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Hard Times, Hard People: The North Caucasus, MMA's troubled pipeline of talent

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Patrick Wyman completes the two-part exploration of the North Caucasus region in preparation for Ali Bagautinov's crack at the flyweight title.

Agulsky District, Dagestan
Agulsky District, Dagestan

Ali Bagautinov will be the first fighter from the North Caucasus, but certainly not the last, to fight for a UFC title when he faces flyweight kingpin Demetrious Johnson on Saturday night.

What is it about this region that produces such an incredible concentration of talented fighters? The easy answer is the long- and short-term history of violence throughout the North Caucasus, which I covered in depth yesterday. This is one of the most war-torn and unstable regions in the world, with an ongoing Islamist insurgency, ethnic clashes, and heavy-handed reprisals by Russian federal troops and paramilitaries. Violent places, the reasoning goes, produce people accustomed to violence. Making a career in professional fistfighting would seem to be a logical next step.

If that were true - or more precisely, if that were the only relevant factor - shouldn't we also expect to see an influx of fighters from Afghanistan, the Balkans, and large stretches of sub-Saharan Africa? The fact that we haven't seen a comparable wave of Pashtun, Sudanese, Nigerian, or Bosnian fighters entering the highest levels of mixed martial arts tells us that there are other variables at work here.

What, then, are these other factors?

One of the most salient facts, and something to which fighters from the region often point, is the importance of fighting as a cultural norm. "We come from a culture of fighting," said Dagestani fighter Jalil Alizhanov in an interview with Fightland. "It's impossible to grow up as a boy in Dagestan and not fight. When I was about 6 years old my older brother grabbed me and said, 'Ok, are you ready to fight?' and then he looked for another 6 year old about my size, put us together, and we fought. You can't say no, if you would do that it would be a disgrace."

An anthropologist would look at Alizhanov's statement as an example of how children are socialized into a particular kind of masculine culture, one that places a distinct emphasis on martial ability as a marker of status and toughness. This video of a 9-year-old Khabib Nurmagomedov wrestling a bear made the rounds of the internet with a fair degree of humor attached, but let's take it seriously for a moment as an artifact of a particular kind of culture.

There's bear wrestling in America as well - four-time Ohio State All-American and World Series of Fighting featherweight Lance Palmer drew some flak for it back when he was in high school - but that's essentially spectacle for a paying crowd, in contrast to bear wrestling as a form of serious training and rite of passage for a young boy. The cultural norms to which it speaks are entirely different. Here's another example, in a more formal setting:

This kind of cultural norm is the same reason that Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, an all-around nasty character and one of the major political players in the North Caucasus, constantly posts pictures and video of himself hitting pads, sparring, and engaging in other forms of demanding physical activity:

For someone in Kadyrov's position, photos like this aren't a vain affectation; instead, they represent a savvy public relations move in a place where personal physical prowess and toughness are essential components of the cultural ideal of masculinity and power. This is a society that rewards its combative heroes with political power. 2000 Olympic gold medalist wrestler Sagid Murtazaliev, for example, is the current director of Dagestan's pension fund and a United Russia party deputy in the legislative assembly.

As with a long history of conflict, however, this kind of aggressive, physically-oriented masculine culture (with or without bear wrestling) is hardly exclusive to the North Caucasus. We might expect to find similar emphases and characteristics among tribesmen living along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the rough council houses of Limerick and Dublin, or among inner-city kids in Stockton or Chicago. While it might be a contributing factor, it can't be the only one.

The general poverty of the region is also an essential factor pushing young men into a career in fighting. Per-capita income in the North Caucasus ranges from $8500 in Dagestan to $2640 in Chechnya to $773 in Ingushetia. Even including the wealthier neighboring administrative units, such as Rostov Oblast, the average income in the region is less than half the national average. Even in the wealthier localities such as Dagestan, which benefits from massive deposits of energy resources, the financial benefits aren't broadly shared among the populace due both to social structure and massive corruption within the local and regional governments.

High levels of unemployment are the norm, and frustration with the system is a large part of what drives so many young men without prospects "into the forest," local slang for joining the Islamist rebels who seem to offer an alternative to the status quo. While the mayor of Makhachkala (who was recently indicted for the assassination of a political rival), claims that unemployment is effectively zero, the UN places the number around 13 percent, and other experts estimate that the aggregate proportion is closer to twenty percent. In rural areas, such as the Tsumadinsky District from which UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov hails, unemployment is as high as a shocking eighty percent.

Via Khabib Nurmagomedov's Instagram page: his home village in rural Dagestan.

The natural consequence of these economic conditions, including the extreme scarcity of usable land in the mountainous landscape and the conflicts that accompany it, is a high rate of population mobility. The flow of people runs from villages in impoverished rural areas like the Tsumadinsky District to towns, towns to cities, and from urban centers like Makhachkala out of the region altogether. 10,000 people per year leave Dagestan alone, bound for destinations both within Russia - Moscow and nearby Rostov-on-Don are popular choices - or out of the country altogether.

Fighters from the North Caucasus are just one expression of this emigration, which can be a multi-step, back-and-forth process eventually leading out of the country. Ali Bagautinov is an illustrative example: originally from Kizlyar in the northwest of Dagestan, he went to college in Makhachkala and worked there for several years before taking up fighting full-time and moving to Moscow. When he was signed to the UFC, he began doing his training camps in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he now moves between Albuquerque, Moscow, and Dagestan. Fighters fit neatly into the broad pattern of emigration out of the North Caucasus.

From an economic perspective, there's a clear incentive to turn a marketable skill - in this case, being really good at punching another guy in the face - into the prospect of a better life. That better life, or at least the means to make substantial amounts of money to bring back to the North Caucasus, is much more likely to be found outside the region than within.

It's worth asking, however, whether that fighting skill itself differs in meaningful ways from those of promising prospects in other parts of Russia or the world. I'd argue that it does, in the sense that fighters from the North Caucasus uniformly possess high levels of skill in wrestling. Wrestling is mixed martial arts' lone indispensable skill set: even at the highest levels of the sport, one can get away with not having great skills on the ground or being a non-threatening striker (although not both), but woe to the fighter who doesn't have the ability to dictate whether the fight goes to the ground or stays standing.

No place on the face of the planet produces wrestling talent at the rates of the North Caucasus, and the presence of Dagestani, Chechen, Ingush, and North Ossetian wrestlers on the national team is what makes Russia a perennial wrestling powerhouse. Of the 37 Olympic medals the Russian team has won since 2000, wrestlers from the North Caucasus were responsible for 29 of them. Moreover, the trend is getting stronger: North Caucasians won five of the nine Russian medals in 2000, six of nine in 2004, all ten in 2008, and eight of nine in 2012. In point of fact, for the London Olympics the Freestyle team didn't include a single wrestler of non-Caucasian descent. Take a look at the results from the 2013 Russian Freestyle National Tournament: it's littered with place-names from the North Caucasus. The pattern becomes even clearer if one includes the numerous emigres from the region who now compete for countries aside from Russia.

It's not chance or some particular genetic mutation common in the area that produces this incredible concentration of wrestling skill; it's the fact that youth participation rates in wrestling are among the highest on the planet. Just about every child growing up in Dagestan wrestles at some level or another, participating in a constant, brutal cycle of competition designed to cull the very best wrestlers from the pack and prepare them for the next level in a ladder culminating in Olympic gold.

Of course, there are youth wrestling programs all around the world, especially in the United States. Aside from small pockets in largely rural areas, however, nowhere in America approaches the sheer scale of youth participation in the North Caucasus, and certainly not spread over as large or as populous a region at such extreme rates. In the North Caucasus, unlike the United States, wrestling doesn't have to compete with baseball, basketball, football, and hockey for the most talented athletes. On top of the high participation rates, an organized system of youth competition insures that only the most skilled and athletic wrestlers advance to the next stage, with the most promising wrestlers leaving the region to train at specialized facilities such as that run by three-time Dagestani gold medalist Buvaysar Saitiev in Moscow.

