Back in June 2014, top Russian flyweight Ali Bagautinov challenged Demetrious Johnson for championship gold at UFC 174, only to be sent home empty-handed. It was the closest a Russian fighter had gotten to dethroning a champion in the modern era, and few expected another 125-pounder to materialize.
While Magomed Bibulatov is not technically in Johnson's path at the moment, he is certainly the fighter that many have named as a possible successor to Demetrious' reign.
Born in the Chechen Republic, Magomed, like most active youngsters at the time, was always engaged in sports. He took an immediate interest in combat sports such as wrestling, sambo, and hand-to-hand contests. Soon, his accolades mounted and it became clear that Bibulatov was supremely talented. Combat sports are remarkably popular in the North Caucasus, and Bibulatov's quick rise to the top encouraged him to make the decision to move to MMA.
"I always liked watching MMA fights, especially Fedor Emelianenko, whose career is one that any athlete can be proud of," Bibulatov told BloodyElbow.com.
While represented as a semi-autonomous republic within Russia, Chechnya embodies a culture and spirit that has frequently brought it into conflict with ethnic Russia. Violence that began in the time of Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible in Western literature), resumed during Peter the Great's reign, and finally appeared to end following the Second Chechen War during Putin's era, has created a proud and aggressive people hardened by war.
Unsurprisingly, many Chechen fighters reference their ancestors and the wars with Russia as reasons for their love for fighting. Proud of their history and struggle for freedom, they carry that legacy forward when they step inside the cage.
"Chechnya has long since been called the land of Dzhigits and eagles. My people have always been considered proud and aggressive. They're proud and courageous people. At the same time they are kind, sympathetic, love life and appreciate the best qualities in people."
Interestingly enough, MMA was one of the sports that emerged following the end of conflict between the Chechen Republic and the Kremlin. The second Chechen war led to the rise of the republic's current president, Ramzan Kadyrov. While known in the west as a warlord with a bloody past, Chechen fighters continue to praise Kadyrov's pivotal role in the development of combat sports in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya.
"MMA developed in the republic promptly," Bibulatov explained. "The youth are fond of this sport. The president of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, created all the necessary conditions for training. He leads a healthy lifestyle and supports the youth. Therefore, the youth show good results in combat sports."
Bibultaov himself is a product of Kadyrov's investment in MMA. Once a member of the Absolute Championship Berkut team and promotion, Magomed recently switched teams to Akhmat MMA, an event series that debuted several months ago with heavy support from the Republic's president. During the inaugural event, Bibulatov was featured in the co-main event slot and finished his opponent with a vicious knockout.
Now 9-0 in his professional career with wins over the likes of Taylor Lapilus, Bibulatov has tunnel vision for the UFC but knows that his potential signing with the global promotion will require consistency and impressive wins on his part.
"I will continue to act at the same level. I always had strong rivals and this helps to motivate me for future victories."
However, if the UFC comes calling in the near future, Bibulatov will immediately make the move over to the United States, where he expects to thrive amongst the sport's elite fighters.
"If such offer arrives then I am ready to act. The UFC is the most powerful organization in the world for mixed martial arts. A victory in that promotion grants a fighter the right to be called one of the strongest in the world of MMA."
Bibulatov even suggested that he was ready to challenge flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. While respectful of ‘Mighty Mouse' and his achievements, Bibulatov did not shy away from proclaiming himself a future UFC champion.
"[Demetrious Johnson] is one of the great athlete respected by many fighters. However, I am ready to challenge him now and win the belt."