entire population as liberators.

Few have fond memories of the religious battles that ensued.

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Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

“The 90s was a tough decade for our country,” Abdulmanap reflected. “Less than 20 kilometers away from us, war took place.”

On August 10, 1999, six days after the official start of the war, the independent Islamic State of Dagestan was declared shortly after the Chechen rebels were able to seize several weak villages on the border of Dagestan. However, it was a shortsighted proclamation — the invaders had not accounted for the intensity of the resistance from the locals. Villagers and townspeople took up arms and created small militias to resist the invasion.

It was a testament to their fighting spirit; the full might of the Russian army had yet to come to their aid, and still they stood firmly in the face of a radical threat — they would not be controlled.

Weeks later, the Russian government intervened with air strikes and land troops to push the militants back into the mountains in Chechnya. The entire war lasted approximately six weeks, but its impact lasted far longer. It left trauma in its wake. Although they were young at the time, Abdulmanap’s believes it “influenced” his children.

Abdulmanap can still remember putting eight-year-old Khabib through wrestling drills. He remembers the singlet he wore. He remembers how good his son was from the start.

“Khabib’s strong points are discipline and cardio.”

While Khabib had a natural instinct for grappling, success in freestyle wrestling did not come easily to the Dagestani initially. In fact, he only began to realize his true potential once he switched over to Judo and Combat Sambo. From there, the sudden developments in Khabib’s skill-set were staggering, and he went on to rack up a multitude of national titles.

“Khabib trained in all the wrestling disciplines: Judo, Combat Sambo, freestyle wrestling. Only then did he start to develop the skills for MMA. This is a result of good work from Jafar Jafarov and other Dagestan coaches.”

Under the coaching staff’s watchful eye, Khabib went on to win National Championships in Combat Sambo as well as European titles in Army Hand-to-Hand Combat and Pankration.

His fluidity was incredible to behold. He smothered opponents and peppered them with surprisingly accurate shots before ragdolling them around en route to one victory after another. His ability to switch between striking and grappling was a testament to the countless years of drills he endured under the watchful eye of his father. Given his aptitude for Combat Sambo, the transition to MMA seemed like a natural one.

Abdulmanap, however, was not so certain.

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Photo: Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov

The idea of modern MMA was foreign to him. He had little knowledge of its intricacies, and was cautious about putting his son in a sport that fell outside of his country’s traditions. Khabib was a black belt in Judo and, at first, Abdulmanap didn’t understand why he wanted to experiment with another sport entirely.

“I wanted him to continue doing Judo but a career in MMA was the right choice.”

So Abdulmanap did what he knew how to do best: train.

He treated his son like every other fighter who stepped into his gym. He made no exceptions for Khabib and certainly didn’t take it easy on him. If it was a career in combat sports that he longed for, Abdulmanap was going to make sure his son worked for it.

Khabib eventually made his pro MMA debut in September 2008 and defeated Vusal Bayramov via triangle choke. The entire fight lasted a little over two minutes. He compiled an 8–0 record with six finishes on the regional scene over the first two years, including a win over Shahbulat Shamhalaev in M-1 Global. Interestingly, however, it wasn’t until Khabib won the Sambo World Championship the following year in 2010 that he realized that he might have a future in professional fighting.

Eight dominant victories later, Khabib arrived in the UFC; after another six commanding performances, he became the region’s shining beacon.

There was a sense of finality with MMA. It was an avenue for Khabib and other fighters from the North Caucasus to weigh their own traditional martial arts bases against those implemented in the Western world. By incorporating combat sambo, wrestling and judo from a young age, Abdulmanap saw in MMA what the UFC founders anticipated ahead of the promotion’s inception — it was an opportunity to challenge other styles of martial arts for supremacy.

“Only through MMA can we find the strongest fighter, as well as the most effective discipline.”

The North Caucasus was once an area that gripped strangers with both awe and angst. It was seen as a savage place — an area that never caught up with civilization and was run by nobles, chieftains and highlanders. Poets and writers from both Russia and elsewhere took to describing the region and its tribes through the imagery of their sublime mountainous terrain.

While the nature of much of these artistic outputs was largely propaganda, fear mongering and romanticism, their beautiful descriptions of the majestic mountains ring true to this very day. These northern climes were immersed with culture and history, making them, according to Abdulmanap, an impeccable breeding ground for high-level professional fighters.

“In my opinion, training deep in the mountains is an irreplaceable part of training. You simply cannot go three or five full rounds without elevation training.”

