2 Kings: Combat to Subdue Conflict – Khabib Nurmagomedov and The Land of Mountains
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On to the second instalment, yet another fabulous article.....
Part 1: The Little Brother of War
Between 700 and 800 BC the Ancient Greeks began the tradition of the Olympics. A mountainous region near the Mediterranean Sea, the numerous distinct poleis were often at war with one another in order to take advantage of the few resources the rugged landscape offered for survival and prosperity.
However, before each occurrence of the Olympic games a messenger was sent to each polis to officially announce the Olympic Truce. The entire games had religious undertones and activities, and were ultimately dedicated to Zeus. Due to the religious nature of the games, all warfare was strictly prohibited once the Olympic Truce had been enacted.
Wrestling, boxing, and pankration were all practiced at the Ancient Olympics. Pankration was a bare-handed fist fight where the only rule was to make your opponent submit. Serious injury was common as they were willing to tolerate an incredibly high level of violence in their sports. War and sports were essentially one and the same idea, with athletes receiving similar accolades and attributes as soldiers. Citizens were the ones who formed militia armies at that time, so they were all expected to be able to do that sort of thing in battle.
In another continent, strong parallels with the Ancient Olympics can be seen 2,000 years later in one of North America’s oldest organized sports. Known as “The Little Brother of War” or “small war” by the Indigenous who played it, lacrosse was a traditional sport that helped the Haudenosaunee stay together throughout internal political differences while in external conflict with the French. The Haudenosaunee was made up of six indigenous nations, including the Mohawk, a warrior tribe similar in many ways to the Greek Spartans.
Lacrosse was a mock war that was used to strengthen diplomatic alliances. It was used to honour the gods, trained men for the military as well as strengthening them for hunting, and to help enforce social conformity within tribes. Tradition says that the Six Nations were given lacrosse by the Creator to resolve conflict and avoid warfare, but kept the men of each tribe prepared in case of inevitable strife. Games were major events which took place over several days, fields could be several kilometres long and each team could have anywhere up to 500 players on the field at once to battle over one ball.
It is seen as a ceremonial re-enactment of the creation story, and how it began a struggle between good and evil. “Almost anything short of murder is acceptable,” one early European settler marvelled, “if they hadn’t told us they were playing a game, we would have thought they were really fighting.”
“[War] makes people feel more alert and alive… It enables the expression of higher human qualities which often lie dormant in ordinary life, such as discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice. The mutual experience of such binds people together and creates a sense of cohesion”
— WILLIAM JAMES, THE FATHER OF MODERN PSYCHOLOGY.
War can generate a strong sense of purpose and meaning, and sports can unlock the experience of the “higher” human qualities war elicits. It creates an artificial situation, which carries a similar psychological meaning to the stakes of real war. In doing so it fulfils psychological needs and results in a social effect resembling that of war. Combat sports are more likely to mimic this feeling than any other sport.
“[MMA] is not really a sport. You play other sports; you play tennis, you play soccer, but you don’t play fighting. You just fight.”
— GEORGES ST-PIERRE
Finding alternative ways to approach competition in order to avoid violence runs in history from these examples thousands of years ago, all the way up to present day, and contains some visceral and effective solutions.
In the late 1800s, Manchester was overcome with gang crime and stabbings that often involved civilians as collateral damage. In an attempt to diversify the options of young men and give them more to do than join a gang, the city opened up clubs that gave even the poorest kids access to soccer. A massive rise in the popularity in soccer coincided with a massive decline in crime and gang violence. This also resulted in Manchester United and Manchester City, two of the most well-known and successful soccer clubs in the world.
For a modern-day example, take the backyard fights in Florida that Jorge Masvidal and Kimbo Slice made their names off of, covered in the documentary Dawg Fight. In the film, local cops from the impoverished Miami suburb are asked why they allow an unsanctioned combat event to illegally operate and sell tickets in the neighbourhood.
Mind you this is no small-time gig anymore. The backyard is barricaded with high walls like an arena, with an entrance from the street so patrons can be checked for weapons before entering the makeshift stadium. There are cars parked up and down the block, and a line of people down the street waiting to get in, as well as on-lookers trying to see if they can sneak a peek through the tarps covering the fence. The whole neighbourhood come out to watch the home-grown spectacle.
So many in fact, the cops say, that the crime rates in an area riddled with gang violence drops with such significance that allowing the unsanctioned and fully monetized fisticuffs to go on is more than justified.
Even international conflicts in the Cold War were partially fought through the Space Race, the 1972 Summit Series, and an influx of the best Olympic trainers in the Soviet Union being sent to prime and promising locations to train super-athletes for the Olympics.
One of the most promising locations for the sport of wrestling was the mountainous Republic of Dagestan. Sandwiched in the North Caucasus between Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, and the Caspian Sea, Dagestan is home to an incredibly wide variety of ethnic groups. The multiplicity of ethnicities and languages is most likely attributable to a long history of inter-village raids and warfare due to a scarcity of resources in the rugged mountain landscape. The warfare fragmented groups even further afterward, or merged them through coercion in a crude cultural cut and paste.
