One of the evolving landscapes of an expanded UFC roster is the increasingly difficult concept of ethnicity and nationality. Combat sports aren't exactly a "national" competition, or at least not outside very specific confines (the Olympics, martial arts tournaments, etc.), however, much like other individual sports a very high value is placed on national representation. It's important that boxing hasn't had an American heavyweight champion since 2007 and has lacked a dominant American title holder since Evander Holyfield lost all claim to the belt back in 2001.
For the UFC, the fact that that current heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is of Mexican heritage carries some importance to their drive to expand into the Latino fanbase. Nationality and ethnicity aren't the entirity of a fighter's identity, but they are a part of it. As such, one of the major recent narritives in MMA has been the "Russian Invasion" as first Bellator and later the UFC have become the home for a steady stream of Russian fighters... Well, sort of Russian, anyway. Murat Keshtov, head of the K Dojo Warrior Tribe in New Jersey (home to many of these new fighters) spoke to Ben Fowlkes of MMA Junkie about the label of "Russian" and how it's one most of his fighters aren't entirely comfortable with.
"I know how it is," Keshtov told MMAjunkie in a recent phone interview. "Me, when I came here, every time I would be working somewhere, my co-workers would call me ‘The Russian guy.' I'd say, ‘I'm not Russian!' I'd explain to them where I was from and how it was different, and they'd listen to me. Then at the end, still, I'm the Russian guy. It made no difference."
It's the same for many of the fighters Keshtov trains, few of whom actually consider themselves Russian. Instead they are Dagestani or Chechnyan, Circassian or Ossetian. They might use Russian as the lingua franca among themselves since even small republics in the North Caucasus region, where most of these fighters come from, might make use of upward of 30 different languages. But according to Keshtov, they would never identify themselves as Russian, and are often quick to correct others who do.
"That's predominately where most of these fighters come from, probably 90 percent," Keshtov said. "The new wave of fighters in UFC and Bellator comes from the south part of Russia, the North Caucasus. It's kind of an autonomous state. It's like a little country within a country, but it's officially part of Russia."
There's a lot more in the article, including notes about Adlan Amagov living in a tent for 7 years, and how the differences in "fight culture" can make grooming Russian prospects more difficult. Be sure to read the whole thing here.
As MMA, and more specifically the UFC, continues to expand it's boarders and bring more combatants in to the public eye, these cultural distinctions are going to become more and more important. Fans and media who are quick to tar groups of fighters with the same brush could easily end up doing a disservice to the athletes they watch compete. And of course, it doesn't help that the UFC's current "all fighters are created equal" system of promotion and play-by-play is often quick to gloss over those traits that make a fighter stand apart from his peers. Right now we seem to be in the midst of a "North Caucasus Invasion," the Russians have yet to arrive.