The Federal and regional governments direct substantial funding into state-sponsored wrestling schools run by exceptionally accomplished coaches, which they see as a relatively inexpensive investment in combating Islamist ideologies:

Buvaysar, who won all three of his Olympic golds in the 74-kg (163 lb.) division, describes wrestling the same way Karl Marx described religion — as "a way of controlling the masses." It is meant to serve as an inoculation against extremism, or at least as a distraction from it, by offering the local kids a way out of the slums that does not involve "going to the woods," says Buvaysar, using the Russian slang for joining the insurgency.


It's both brilliant and incredibly cynical at the same time. These organized systems of talent selection for wrestling produce a vast overflow of talented athletes who then move on to other combat sports such as Judo, Combat Sambo, and eventually mixed martial arts. Ali Bagautinov wrestled until he was 19 and achieved substantial success, while even Khabib Nurmagomedov, who's more of a Judo fighter, still wrestled for five years. In all, six of Russia's eleven medalists in Judo since 2000 are natives of the North Caucasus.

The circumstances of training in the North Caucasus might be harsh and spartan compared to the shiny, technologically advanced facilities and scientific methods one can find in the west, but the sheer concentration of talent is incredible. This video clip, for example, contains one current UFC fighter and at least two other prospects who have a strong chance of eventually fighting in the UFC:

Products of this system are beginning to pop up more and more on lists of Combat Sambo champions as well. Combat Sambo is basically MMA with headgear, a jacket that's legal to grasp and manipulate, and a point system that rewards takedowns and landed strikes. Given their strong base in freestyle wrestling and/or Judo, it makes perfect sense that fighters from the North Caucasus would do well in Sambo competition, and that accomplished practitioners of Sambo would translate well to full-blown MMA competition. They tend to be particularly skilled at combining punches with takedowns and striking on the ground, skills that only exist in Sambo and MMA itself. Moreover, the sheer amount of experience high-level Sambists accumulate is incredible: Ali Bagautinov, a world champion, claims to have had more than 400 fights. While Bagautinov is one of the most accomplished Combat Sambo practitioners ever to cross over into high-level mixed martial arts, nearly all of the other North Caucasian fighters in the UFC have earned national and international accolades in the sport.

It's not difficult to see how a place in which the ability to fight is culturally significant might contribute to these trends. All of these different threads - the history of violence in the region, the culture that rewards martial prowess, the difficult economic situation, and the high levels of skill in relevant combat sports - come together in the persons of the athletes themselves, and all of them are essential to understanding the current and future success of fighters from the North Caucasus. They're interwoven in a complex web of mutually reinforcing strands: violent times help to produce cultures that give material rewards to men who are skilled in violent acts, and putting violent people in positions of power contributes to violent times.

The destructive effects of constant low-level conflict don't exactly ameliorate the ugly economic situation, which produces a surplus of young men with strong financial incentives to emigrate to greener pastures. A great many of these young men, having participated in an organized system of competition designed to advance the most talented and skilled athletes, happen to be really, really good at fighting.

The success of fighters from the North Caucasus isn't a mystery. It's not written into their DNA, and it's not simply a product of having grown up in hard times. Instead, they're products of a complex set of circumstances that combine to create a crucible that pours out a seemingly inexhaustible stream of iron-hard fighters who are ready to take their rightful place on the world stage.

Is Ali Bagautinov the fighter to put the North Caucasus on the map? I don't know. The oddsmakers have him as a massive underdog to Demetrious Johnson, and with good reason. When he steps into the cage on Saturday night, however, remember what he and all of his rising countrymen have had to overcome to get where they are. They've survived outright war, decades of low-level fighting between insurgents and Russian federal military and police, terrible economic conditions, and the strong pull of "going into the forest" to join the radical Islamist rebels. They've left their homeland, at least for a while, to follow the dream of a better life.

Every time they go home, however, that other life - that world of government corruption, poverty, fundamentalist imams, suicide bombings, and pitched battles with military and police - is just one bad decision or stretch of bad luck away. Fighters aren't somehow separate from that culture: they wouldn't be who or where they are without it.