This is one of the reasons why Caucasian fighters have been successful in the UFC: they maintain a feverous pace that exhausts their opponents. In possessing this particular advantage, these fighters often have ample time to showcase their dynamic striking or gifted grappling acumen.

Caucasian fighters training in the mountains are also blessed with a wealth of natural resources and ample supplies of fresh foodstuff; a smorgasbord of fruits, vegetables and cheese is always readily available during training camps.

“It is better to set up training camps in the Dagestan Mountains. There is high elevation, pine forests, fresh air and water. You cannot find it in the United States.”

Mountain excursions provide them with the necessary training conditions, but Abdulmanap is not afraid to admit that they often lack a detailed understanding of sports nutrition. When it comes to sculpting a body into its peak athletic condition, he conceded that the United States is far superior.

“In terms of strength and conditioning training, as well as sports nutrition, it is much better in America.”

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Abdulmanap currently coaches at the Gaji Makhachev School in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. The gym was named after the republic’s former deputy prime minister who died in a 2013 car accident. While he specializes in Combat Sambo, Abdulmanap has also been an integral part of the fighters’ training camps. He often takes his students to the Bazarganov Sports club, as his own gym is not quite equipped to handle intense training regimens

“Our gyms are not too well equipped but we do have a football field, basketball court, wrestling mats, cable ropes, heavy bags and lifting bars.”

The fighters train several times a day, seven days a week. While the focus is on developing their skills and mastering the traditional combat sports of the region, their training is interspersed with an array of less strenuous athletic activities. This variety separates them from the physical strain of daily training while retaining a competitive atmosphere.

“Sometimes we are playing football or basketball to distract the mind. We even do a lot of mountain running.”

However, the breaks are few and far between. A career in fighting is a guaranteed life off the streets and away from poverty, so the students capitalize by soaking up as much knowledge as they can.

Desperate measures and hopeless aspirations accompany harsh economic times. In Dagestan, the economic climate has narrowed many of the youth’s options for socio-economic stability down to two avenues: militant Islam or a career in sports. Either choice requires unfaltering dedication to succeed.

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Photos: Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov

Dagestan bred several generations of wrestling pedigrees, all of whom have contributed to the Russian Olympic medal count over the years. One of the most notable names is Sagid Murtazaliev, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney before transitioning into politics.

However, for wrestlers contemplating a move to mixed martial arts — a transition often made for financial reasons — Abdulmanap suggested that a blend of the grappling arts is required to complete the perfect recipe.

“I believe Sambo has advantages because it is a mixture of striking, wrestling, and grappling. If you mix up freestyle wrestling and sambo, you get the perfect combination.”

For him, a fight has two stages: striking and grappling. Sambo allows fighters to master the art of closing the distance between themselves and their opponent, thus setting up stage two — the takedown.

“A fight is a two-stage process. In the stand up, you can hit and grab your opponent. This is how we train: punch, grab, and then throw. On the ground, we work on a mixture of ground-and-pound and submissions.”

It is a straightforward blueprint, but Abdulmanap always has a little something extra tucked up his sleeve.

“We make game plans with surprises for every opponent.”

He also tries to imbue his fighters with a sense of urgency, a mentality he embraced when he was invited to coach at a submission-only event. It was the year 2000 — seven years after Royce Gracie dazzled the martial arts landscape by introducing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — but it had only recently become clear to Abdulmanap that the finality of submissions far surpassed that of wrestling dominance and so-called “point fighting.”

“I’ve told all my fighters that they must finish every opponent …it is the best way.”

However, he never deviates too far from the fundamentals of Combat Sambo. He drilled that understanding into his children, Khabib and Abubakar, with remarkable results thus far.

Khabib developed at a slightly quicker pace than Abubakar. He was a more complete athlete who used his well-rounded skill set to overcome the Russian regional talent. Abubakar has been fashioned as a similar fighter, but is yet to hone his craft to the elite standard of his brother.

After compiling an 8–0 record on the regional scene against low-level opposition, Abubakar was matched up against fellow prospect Magomed Mustafaev and suffered his first career loss following a competitive opening round. It was a disappointing finish to a promising year, and his father was clearly disheartened.

“To tell you the truth, I am not satisfied with his growth and work.”

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Photo: Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov

Abdulmanap’s outlook on his younger son is rooted in Abubakar’s slow development over the early portion of his career. He possessed the raw talent required to win but didn’t appear to be improving at a sufficient pace in his father’s eyes.