Mix this environment with the fact that the nation also has numerous conflicts with surrounding empires; the only way to survive is to carve out your own space and be the nastiest sonovabitch in your mountain range. The result of this is that if you ask 100 people from Dagestan whether or not they are Russian, it is possible you may get 100 unique answers.
To find another outlet for the constant conflict, men from each of the villages get together to wrestle each other in what has become a traditional part of Dagestan culture and society over hundreds of years. Naturally, it inclines men from that culture to take up the affordable pastime from a young age. They had an inclining to it as an entire nation, and it has become part of their cultural material to the point where most in Dagestan would say they have always wrestled since the beginning of time, and for many, it has been inextricably linked with their devotion to Islam.
Wrestling is cheap to participate in and fund, making it more available in the economically disadvantaged Dagestan. This no doubt contributes to wrestling’s popularity in the area, just as affordability helped with soccer’s rise to the most popular sport in the world. There are no other sports or leagues for kids in Dagestan, only continuous wrestling programs structured to pit the youth against each other and reveal the best athletes. If it seems tough, that’s because growing up in a culture defined by an unforgiving environment and constant conflict is tough.
“Mountains make hard times. But when you go through hard times, success easy”
— KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV
The people of Dagestan seem to revel in the brutal environment they are forced to survive in, as “Dagestan” poetically translates to “Land of Mountains.” The more serious the conditions of the person who uses a sport as an escape, the more dedicated and determined they seem to be. Initially a region that had problems with constant invasion or revolution, the social conditions in Dagestan have continued to become even worse since the 1800s.
Part 2: Wrestling in the Land of Mountains
“Fighters from the region have known war and suffering and ethnic and religious prejudice since early childhood”
— PATRICK WYMAN
The whole Northern Caucasus were conquered by the Russian Empire over the course of the 1800s in a long, devastating takeover which involved the attempted genocide and deportation of the Circassian ethnic group. This turned out to be only the second most devastating deportation in the region’s history.
The Chechen ethnic group was deported with a side of mass murder during WW2 because Stalin distrusted them and suspected them of collaborating with the Nazi’s. Stalin was, of course, famous for being the head of the Soviet Union, and also for having many baseless suspicions.
The Chechens were not allowed to return to their homeland until 1957, and the death toll of the deportation ended up reaching over 100,000. When the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s, the impending revolution resulted in the 2 Chechen Wars. They wanted independence from the country that had left deep scars on their collective consciousness, and the fact that there are over 30 distinct ethnic groups in a nation of 3 million may have contributed to revolt as well.
In 1994 the 1st Chechen War began when the republic rebelled for independence from Russian rule, heavily fuelled by the memory of the great deportation and massacre under Stalin. The small republic was crushed, and immediately after the 1st war, the rebel insurgents scattered into surrounding nations, including Dagestan, resulting in an influx of violent rebellion. Without the Chechen deportation to hinge on as fuel for rebellion, the cause became more religious in nature with the goal of establishing an independent Islamic state.
The previous war lead to an increase in impoverished and disenfranchised young men, and it became more common for the youth to turn to Islamic extremism in the Dagestan area, leading to increased conflict with Russia and pro-Russian Muslims, resulting in Dagestan having a larger role in the impending 2nd Chechen War.
The 2nd Chechen War ended in 2000 with a ceasefire after Russia devastated the effort a second time and then implanted a pro-Russian government in Chechnya, headed by a former rebel leader in order to avoid continued revolts and wars. Low-level Islamic insurgency has raged throughout the North Caucasus ever since, spilling out of Chechnya and into surrounding republics – including Dagestan.
The Soviets recognized the inherent grit of the men from the Northern Caucasus due to their environment and the culture it bred. In response they sent some of the best Soviet wrestlers there in the 1960’s to create schools to teach high calibre athletes at culturally prime locations in an effort to dominate the Olympics during the Cold War. After the 2nd Chechen War, Olympic wrestling was utilized in the area in a different way, and the pre-existing cultural love of the sport was exploited.
The Chechen government recruited the Saitiev brothers and made them state-sponsored stars due to their success in Freestyle wrestling, with the goal of using their generated fame to entice youths in the North Caucus towards sports and away from extremism and rebellion. Buvaisar Saitiev is one of the legends of freestyle wrestling, having earned 3 gold medals in the Olympics. Adam Saitiev, his younger brother, beat Yoel Romero for the gold medal in the Olympic games that Buvaisar was not able to attend. They became state-sponsored role models and examples to the young populace of a different, and government preferred, life route. It also helped the new Pro-Russian government endear itself to the previously rebellious Chechnya and the surrounding area.
The region went from having faced religious prejudice from Russia for being Islamic, seen as “not real Russians,” and having Russian helicopters reported opening fire on refugee camps in the North Caucasus – to being a tool to quell rebellion though passion and national identity in sport and helping the Soviets to dominate the Olympics. The sport of wrestling, and MMA to a significant extent, have become intertwined with political aspirations and used as an opiate to the masses to stifle rebellion.
