(For those of you who may have missed the first part of this story, which ran last week, click here to read chapter I.)
The region west of the Caspian Sea is a Mecca for Olympic Wrestling medalists. It’s hard to believe that an area slightly larger than California could produce 30 wrestling medal winners of the 56 medals awarded in the London Olympics in 2012. It’s also hard to imagine what impact that this level of wrestling pedigree will have in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. When one considers the impact that the American Wrestler has had in the MMA world, it is safe to assume that it is only a matter of time before the West Caspian region’s wrestlers make their mark in MMA.
Leaving Olympic Wrestling for the moment, let us take a trip to the 2012 Olympics and visit the world of Middle Distance and Long Distance running. Distance running has, for the past twentyfive years or more, been heavily dominated by the North East African nations. There are six Olympic Track and Field events that make up Middle and Long Distance running; 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meter Steeple Chase, 5,000 Meters, 10,000 Meters, and the Marathon . There are three medals (Gold, Silver, Bronze) awarded in each event. In the 2012 Olympics, 12 of the 18 medals awarded in the Middle and Long Distance events went to athletes that were born in just four countries; Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda. That’s right, 67% of the medals awarded in the Middle and Long Distance events at the last Olympics were won by runners from four neighboring countries from the north east region of Africa .
All of these countries are relatively poor by modern standards. (The Key here is the country where the athlete was born. Mo Farrah, who won gold in the 10,000 and 5,000 for Great Britain, was born and raised in Somalia . Only one American born athlete medaled in the six events in the 2012 Olympics.)
How is it that four third world African nations, with a combined size less than a third of the United States, won 67% of the Middle and Long Distance medals at the 2012 Olympics? Could the reasons be similar to how the West Caspian/ Northern Caucasus Mountain wrestlers took home 53% of the wrestling medals won at those same Olympics? This is a question for another time; but the point is that there are pockets of athletic superiority, and the West Caspian wrestlers represent one of these anomalies.
In 2012 I began to notice that Bellator cards seem to have several fighters with Russian sounding names. As the year moved on, I also noticed that the UFC was featuring more Eastern Bloc fighters. Recently, several of the fighters from this region have begun making significant strides in their respective weight classes in both Bellator and the UFC. I spoke with Sam Kardan regarding this emergence of fighters from this region.
Sam Kardan is originally from Cherkessia in the Northern Caucasus, a region on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, but is now living here in the US . He represents and manages a small but growing group of fighters from the Northern Caucasus region. He tells me that the Caucasus Mountains are the tallest in Europe, taller than the Alps, and the people are as rugged as the landscape. “Wrestling is the most popular,” he answered when I asked about sports that are played among the kids of the region.
“Ninety percent of the kids wrestle. But arm wrestling is also very popular there too!” Sam also talked to me about the many combat arts that are a part of the region’s culture: San Shau, Sambo, Muay Thai, etc.
At the weigh-ins the evening prior to Bellator 90, Dagestan Featherweight Sha Shamhalaev weighed in a few ounces overweight for his fight with Rad Martinez. Sha and his teammates left and when they returned shortly thereafter, Sha had cut off all of his hair, leaving his head shaved. Sha made weight and went on to beat Rad Martinez the next night for the Bellator Featherweight Tournament Championship. But the one thing that was SHOCKING to me was the amount of scarring on the forehead of Sha that was now visible since the removal of his boyish 1977 hair. Shas’ coach, Ryan Ciotoli, told me that Sha has been in a hundred or so fights in the streets back in Dagestan…
Wrestling in this region is somewhat different from American Wrestling, Sam explains. He feels that, while, stylistically the wrestling may be superior in his home land to American wrestling, there are some areas that the American Wrestlers rise above. “We stress the form of Freestyle Wrestling, but American wrestlers have much better strength and conditioning. We need to improve in those areas…” Sam says. He also explained that the wrestlers from the Northern Caucasus need to adapt their striking to the MMA game.
Ryan Ciotoli agrees. In a separate conversation that I had with the Team Bombsquad coach, Ryan explained that the fighters from the Northern Caucasus region, despite their superior wrestling base, need the conditioning and technical MMA coaching that the American camps bring to the table. “The (Russian) fighters who are living and training over here (in America ) are gonna fare much better,” said Ryan, referring to success in the MMA cage.
