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Outside the Octagon: Sometimes, Tough is Enough

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from editorial director
Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored
the official UFC encyclopedia. 

“Hard times call for hard measures.”

The words were spoken by Ali Bagautinov before his UFC debut against Marcos Vinicius in September of last year. They weren’t about the bout in particular or the fight game in general. They were about life, and in Bagautinov’s case, he was referring to the passing of his father and how he had to put aside a promising wrestling career to go to work and support his family.

He wasn’t complaining, he wasn’t crying ‘woe is me.’ He was just stating matter-of-factly that sometimes, life gets in the way of what we dream about or want to do. That’s just the way it is.

Yet often, we don’t want to hear that. We want to world to stop, console us, and let us get back to our wants, not our needs. For the most part, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Eastern Europe, where fighters like Bagautinov, Rustam Khabilov, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Adlan Amagov hail from. And those are just four of a seemingly endless line of fighters coming into the UFC from that part of the world who carry a different kind of swagger.

For them, it’s not always about being better than your opponent, but being tougher, being harder. And when you’re the toughest man in the Octagon, that can often take you past a more talented foe.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Sam Kardan, one of the top managers in the sport today and one responsible for bringing several of Russia’s finest into the UFC over the last couple years. He agrees with my assessment that they’re not just fighting to get their hand raised.

“They’re courageous and they have heart,” he said. “A lot of these guys have it because their lives in Russia, nothing is really handed to them. It has a lot to do with the way they formed their character. They’re getting into the cage not with an idea of winning and advancing to the next level; they’re fighting for their life, so to speak.”

And who wants to face that guy? This is supposed to be a sporting event, right? Why the heck do I want to meet someone fighting for his life?

Yes, I know, it’s a metaphorical thing, but if you’re willing to go to those dark places just to win a fight, that’s got to stick in someone’s head. And guys like Bagautinov know that. No, he’s not as fast as the man he’s facing for the UFC flyweight title this Saturday in the main event of UFC 174, Demetrious Johnson. He’s not as experienced at this level, and he’s going in as the underdog. But title fights are often won by those with the intangibles that never show up on a stat sheet.

UFC welterweight Amagov survived the war in Chechnya as a child, something that will not only change your worldview, but make it very clear that what happens during 15 minutes in a sanctioned fight will never be as bad as watching your friends or family members die.

“Unfortunately a lot of people did not (survive),” Amagov told me in 2011. “I think the environment I was in made me appreciate things like friendship and family much more than material stuff.”

It made him tougher too, forced to grow up a lot faster than those whose main preoccupation is checking Twitter or Facebook.

Lightweight contender Nurmagomedov is a tough kid too, and not just because he wrestles bears (though that doesn’t hurt on the toughness meter). Son of a judo black belt, Ukrainian National Sambo champ, and National master of sports in freestyle wrestling, Khabib’s father Abdulmanap didn’t want the fighting life for him. The son persisted.

“My childhood was pretty normal,” said Khabib. “My father wanted me to study and I wanted to become a professional athlete. (Laughs) He and I always had a misunderstanding over this issue, but my father eventually realized that I had a gift for fighting and he started training me to become the world’s best in 2005.”

Eventually that required him to move to the United States, just like several of his European peers. It’s not an easy life, but few, if any of them, complain.

“It was hard living in the US at first,” he said. “However, my life consists of training, religion, sleep and meals. Following this principle it’s easy to get used to anything.”

And then there’s Bagautinov. The smallest of the group at 125 pounds, but one on the verge of making the biggest noise should he win on Saturday. If he does, he will follow Bas Rutten and Andrei Arlovski as just the third European fighter to win a UFC title, and the first from his native Dagestan.

More importantly, he will be able to bring a championship belt home to the son he barely had time to see due to the necessity of him traveling to Albuquerque to prepare for this fight. That’s a sacrifice of epic proportions and one that wouldn’t have been easy for any father, but no one knows better than Bagautinov that hard times call for hard measures.