Khabib Nurmagomedov has even received funds in the past from a political figure in Russia, who has now been sent to prison. Not that this point is meant to reflect poorly on Khabib, it is simply meant to illustrate that it is a reality of living in the region. Whatever the political motivation maybe, on a micro-level it seems to be enriching lives in the area as now wrestling is not just used to teach young men from Dagestan to fight, it keeps them from joining a more dangerous one.
Many young men are radicalized online, and the people who go down the path of radicalization are usually those without causes or purposes. With Islam being so prevalent around them, it is easy to see how extremism has become an issue as a result of such extreme times. Wrestling gives them a purpose, and something to do to keep them busy, avoid becoming entrenched in toxic communities on the Internet, and out of trouble. Most importantly, it gives them an alternative sense of purpose to pursue.
Success in wrestling as well as an ability to defend oneself, gives the young men confidence, and diminishes the need for them to make a name for themselves in a way which will bring harm to others. The desire to earn recognition plays a huge part in the pursuit of sports, from the hero’s welcome upon coming home from the Ancient Olympics all the way to modern-day Dagestan, where the young children revere the modern Olympic wrestling champs who were treated like royalty by head government officials in front of the public.
Part 3: The Eagle
“I think when people think violence they do think punching and kicking, but in reality, the real violence is the people that got affected in Gilroy. These are the things that are violent.”
— DANIEL CORMIER ON THE MASS SHOOTING THAT TOOK PLACE NEAR HIS HOME IN GILROY, CALIFORNIA.
In Dagestan culture, they believe in professions and talents being bound in you from your parents by blood, which would mean that Khabib was destined for martial arts greatness since his conception. Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov started wrestling at 8 and joined the military at 19 in 1981, where he learned Judo and Combat Sambo. After finishing with the military he went on to win multiple world championships in Judo, Sambo, and Freestyle wrestling.
He began running wrestling schools when he got older with his knowledge of multiple martial arts and has gone on to train more than 20 Combat Sambo world champions. Originally wanting to help young men prepare for an impending war due to an overzealous government, it was meant as training for combat without a weapon, just like when the Samurai invented Jiu-Jitsu. It changed with the times and became a refuge for youth to avoid bubbling radical Islamic fundamentalists.
By combining a wealth of knowledge in multiple martial arts as well as military training, and implementing the teaching of it in a similar structure as a military camp, Abdulmanap came to be considered the father of MMA in Dagestan. This military-style experience is the environment Khabib grew up in from a young age under the tutelage of his father, surrounded by other boys who had been sent there to learn from the Republic’s best coach. For wrestlers in Dagestan, the coach acts as a moral guide and a father figure, and for Khabib, this figure was actually his father.
Abdulmanap considers the process of training a fighter an exercise in programming a person from the ground up, and I’m going to assume that Abdulmanap was stricter on Khabib than the rest of the students in such an environment. The coach usually expects a higher effort and excellence out of his kin – for him to set a proper example as the coach’s son. Unless of course, you think he had all the children wrestle bear cubs.
This upbringing has resulted in Khabib having a single-minded focus his whole life, due to being confined to a gym by surrounding violence and revolt, as well as an aversion to vices thanks to being a devout Muslim. The result is an expertly trained juggernaut, moulded and sculpted for hand-to-hand combat from a young age by specialized military grade training. He happens to be the very best at dealing out crushing top pressure that there has ever been in MMA, and has been trained and programmed since birth to execute it. At UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, Khabib will have his father in his corner for the first time in his UFC career.
He is a master at chain wrestling, the act of seamlessly transitioning from one takedown to the next. Always presenting a problem just as his opponent seems to have solved the previous one, he secures and maintains dominant positions in order to deal out ungodly powerful ground and pound. By gaining control of his opponent’s legs, he locks them together with a triangle and sits on them, allowing him to sit up and reign down the damage.
When his opponent attempts to block the incoming strikes, Khabib further secures position. When they lower their hands to escape the dominant positions, Khabib smashes them as much as he can before chain wrestling them back to a position where he can strip their base and wail away again. Rinse and repeat.
It is a game plan he has perfected to the point of being able to talk to his opponents while he mauls them, calmly telling them to give up in the face of his overwhelming destiny. It’s like being churned around in an undertow that tells you how much better it is than you while you drown.
Discipline was not an option for Khabib, as he was raised by his father in an institution that is part of the backbone of his republic. Wrestling is the type of sport that is essential to life in that area, it does so much more important work for the youth there than keeping them from smoking pot behind the local school. If this wrestling structure is the backbone of Dagestan society, the muscle holding it all together is Islam. Dagestan’s location in the mountains as well as their economic situation, means resilience and toughness is a requirement for survival and as a by-product has become part of the culture, not to mention Khabib has reaped the benefits from living and training at altitude his whole life.
The outcome is a significant purpose behind Khabib’s wrestling that is thousands of years old. It is the product of a universal quality of the human genome, which shines under duress and the unique set of events that created it. It extends into every corner of the globe and is evident in all cultures at one point or another, even if that purpose doesn’t necessarily have much to do with wrestling itself.