The sun was shining in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach on Feb. 10, but let’s not mince words. It was cold, the streets were covered in ice from a snowstorm the night before, and it was midday on the last workday of the week. In other words, the kind of day where you don’t want to navigate the streets of a busy borough.
Fans of lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov did. Far from the theater where the UFC 208 weigh-ins would be held later that afternoon, they packed the National Restaurant & Night Club for a Q&A with the Dagestan native and then mobbed him for pictures and autographs when the session was done. It was a reaction you don’t see too often, if at all.
But to Nurmagomedov’s longtime buddy Rizvan Magomedov, it was no surprise at all.
“Being next to Khabib for many years, traveling together, I can say that he has fans all over the world,” said Magomedov, a partner in Dominance MMA management, which handles the careers of several Russian fighters, including Nurmagomedov. “They are people who are always ready to help or support in any matter, and the Brooklyn Q&A is proof, when the day after the storm, in the middle of a workday, the place was packed with fans. Fans are loyal to him, and he is loyal to them; it's very simple.”
On Mar. 4, the 24-0 Nurmagomedov gets his first crack at UFC gold when he faces Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title in the co-main event of UFC 209 in Vegas. If he wins, he will become Russia’s first UFC champion, cementing the nation as an MMA powerhouse more than 23 years after the first bout in the Octagon in 1993. And given his journey to this point, it’s appropriate that “The Eagle” will be the one to spearhead this movement.
“When Khabib signed with UFC, he got on to the radar of all Russian MMA fans,” Magomedov said. “And getting one victory after another in his dominant manner of fighting, his fan base increased to millions. And now he is one step away from achieving his dream, and apparently the dream of all his fans, to bring the first UFC belt to Russia.”
That the possibility of a UFC champion from Russia has taken this long is baffling, given the elite caliber of athletes the country has produced for decades. Of course, Fedor Emelianenko reached the heights of the sport in the PRIDE organization, but in the UFC, there have been only sporadic bursts of Russian talent making noise over the years. That doesn’t mean that the wheels weren’t turning there.
“Russia was always rich with all kinds of athletes, including martial arts,” Magomedov said. “And as soon as MMA started spreading all over the world, Russia started producing very exciting and tough fighters like Amar Suloev, Oleg Taktarov, Andrei Semenov, and those guys were pioneers of MMA in Russia. They started their careers in kind of underground fight events, private clubs and casinos so they could make some extra bucks for a living, especially during the craziest time ever in Russian history, when the Soviet Union collapsed and people were struggling for survival.”
Taktarov is a familiar name to any MMA fan, a UFC pioneer who compiled a 6-2-1 record during one year of competition in the Octagon, beating the likes of Tank Abbott and Marco Ruas and drawing with Ken Shamrock while winning the UFC 6 tournament. Semenov and Suloev are names that will only resonate with the hardcore fan base, but there was significant buzz about both fighters when they had brief runs in the UFC. But when Magomedov talks about people “struggling for survival,” that’s a key point because in combat sports, the fighters who dominated the game were often the ones who emerged from the roughest economic conditions.
In boxing, the 1930s-50s saw Italian, Irish and Jewish fighters take over, then black fighters dominated, followed by Latinos. In MMA, hard times guaranteed that soon, the Russians were coming.
“When MMA started growing and becoming more and more popular, many athletes started converting from traditional martial arts like judo, wrestling, sambo, boxing and others, to mixed martial arts,” Magomedov said.
Nurmagomedov and Rustam Khabilov were combat sambo world champions, Albert Tumenov came over from boxing, and that’s just three of the fighters that started pursuing a dream that had the potential to change their lives and the lives of their families.
“These were guys who came out of small villages, where conditions for training were minimal, but the motivation to train and become a champ was at its maximum,” he said. “Sometimes, kids needed to walk three to seven kilometers, from one village to another, to get to the gym.”
This group of up and comers did just that, and as they developed as fighters, Russia embraced the sport like never before.
“Step by step, small Russian promotions started producing quality, intriguing fight events, and they finally got aired by major national TV channels. That was a changing point in the evolution of Russian MMA.”
Nurmagomedov joined the UFC roster in 2012, and soon, the floodgates opened. Today, several Russian fighters occupy the top 15 rankings in various divisions, with several more on the verge of earning that distinction. If Nurmagomedov can win a title and keep the momentum going, he may end up being just the first UFC champion from Russia and not the last. And if the Octagon lands in Russia, a place UFC President Dana White has talked of bringing the promotion to, well, that would be a big deal throughout the sport.
“Nowadays, MMA is one of most popular martial arts, along with wrestling and boxing,” Magomedov said. “People follow their favorite fighters and promotions, and UFC is the leading one, so people can't wait until the first event happens in Russia. That will be significant for the whole MMA industry.”