From Russia, with gloves: Behind the toughness of Eastern Europe’s new wave

00RashidMagomedovRashid Magomedov picked up a third win on MMA’s grandest stage last weekend. It was a workmanlike performance punctuated by a dramatic last-gasp finish; gritty, with a flash of brilliance. The Dagestani MMA machine rumbles on, but where have these men come from and why are so many of them making a mark? A trip through Dagestan to Chechnya helped me understand. While there has never been an era of MMA’s constant and rapid evolution thoroughly dominated by Russian Samboists in the way that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players and American wrestlers maintained an (albeit brief) stranglehold, they’ve always been there and they’ve always been tough. Last year I got an inside glimpse as to why. As a follower of fighters from the region, I was more than slightly buzzed to hear that I’d be taking a trip to Chechnya in the summer of 2013. Cage Warriors were hosting a show in Grozny, headlined by local hero Belsan Isaev and featuring a host of Chechen and Dagestani talent on the undercard. As the first westerners on an official visit in 15 years, it was a chance to see the local MMA scene from a perspective I’d likely not be granted twice. I flew out first, along with three members of CWFC’s production crew. First was a six-hour hop from London to Moscow, punctuated by good food, plentiful booze and Casablanca on the entertainment console. Moscow Airport was a real feat of architecture, bustling with people, shops and restaurants. The next leg of the journey couldn’t have been more different. After a five-hour layover we boarded a plane that I was told was nearly twice my age. No in-flight movies, no booze; just a simple meal of chicken and bulgur wheat and a warm glass of orange juice as the aircraft shuddered and rattled its way to Makhachkala, Dagestan. We arrived in the middle of the night to find that the arrivals section of the airport was simply one room. There was a baggage carrousel, but it didn’t work; instead, a team of men threw our belongings in through a hatch in the wall. There was no security and nobody was asked for a passport or visa. An old woman checked our luggage tags on the way out. We exited to a parking lot where our handful of fellow passengers climbed wearily into soviet automobiles that looked like they ran on goodwill and determination as much as anything else. The lights in the building behind us went off and suddenly the realisation hit that we were very far from home. It wasn’t long before three young men approached us from the darkness and mumbled “Cage Warriors?” leading to a collective sigh of relief. Slightly less reassuring was the follow up “Get in the van”. The next three to four hours were fascinating. As we drove through the Dagestani mountains, once home to the like of UFC stars like Magomegov and compatriots Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rustam Khabilov and Ali Bagautinov, it wasn’t difficult to see where their natural toughness came from. I wouldn’t call it poverty, because there was little that was lavish to compare it too. Instead the bleakness seemed more like normality in Dagestan. We drove through countless checkpoints manned by surly looking armed guards. When the remainder of our group and the international fighters flew in the next day, they were transported in large buses with a police escort; otherwise, we were told, the mountain bandits would have descended and stripped the convoy bare. Our hotel in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, was palatial. Just shy of 50 stories high with a two-floor glass domed restaurant at its peak, it seemed almost unfairly placed; a grotesque display of wealth where otherwise there was none. The sense of brotherhood between the local fighters was undeniable. I was approached at one point by a young lad who introduced himself as a “worker at the hotel, but most importantly a student of Khusein Khaliev”. One of the few hotel staff with decent English, he’d seemed prouder of his affiliation with Khaliev than his job. He told me he’d be praying for his coach to win so he could “…go to America and represent us.” It was easy to see why athletes from Dagestan and Chechnya hold a way out through fighting in such high regard. Corruption was rife and we soon learned how those with sway dealt with their problems. Cage Warriors has held events all over the world, but never have so many ‘sports ministers’, ‘government officials’ and ‘commissioners’ been on hand. None of them knew what they were doing, all of them wanted a cut. Negotiations with locals were perhaps the tensest part of the week. We had guns pulled on us repeatedly in the run up to fight day. Local power-brokers wanted their fighters’ records changed. We searched all the online databases for these ‘wins’ they assured us existed outside of their Sherdog records and while we found evidence of some, additional losses surfaced too. They didn’t want those added though, so their jackets were pulled back just enough for their shoulder-holstered pistols to make a statement. They were never going to shoot us, it was more like some bizarre pantomime. The kind that might get you down if faced with it every day, in every conflict. The worst offenders were the handlers of Abdul-Kerim Edilov, a nephew of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. After some pull-outs on fight week they’d been left to their own devices to find a local replacement opponent for their charge, who was set to compete in an unaired opener. On the day of the weigh-ins around twenty of them piled into our makeshift office and informed us that his bout would be the main event. Their chosen opponent was a large gentleman with cornrows and a ripped physique. He looked the part but we could find no record of him ever competing in a combat sport. They insisted he’d engaged in 15 ‘underground’ bouts in the Ukraine; with half of them armed and in no mood to negotiate, we agreed to their terms. Once they’d left the room CWFC head honcho Graham Boylan came up with a plan; Edilov’s fight would go on last, but we’d cut the broadcast feed immediately after the actual main event featuring Beslan Isaev. It mattered little in the end; the Chechens brought their own cameras and by the time we’d got back to the hotel we were on the national news; Edilov was the main event – after the legitimately great Beslan Isaev – and only the fights that featured Chechen or Dagestani fighters winning were shown. You hear about the corruption and hardship those in places like Dagestan have to endure, but seeing it first hand – albeit briefly and in a stage-managed environment – makes it hit home like a hammer to the soul. It makes you understand why success in fighting is so important to the band of brothers from the Dagestani mountains. The locals we encountered on our trip were wonderfully hospitable and welcoming. It’s often said that people from certain parts of the world grow up tough, but in Dagestan it is truer than ever. For such a small region to produce such a large number of great fighters is incredible, and more are surfacing with each passing month. Now they are establishing links in the US and elsewhere, with access to sports science, facilities and money unavailable back home. It seems almost inevitable that one day they’ll have a UFC champion; when that day comes, even more battle-hardened warriors from the region will be inspired to follow in his footsteps and put their naturally bred talent and toughness to use in the world’s rings and cages. Those from the Russian regions may not have had their day in MMA history like the Brazilians and Americans before them, but they just might rule the roost in its future. By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48

Written by Brad Wharton

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