The Dagestanis are coming! The Dagestanis are here.
JUN 04, 2014 3:40p ET
When Rustam Khabilov moved to New Mexico, he arrived by himself, a stranger in a foreign land, unable to speak English. He moved here to fulfill his promise, become elite, maybe even a champion.
On Saturday, he gets to measure himself against a recent one. After just 18 months in the UFC, the 27-year-old lightweight draws Benson Henderson in a match that is in some ways far greater than a one-off between a hopeful contender and a former champ intent on returning to the top. It is a bout that may perhaps foreshadow the future of the sport.
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Russians are coming. More specifically, the Dagestanis are. And actually, they're already here.
Khabilov is part of a growing trend that has seen fighters from Russia's Caucasus region blossom internationally and threaten the pecking order among MMA's elite.
The influx began in earnest in the early months of 2011, when well-known New Jersey-based trainer and manager Mike Constantino promoted a show that was scheduled to include a match between IFL veteran Jamal Patterson and Chechen fighter Adlan Amagov. (Chechnya is Dagestan's neighboring republic to the west.)
The fight never materialized, but when Constantino watched film on Amagov, he was intrigued. His striking was some of the crispest, cleanest he'd ever seen.
"This guy is amazing," Constantino told Amagov's then-handler Sam Kardan.
"Mike," Kardan replied, "we have 40 or 50 of these guys."
A lightbulb went off in Constantino's head. Before long, he and Kardan partnered up, and helped bring over several fighters from the region, including Dagestanis Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rashid Magomedov and Azamat Gashimov, all of whom would go on to fight in the UFC.
The floodgates soon opened.
"Right after that we started getting calls that there were other people trying to go into that region and it became a free-for-all," Constantino said. "We'd be trying to maintain relationships with the fighters we had, and all these other people came in promising these crazy things. As you see now, there turned out to be a ton of talent in the region."
That talent gets highlighted the next two weekends on the sport's biggest stage. While Khabilov gets his opportunity at this Saturday's UFC Fight Night in his adopted home city of Albuquerque, one week later, another Dagestani, Ali Bagautinov, attempts to become the first to win a UFC championship when he takes on flyweight king Demetrious Johnson in the UFC 174 headliner.
All this from a little republic with a population of 2.9 million, roughly the size of Utah.
And it doesn't end there. Other Dagestanis in the UFC include Ruslan Magomedov and Omari Akhmedov.
Combined record of the active UFC Dagestanis? A cool 16-1.
What's behind the success? First off, an emphasis on wrestling from youth for all of the region's boys. It's essentially the republic's unofficial "official" sport, and nearly mandatory, even for grade schoolers. Clearly, that breeds a hyper-competitive gene. Then, there is the hard life many experience growing up. For years, the region has seen outbreaks of terrorism as well as violent efforts at independence from Russia. Partially as a result of that, its economy has remained stagnant and opportunities limited for the area's residents. All in all, it's a hard place to grow up.
Striking coach Mike Winkeljohn remembers once helping warm up Amagov for a fight with a strong opponent. He looked at Amagov and couldn't quite gauge his nerves, so he asked his manager to find out if Amagov was OK.
"He said, 'Tell coach I spent seven years in a camp with my family, and with Russians shooting at us from helicopters. That's just a man,'" Winkeljohn recalled.
Amagov quickly won the fight by spin kick knockout.
"They've lived through such harsh conditions, including war in some cases, that a fight is like nothing," added Constantino.
“It's the mind set of a lot of these fighters. They've lived through such harsh conditions, including war in some cases, that a fight is like nothing.”
Constantino, who has cornered Nurmagomedov in four fights, said it's remarkable to see the composure in their faces before they walk out for the opening bell.
Every fighter works to control fear before a bout, but the Dagestanis seem to harbor it so deep it drowns into their life experiences.
"I've been around a lot of high-level special forces operators, and people that have done some high-level things, they've been in combat and killing situations, and they have a feel about them, a calm about them, a look in their eye," Constantino said. "It's pretty much unexplainable but if you see it, you'd know what I'm talking about. It's like the same look and feel I get from these guys. Nothing bothers them. Nothing affects them."
That outlook will be put to the test again soon, as Khabilov (17-1) and Bagautinov (13-2) are both underdogs in their respective fights.
The duo both prepared for their big opportunities at Jackson-Winkeljohn gym in Albuquerque, where their Dagestani pride apparently collided when the two had an altercation after a recent training session, according to sources. Teammate skirmishes aren't uncommon in MMA, particularly during the grueling camp schedule, but this one was reportedly a little fiercer than usual. Befitting their background though, both quickly put it aside and have since gone about their business seemingly unaffected.
Whether they win or lose though, it seems certain that Dagestani fighters are no passing fad in high-level MMA. Indoctrinated in combat sports and raised in an area of conflict and instability, it's almost as if they are perfectly bred for the demands of a sport as physically and emotionally taxing as prizefighting.
"The guys from that region, they come from a place where their only way out is through hard work," Winkeljohn said.
"The calmness and coolness is there, but there's also a switch that goes off with them, and when that switch goes off, it's go time," added Constantino. "All of us are products of our environment. If you grow up in upper Bergen County (New Jersey) and you're sheltered and you go to private schools, you're going to have a different air and demeanor and personality about you than someone else who grew up in the streets since the age 12. Take that mindset with a guy who grows up with missiles going by his head and things blowing up around him, and you're going to grow a different kind of person. And I think a lot of it is that. They're the products of their environment."