When a hooded Shahbulat Shamhalaev entered Port-Petrovsk, a fashionable restaurant in Makhachkala, armed with a hunting rifle and a pistol, he sparked a series of events that shed light on the troubling underbelly of combat sports in Dagestan.
Shamhalaev, a renowned MMA fighter in the region, stormed the restaurant in search of a particular target but was instead ambushed by two hidden assailants. The near-fatal fallout was due to an altercation that occurred the previous day - one of the assailants, a bodyguard for an infamous Dagestani politician, allegedly held a gun to Shamhalaev's head following a verbal confrontation. Shamhalaev was out to settle a score. It was kill or be killed.
Instead of vengeance, however, Shahbulat found himself attached to a ventilator while doctors frantically operated in an attempt to save his vital organs. Six puncture holes were peppered across his pale skin, the result of the seemingly targeted attack. With his condition stabilized, the Dagestan native was placed in an induced coma. He woke up several days later, attacked a nurse - "hallucinogenic effects of the medication," one of the doctors said - and inexplicably attempted to escape the hospital in broad daylight the following day.
Shamhalaev was eventually discharged from hospital. Far too weak to walk himself out, he slouched in a wheelchair while an old friend escorted him out of the building. All that physically remained of his traumatic experience was a visible scar on his left temple where one of the six bullets grazed his skin.
Shamhalaev knew how lucky he was. Targeted athletes in Dagestan do not live to tell the tale.
In the aftermath of Shamhalaev's shooting, reports emerged that linked the popular fighter to Russian MMA pioneer Mussail Alaudinov, the late head coach of the infamous 'Gorets' gym in Dagestan. The relationship is significant, as Alaudinov was assassinated because of his unsavoury ties with the detained Makhachkala mayor, Mr. Said Amirov.
Alaudinov was gunned down by an automatic weapon while on the Makhachkala - Kaspiysk highway. His Toyota Camry showed 27 bullet holes, and the murder weapon—a Kalashnikov—was left next to the car.
The 27 shots sent the same message: old alliances had been broken.
Officials who investigated the murder suggested that Alaudinov likely became part of a "turf war" that resulted when Amirov's clan lost power following the former mayor's arrest. Local gangs tried to gain influence by forming ties with Amirov's close associates. Alaudinov potentially said no, and died for his defiance.
However, investigators did not rule out the possibility that Alaudinov could have been murdered on the ex-mayor's orders to eliminate a potentially key witness. Amirov and his nephew Yusup Djaparov, a Deputy Mayor of Caspiysk, were arrested in Dagestan on June 1, one month before Alaudinov's death. He is suspected of having ordered the murder of state investigator Arsen Gadzhibeko in 2011. Police believed that Alaudinov was well aware of Amirov's criminal activity based on their publicized working relationship, and thus became a liability.
Guaranteed silence came with the price of Alaudinov's death.
Alaudinov was once an influential figure in Dagestan. A longtime friend of the Amirov family, especially the younger son in charge of the Dagestan regional Bailiff Service, the head of the 'Gorets' fight club - roughly translates to 'Highlander - used to offer his best fighters to the former mayor as part of his security detail. He personally handpicked the fighters who would represent the gym in the mayor's security team. The most talented fighters quickly rose up the ranks, while others served as unofficial enforcers and debt collectors.
Amirov, who reigned as the mayor of Makhachkala between 1998-2013, was accused of widespread corruption during his turbulent tenure in power. Though he was responsible for economic growth during that period, it was accompanied by power struggles, violent crimes and assassinations. He survived numerous attempts on his life but spent his days in a wheelchair, the result of a bullet that collided with his spinal cord in 1993. His eventual arrest in June 2013 brought about significant changes to the tense political structure in the Dagestani capital. There was a power vacuum that needed to be filled.
Though Alaudinov was likely complacent in Amirov's shady ongoings, a fair percentage of his top fighters did not associate with the Dagestani underworld. UFC lightweight Rashid Magomedov, M-1 Global middleweight champion Ramazan Emeev, and the recently targeted Shahbulat Shamhalaev were among the ones who remained focused on their professional careers. Emeev, who referred to the case as one filled with "dark secrets," is still nurturing the emotional laceration received from the untimely tragedy. He regularly continues to train at the Gorets gym, where he senses Alaudinov's spirit.
"The only difference since then is that he is gone," Emeev told BloodyElbow. "Nothing else changed, we keep working in the same way, and we have a lot of strong fighters. We all miss him a lot. He was like a brother to all of us."
Shamhalaev is merely the latest in a long list of athletes in Dagestan who have suffered the consequences of blood feuds, criminal gangs, or political power struggles. On January 14, 2012, renowned Kung Fu and Wushu Sanda champion Yunus Huseynov, was killed by a militant. Huseynov, who had begun working for the FSB division in Dagestan shortly beforehand, was shot seven times while off duty.
Two years later, 20-year-old boxer Rasul Gadzhimagomedov was stabbed to death on a street in Krasnodar following a conflict over an incurred debt. Criminal gangs, known to ask reputable athletes to pay regular tributes to ensure their safety, were likely involved. A similar incident occurred to Dagestani midfielder Gasan Magomedov, who was gunned down in his car in 2015.
Perhaps the greatest cautionary tale is that of Ali Bulachaev, the Dagestani judoka who was killed "under mysterious circumstances" for his work with law enforcement in the region. Bulachaev was gunned down while seated in his car in March 2012.
His wife, Patimat Abakarova, joined the ranks of a Dagestani terrorist group shortly thereafter.
Patimat became involved with the fundamentalists through her cousin Sabine, who was married to the leader of the terrorist group that was responsible for killing 13 and injuring 100 in May 2012. Sabine's husband was eventually eliminated by a special operations unit. Patimat was arrested the following year for an attempted bombing in Makhachkala.
The tragic trend of athlete shootings is undeniable. Countless athletes have suffered because of political forces at play, and deep-rooted tensions between law enforcement and fundamentalist militant operations.
Even those who refuse to take part in the war get caught in the crossfire.