The striking arts are also practiced in many of the republics in the region. Typical striking styles are very popular. “Boxing is becoming very popular,” Sam said. “Shahbulat was a six time World Muay Thai Champ,” he says, referring to Sha Shamhalaev.
Sam Kardan’s stable includes several fighters who are currently making some noise in the UFC and Bellator. Sam also explained that he has many fighters still developing their MMA game on some of the smaller stages. “We have several fighters in the UFC and Bellator right now,” said Sam. “But we also have many more that are coming over.”
Check out this small list of some the fighters from the West Caspian/Northern Caucus region who are shaking things up:
Khabib Nurmagomedov (21-0-0) is currently fighting in the UFC Lightweight division. He is from Makhachkala , Dagestan and trains out of AKA in California . Khabib is undefeated and carries a five fight UFC win streak. His last four wins were against Thiago Tavares, Abel Trujillo, Pat Healy, and Gleison Tibau. You may remember him from the “T” shirt that he wore in Brazil when he fought Tavares; his entrance shirt said “If Sambo were easy it would be called Jui Jitsu.” With 21 wins against no losses, he may be the best prospect from the region. He is currently ranked 7th at Lightweight by the UFC and 9th in the world by Sherdog!
Sha Shamhalaev (12-2-1) lost last year to the #2 ranked Featherweight in the world, Pat Curran, for the Bellator Featherweight Title. Sha is from Dagestan, but currently resides in Ithaca , NY where he trains with Team Bombsquad. He won the 2012 Bellator Featherweight Tournament, with all three wins coming by TKO. His only other loss was in 2009 to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Sha missed the last Bellator FW Tournament to be home in Dagestan with his ailing father.
Magomedrasul Khasbulaev (21-5), another Dagestani fighter, is on a nine fight win streak, his last five under the Bellator banner. Last spring he beat tough Bellator regular Marlon Sandro to find his way into the Bellator Featherweight tournament finals, where he then decisioned Mike Richman. Khasbulaev will have a shot at the Bellator 145 Title sometime in the future…
Rustam Khabilov (17-1) hails from Rostov Oblast in the northern most section of this West Caspian region. He is a Lightweight currently fighting in the UFC. He won his first UFC fight in dynamic fashion via suplex and subsequent punches in the first round. Training out of Jackson ’s Mixed Martial Arts, Rustam has but one loss, a split decision, three years ago. He is scheduled for his next fight at UFC 170 against (UFC #6 ranked and Sherdog #10 ranked) Rafael dos Anjos.
Adlan Amagov (13-2) trains out of Jackson ’s in New Mexico . The Chechnyan Welterweight is a Strikeforce veteran and an outstanding striker who is currently 2-0 in the UFC. Fighting at Welterweight, his only two losses are to current #3 ranked Robbie Lawler and Russian Light Heavyweight Alexey Oleinik.
Ali Bagautinov is another one of these studs from Dagestan . This Flyweight is 13-2 (3-0 in the Octagon). He was ranked 7th at 125lbs by the UFC and top fifteen in the world at Sherdog prior to beating John Lineker (ranked #5 by the UFC and #6 Sherdog) by this past weekend at UFC 169. Now at 13-2, the former World Sambo Champion is ranked #4 in the world by Sherdog has certainly made a compelling argument for a UFC Title shot!
Rashid Magomedov (16-1) is another Dagestani. Now fighting in the UFC Lightweight division, the former M-1 Global Champ beat Tony Martin this past weekend at UFC 169 to score his 16th win against just one loss. His one and only loss was four years ago to Magomedrasul Khasbulaev.
Gasan Umalatov (14-3), from Astrakhan Oblast, lost this past weekend to Neil Magny at UFC 169 to slip to 14-3. The Welterweight is now 1-1 in the UFC.
Omari Akhmedov (12-1) is currently riding an 11 fight win streak. Another of the Dagestani fighters, he is a former Freestyle wrestler and Sambo Champ. He is 1-0 in the UFC and will face Gunnar Nelson at UFC Fight Night 37 in March.
I guess it was only a matter of time before the fighters and wrestlers from the West Caspian region found their way to the highest level of MMA; it was bound to happen. What we are seeing now is just the beginning. The Bellator Tournaments are full of the West Caspian fighters, and several have already won past tournaments. This past weekend there were three fighters from the region on the UFC 169 card, and two of them, Ali Bagautinov and Rashid Magomedov, both from Dagestan , won their respective fights. Get used to it!
Front-Page Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports