Celebrated Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, once penned the tale Prisoner of the Caucasus, while in exile from his native Saint Petersburg. It is narrative poem about a Russian aristocrat who is captured by highlanders and hoisted off to a village in the ‘Caucasus.' There he took a liking to a beautiful villager. In time, she helped him escape, but following his release, he rejected her love. Depressed, the voluptuous villager killed herself.
The classic poem juxtaposed the wild, fertile freedom of the Caucasus and the supposed savagery that polluted its nature. That was the defining view of the mysterious land for centuries.
While it took years for the region to recover from its romantic era in literature, modern times have been even less kind to its people. The North Caucasus has recently experienced increasing scrutiny from Western media, and has become associated with charged terms such as fundamentalism, warfare and dictatorship. Once an area that instilled a sense of rapture, it is now a region rife with political and religious tension. The mountainous landscapes, once treasured for their breathtaking splendour under the morning sun, are now seen as barren wilderness - home to guerrilla fighters.
In spite of this recent trend, the North Caucasus has proven to be an untapped reservoir of athletic talent waiting to explode onto the global stage. Whether it be their violent, tragic history, the harsh economic climate that engulfs them, or the wrestling and grappling traditions embedded in the culture, fighting has become a professional art form for Caucasian men.
One of the prospects at the helm of the latest generation of Caucasian exports is Khusein Khaliev, an overwhelmingly talented welterweight who has become a cult favourite for hardcore fans of Russian mixed martial arts.
Khaliev was born in Grozny, the capital city of the Republic of Chechnya, one of the larger republics in the region situated between the Caspian and Black Seas. Combined, the entire North Caucasus consists of Dagestan, Chechyna, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygea.
"Backgrounds, culture, lifestyles and values are all pretty similar in these areas," Khaliev told BloodyElbow.com through a translator. "There were some wars in the past few decades, which of course affected my own personal upbringing, but our fighting culture in this region actually stems more from the past hundreds of years... a very, very old culture, with ancient values of heroism, honor, respect, and even rules and codes for fighting, for settling disputes."
Those ancient values - that was the fighting spirit embedded in the North Caucasus.
In 1816, Tsar Alexander I sought to complete the Russo-Circassian War started by Peter the Great in 1763. With it began the near-fifty year conquest of the Northern mountain region known as the Caucasian War, one of Russia's bloodiest conflicts to date—but it was also a war that helped shape modern Caucasian society.
The conquest entailed a full-blown invasion of the Caucasus region, including Chechnya, Dagestan, and the Circassian territories of Adyghe and Kabarday. The intention was to incorporate the regions into the Russian state and subject them to a Christian ruler, thus shrinking the potential influence of the Ottoman Empire over the area.
Some territories succumbed to the pressure; Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were significantly affected and shaped by the Russian wars with the Persian Empire. However, Chechnya, Dagestan and Circassia mounted significant resistance and refused to bow down to the Tsar.
"It would be shameful to cower from any threat, from any challenge, or to let someone disrespect a woman, a family member or a guest in your house. During the Caucasus' wartimes, it was considered to be a disgrace in our culture if a man lived to be beyond forty years old. Since way back, there were always informal contests of strength, agility, bravery and skill - some even involving weapons and horsemanship, and then later, more organized combat sports came about."
Renowned Russian General Alexander Yermolov built several forts along the Sunja River in 1818, with the intention of creating suitable defence mechanisms for the Russian army. One of those was ‘Fort Grozny,' which would later become the foundation for the capital city of Chechnya. Searching for a term to describe the savagery located in the region, the Russians named the site ‘Grozny'--terrible—to emphasize their feelings towards the locals.
That contemptuous mentality festered over the years. The Chechen people have experienced warfare at least once a century over the last 500 hundred years—including a relatively brief but violent spat at the beginning of the 21st century—mainly with the Russian motherland. Hundreds of years of callused citizens have shaped their unrivalled fighting culture.
"You just cannot be a man in this culture and not know how to fight; it is bred in and taught to us from the earliest ages."
As a child, Khusein didn't like to fight. When reminiscing about his past, Khusein referred to himself as "wimpy" and a "coward." This made him unusual amongst his peers at that time; he was picked on in school and did not have the physical strength to defend himself. Had war not broken out in the late 1990s, Khusein would probably be a very different man today.
The Russian Federation launched a campaign against Chechnya in the summer of 1999 to restore federal control over the republic after it had declared itself independent and attempted to invade Dagestan. Open combat and battles took place over the first year of the war as Russian forces attempted to wrestle control from the militant resistance.
Chechen man prays during the battle for Grozny// Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev (Mikhail Evstafiev) via Wikimedia Commons
Nearby fighting forced Khusein and his family to flee from their homes in Grozny and into a refugee camp in the village of Znamenskoey. Survival was their only goal.
"I never liked to fight before, but wartime changed me. When you walk around hungry, you build courage and aggression quickly. You lose your fear."
While pure and innocent prior to the start of the war, a few years in the refugee camp quickly hardened Khusein and his twin brother Khasan. Khaliev discovered his aggression while fighting for his share of the available canned food.
"By the time I was eleven, I was always ready to fight, to do whatever I had to...like a man. For a while, there was no lodging or food at all. Eventually, the Red Cross brought canned goods and supplies to the camp."
In this manner, Khusein ‘hustled' his way into his martial arts training.