“Only in 2014 did he start developing as he should have been over the previous five years. If he will work harder we can bring him on UFC level, but this year he shall fight in Russia.”

And fight in Russia he did. Abubakar began his year in Penza, where, under the supervision of his older brother, he secured an opening round TKO victory against Vladimir Gunzu.

Abubakar’s most recent win earned him a contract with the World Series of Fighting, one of the larger MMA organizations in the United States. The call came sooner than Abdulmanap had expected given his harsh outlook on his younger son’s development. While he would rather he remain in Russia for the time being, Abdulmanap is well aware that most fighters in the region aspire for international recognition. He could not deny his son that opportunity, but he would make sure he remained firmly in command of Abubakar’s development.

“Next step for Abubakar is the Combat Sambo World Championship and 1,650 hours of training under my supervision. If he manages a four-fight win streak this year, he can step up to the elite level of pro MMA competition.”

Apart from the improved standard of living, fighting in the United States offers Dagestani fighters a chance to evaluate their skills against those of their American counterparts.

Abdulmanap thinks it is only a matter of time before the region’s grappling base becomes an indisputable advantage. Unlike American freestyle wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Combat Sambo incorporates the main fighting elements while allowing for a smooth transition over to elite MMA.

“The disadvantage of the American and Brazilian gyms, in my opinion, is the lack of striking and wrestling combination. On the ground all the Brazilians are good, but I cannot say the same about all American fighters.”

Abdulmanap plans on flooding the UFC with more of his students; including Islam Makhachev, who recently compiled a 4–0 record under the M-1 Global banner before signing with the UFC. With an undefeated record and a dynamic skill set, he is another lightweight set to embark on a violent journey up the divisional ladder.

Based on the American audience’s acceptance of his son as well as other Dagestani fighters, he expects a noticeable ripple effect in Russia, especially if his fighters continue on their current upward trajectory.

“I believe in five years we will have as many fighters in the UFC as there are Brazilians. Then, if we get a championship belt, it will push the development of MMA in Russia further.”

For the MMA community, this could be an extraordinary prospect. Russia, with its varied and rich legacy in martial arts, could offer up a huge pool of elite talent with the right amount of funding and support.

“With the help of national and local governments, we can bring five or six fighters from one region to the UFC. Russia is a big country. You can easily imagine how large the potential of Russian MMA is.

“Expect Russian domination this decade.”

The aftershock of the Chechen invasion of Dagestan can still be felt to this very day. Tens of thousands of civilians were displaced and countless others irreversibly traumatized by the six-week period of carnage. It left behind an undeniable stench of uncertainty. Dagestan was put in a difficult position, both politically, and socio-economically, and the wounds had not fully healed.

Religious tensions remain high.

Harsh economic conditions and rising unemployment rates led healthy, able men down militant paths where they were provided with food, shelter and — most importantly — a cause. Islamist extremism festered wherever impoverished youth were left without a purpose. Even those of moderate beliefs could find themselves wandering a path towards inevitable violence.

It was a thin line to walk: devotion or radicalism, spirituality or fundamentalism, peaceful reverence or bloodthirsty extremism.

The Dagestani government opted to counter this societal tension with sports. Judo, Combat Sambo, and wrestling in particular were directly sponsored by the state and heavily encouraged by parents. Children were led to a crossroads: flee into the depths of the mountains and pledge allegiance to terrorist causes, or improve one’s life through organized, competitive sporting activity.

Men like Abdulmanap, aware of this reality, placed their sons in sports at an early age. He taught them discipline and dedication, but also taught them piety, for there was nothing wrong with embracing one’s religion in peaceful rapture.

“Faith and religion is very important for a fighter. It brings discipline in his life. If you are a religious person, you face different restrictions in life. A faithful man is a healthy man. He has no pride within and his mind is strong.”

The wounds of many centuries of war left permanent lacerations across the North Caucasus. Conflicts that began with Ivan the Terrible, peaked with Peter the Great and radicalized during the Chechen Wars have produced a hardened, calloused people prepared for battle — whether it be to defend their borders or to represent their nations in sporting events.

Caucasian history may be drenched in tragic violence but it has also indirectly ushered in a new era of purposeful athletes. They are modern-day mountaineers who grew up in the sorrow of their forefathers, and they bear that hardship as one would a chip on the shoulder. The adversity and hardships they have faced are treated as nothing more than a stepping stone to further glory. Only then will they appease their antecedents.

“The history behind the wars in the Caucasus made our predecessors stronger. We are their sons. We must be as strong as they were.”

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