New UFC Star Rustam Khabilov Probably Isn't Actually Russian

USA TODAY Sports

Rustam Khalibov is techinically from Russia, but actually was born in the Russian federal republic of Dagestan, a largely autonomous country contained within Russia. Relatively few of Dagestan's inhabitants are actually Russian, but a shockingly large percentage of its population are world class combat athletes. Dagestanis, in fact, have been bringing home large quantities of gold medals in World/Olympic combat sport championships for quite some time now.

Kid Nate pointed out to me that had Editor emeritus Luke Thomas authored this post about new UFC sensation Rustam Khabilov, he would have started it by saying something along the lines of "You dunderheads don't know the difference between Dagestan and Drano". Then he would have knocked out Mike Swick.

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The modern state of Russia is not monolithic, in fact, as the map above shows, this couldn't be farther from the truth. Russia is made up of 83 federal subjects which possess varying levels of autonomy. Fourteen of these subjects are federal republics and are left to manage their affairs with a surprising amount of independence; they promulgate their own constitution, choose their particular form of government, and elect those who govern them. Nevertheless, at the end of the day all federal republics are subordinate to the central government in Moscow.

Federal republics (in green above) speckle Russia's map, but one particular cluster of federal republics is of particular interest to this post. In the southwestern corner of Russia, spanning along the Caucasus mountains from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, lies a band of 7 federal republics. These Caucasus states are a hotbed for combat athletes, and in some cases, political unrest. I have seen travel sites warn Americans from venturing to any of them.

Among these republics, the one which has made the most headlines, for better or worse, is Chechnya, where revolt and violence is still a reality. For more information about Chechnya, I strongly urge you to read this fantastic article chronicling the cultural significance of wrestling in Chechnya, and the off-the mat lives of its two greatest sports stars, Adam and Bouvaisa Saitiev, Chechnya's first ever Olympic gold medalists and two of the greatest wrestlers to ever live.

Rustam Khalibov hails from Dagestan, the republic that borders Chechnya to the east; this can mean many different things, but it probably means that he isn't ethnically Russian. Starkly different from its largely homogeneous Chechnya, Dagestan is home to over two dozen ethnic groups (thirty two according to this article.) The plurality of the population, 29%, are Avars, but only 3.5% of its population is Russian, so while I am uncertain as to Khalibov's exact ethnicity, it is highly unlikely that he is Russian in terms of heritage, culture, primary language etc.

I can also say with a fair amount of certainty that Khabilov is a Muslim. 90% of Dagestan's population is Muslim, and the republic has experienced separatist violence rooted in fundamental Islam, though not nearly with the scope or intensity as that experienced in Chechnya.

Dagestan stands as the largest of the Caucus republics with a population of close to 3 million, and it enjoys great strategic importance as it comprises 70% of Russia's coast on the Caspian Sea (which is actually an absurdly large lake). If I were a guessing man, and I am, I would hazard a guess that Russia has paid such a dear price to retain control of Chechnya because if it lost Chechnya, it would lose Dagestan, and if it lost Dagestan, it would lose much of its access to the energy rich Caspian.

Khalibov's background is primarily in combat sambo, where he is a world champion. Indeed, Dagestanis excel at numerous combat sports. In addition to combat sambo practitioners, Dagestan claimed a second world champion last year, Dagestan produces strong judo players, with two gold medalists in the last Olympics. Furthermore, three Dagestanis were part of the Russian national kickboxing team which won first place at this year's world kickboxing championships. The crown jewel of their sporting arsenal, however, is wrestling, particularly freestyle, where two Dagestanis won gold in this year's Olympics. Were Dagestan to field a national freestyle wrestling team right now, I would pick them to beat the USA in four of seven weights, and the USA has one of the world's best freestyle wrestling teams at the moment (not to mention 100 times Dagestan's population).

So to sum this up-the next time an MMA commentator refers to Khalibov as a Russian, you should snort derisively, grudgingly raise your eyes from the latest issue of The Economist, and inform the people with whom you are playing backgammon and discussing Wittgenstein, that he is, in fact, from Dagestan.

Note: this is not an attempt at posting anything scholarly. I have grazed over a couple of scholarly articles to learn more about the instant topic, but most of the information in this comes from short news articles, conversations with wrestling enthusiasts and Wikipedia.

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