"We would conserve and skimp as best we could, and so any extra food me and Khasan would sell or exchange for training in Tae-Kwon-Do. By hustling like this and being resourceful, we were actually even able to travel and compete occasionally.
"This changed my life."
In 2000, President Vladimir Putin regained control of Chechnya and established Russian autonomy over the republic. Akhmad Kadyrov was placed at the helm of the Chechen government and maintained good ties with Moscow. Following his assassination in 2004, there was a struggle for power, and the deceased president's son, Ramzan Kadyrov, ascended to rule at the age of 30. With the support of Putin and the financial backing of the Russian government, Kadyrov was able to redevelop Chechnya's war-torn cities and infrastructure.
While he has come under criticism in Western media for his dictatorial approach to governing, Khaliev believes Kadyrov was instrumental to Chechnya's recent economic upsurge.
"Thanks to the President of the Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, the environment recently has become very modern and nicely developed. Despite the ruins and past devastation from the war, the city is now very beautiful, completely rebuilt with malls, high-rises, paved roads and good public transportation."
Khusein grew up in a household with four other brothers: Rustam, Aslan, Adam, and his twin Khasan. His oldest brother, Rustam, is 2-time world champion in combat sports, while recent UFC signee, Adam, is an eight-time world champion (3-kudo, 5 kickjitsu/pankration). His twin, Khasan, is a five-time kickboxing world champion and, according to Khusein, is currently listed as one of the overall top 10 pound-for-pound kickboxers in Russia.
So, with family roots being laid in martial arts, it was only natural that Khusein would follow suit.
"I started in Tae-Kwon-Do and karate when I was around eight years old. I've done Hand-to-Hand combat since 2006, which is very similar to sambo and MMA. I also did kickboxing & "kickjitsu.""
Before fully committing to his MMA career, Khusein achieved notable success in various Russian tournaments. He is a champion in shootboxing, pankration, and Daido-Judo Karate (KUDO).
In 2010, Khusein took part in his first professional MMA fight. It was in FC Bystriy Fights in Chechnya, and he needed exactly 100 seconds to win by armbar. During the first two years on the Russian circuit, he compiled a 7-0 record, only one of which went to decision.
Khusein was a natural. He credits the Russian martial arts tradition and his extensive background in various tournaments for his smooth transition into MMA.
"A lot of Russian fighters coming to the UFC have extensive backgrounds in these two sports, as well as wrestling, and it does prepare them well for MMA. Also, we probably start younger, and are used to fighting a lot more frequently: there are tournament-style competitions where we may fight 3-5 times in a single event, so we tend to get a lot more practical experience than our American counterparts in a much shorter period of time."
Khusein with his head coach at K Dojo Murat MK Keshtov
In 2013, however, Khusein suffered the sole loss of his career. It was a learning experience that forced him to make changes to his training regimen; in fact, it was this loss that prompted him to join K Dojo Warrior Tribe gym in New Jersey, where he now studies under the tutelage of renowned coach Murat Keshtov.
"Since moving to K Dojo, I'm definitely more dedicated to consistent training and to improving my overall skill set. I'm more well rounded because of the individualized attention I've received there."
Khusein's American gym experiences do not stop at K Dojo. He once spent three months at American Top Team, which he enjoyed but found that he felt more comfortable back at the New Jersey-based gym where his teammates and coaches genuinely cared about him as a person as well as a fighter. That sort of loyalty and dedication is priceless, according to Khusein.
"Only a coach who works with you closely and who is really dedicated to your evolution as a fighter can call you out on that stuff, make you work on the weaker parts of your game until they too become as strong as your best parts."
He even began to find stark similarities between his native Grozny and Fairfield, New Jersey.
"Visually, I think there are a lot of similarities in these environments, but perhaps more cultural differences. And it's weird, but the weather in NJ and the weather back home are almost always the same; they seem to mirror each other."
Khusein's part-time relocation to the United States was a difficult decision to make. He did not enjoy being away from his family, and enjoyed the company of his friends in Chechnya. However, his ambition to succeed as a professional fighter made his move an essential one.
He has already fought twice in America over the past year, and is scheduled to compete in the inaugural Akhmat MMA fight card in his hometown of Grozny. Given the support Kadyrov has shown him on his official Instagram account over the years, Khaliev is motivated to earn the victory in front of his fellow countrymen.
Then, he will set his sights on the UFC.
"We have been in discussions with the UFC recently. One of the main hurdles that I've had is that, although I have wins against very high-level opponents, even some current UFC fighters, they have been in Hand to Hand Combat or other "unsanctioned" events where they do not count on my official record with regard to UFC or the other promoters in the United States.
"Even other pro MMA fights cannot be added because the Russian promoters either never submitted the information to the governing bodies, or submitted it incompletely or incorrectly."
It is a difficult situation for the young prospect. When he first joined K Dojo, his official MMA record was only listed as 7-1. His camp worked vigorously to update the record so that it reads 12-1. However, Khusein says that his actual pro record is 18-1, and he is not the only fighter dealing with this sort of problem.
"The other problem is that most of my opponents, being from Russia, are in the same boat: their records are also MUCH smaller than they really are, so my victories over these guys don't seem all that impressive: the opponent may look like he is only 2-3, for example, but in actuality, he is really 6-3."
While these are some of the obstacles that remain in his path, Khusein is confident he will overcome them this year and find his way into the biggest MMA promotion in the world. Once he arrives, he has big plans for the welterweight division.
"My goal is to not only be in the UFC, but to dominate in the UFC."