On a Monday afternoon in Almaty, Kazakhstan, thousands gathered outside the upmarket Royal Tulip hotel in below freezing temperatures. Scattered clouds converged over the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, visible in the far distance from the stately building. In a few hours, the five-star hotel would illuminate with enchanting lights, glowing to contrast the deep blue sky – the preferred setting for displays of opulence common among the city’s elite. Yet those who gathered on December 12, 2016 -- teenagers and young men dressed in sweatpants, hoodies, and other forms of casual attire -- were there for an entirely different purpose: a glimpse of Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s first Muslim star.
Surrounded by his usual entourage of Caucasus-born fighters and fellow Russian UFC competitors, Khabib arrived at the high-class hotel in a snow white Rolls Royce Phantom, gifted to him by Kazakh oligarchs for the duration of his stay in Almaty. Those still waiting outside in the cold swarmed the vehicle, camera phone and selfie stick in hand, trying to get the Dagestani fighter to look in their direction. All they wanted was a quick photograph of their hero. Khabib obliged whenever possible, though was hard pressed to please the growing mass of rabid fans surrounding the $400,000 luxury vehicle.
Inside the Royal Tulip banquet hall, hundreds of seats had already been laid out for those able to attend the Q&A discussion. By 3pm local time, all were occupied, and dozens more were clamouring for seats outside the building. The hall had reached capacity—still, many bore the bitter cold for little more than a peek at the UFC title challenger. Inside, chants of “Khabib” grew to a deafening crescendo until the fighter appeared on stage. Under the bright lights of the ten full-sized chandeliers illuminating the room, Khabib took his seat alongside his cousin Abubakar Nurmagomedov, and fellow UFC fighters Zubaira Tukhugov and Islam Makhachev.
For a little more than an hour, they were the most recognizable faces in Almaty.
Khabib fielded questions from wide-eyed children, ambitious teenagers, and the occasional elder. He spoke about his dominant performance against Michael Johnson at UFC 205, his imminent goal to become the first Russian UFC champion, and a potential showdown with UFC superstar Conor McGregor. The mere mention of the Irishman’s name brought life to the crowd, and their chants amplified throughout the spacious hall. The Kazakhs fed off each other’s energy; so much so that a stout, gray-haired man emerged at the front of the crowd to give Khabib some advice on how to handle McGregor.
Khabib smiled and remained silent, clearly humbled by his legions of vocal supporters of all shapes and sizes. Despite being a Russian citizen of Dagestani heritage, Kazakhstan’s largest city was overrun with his fans – a reminder that his popularity has been without borders. His religion provided common ground with the Kazakhs, 70% of whom practice Islam. Many who approached to ask questions during the Q&A greeted the fighter with ‘Salam Alaykum,’ Arabic for ‘Peace be Upon You,’ a greeting common among Muslims of all races. It was also a way for fans who shared a similar background to identify with Khabib, to let him know that his fellow Muslims in post-Soviet countries wanted to share in his journey.
“Muslims are the largest minority in Russia,” said Igor Lazorin, an MMA reporter for Tass.ru. “They could be very supportive of him.”
Not since the great Fedor Emelianenko had Russia seen a fighter as popular as Khabib Nurmagomedov, yet even the legendary heavyweight was unable to tap into the reservoir of Muslim fight fans in Russia’s now-neighboring countries. Likewise however, Khabib may never reach Fedor’s stature among Slavic Russians. In order to understand the Dagestani’s popularity - as well as its potential limitations - fans must first understand Khabib’s origins; his social standing through sports, as well as Russia’s ethnic divide.
The Russian Bear
Khabib came into the world on September 20, 1988 to Avar parents in the modest village of Silde, in Dagestan. His father, Abdulmanap, has said that his son learned to walk on a wrestling mat. And the adage was no exaggeration. A hardened coach with a remarkable resume of championships and accolades from his glory days during the USSR, Abdulmanap was training more than a dozen wrestlers on the bottom floor of his two-story residence at the time his son was born. He took these men in, rural youths from the local village, believing they had they potential to join Dagestan’s national freestyle team, if driven by the necessary tutelage. During practices, young Khabib would crawl around on the mats in the gym and, as his father tells it, eventually learned to walk on the yellow surface.
Three days after his ninth birthday, Khabib was led outside by his father, and towards a chained bear cub. The cub was larger and heavier than the trembling boy dressed in his red, blue, and white tracksuit. Abdulmanap turned on a handheld camera, looked down at his second-born and ordered him to wrestle the animal. Well accustomed to the Dagestani culture and patriarchy even at his young age, the boy knew better than to question his father’s wishes.
Khabib tucked his chin and dove for the bear’s front paw.
“A child always wants his father to see what his son is capable of," Abdulmanap said. "It is a pity that there was nothing more interesting when he was younger. In the end, this was a test of character more than exercise."
The video was recorded in 1997, but it took on a more pivotal role in Khabib’s life 17 years later. Leaked footage of him wrestling an un-muzzled bear went viral in the MMA community and added to his already growing mystique as an undefeated fighter from Russia’s south-west mountain range. Unexpectedly, the bear became Khabib’s personal mascot in the UFC, a symbol of Russian might that appealed to a Western audience who long associated bears with the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation.
The bear image was often used in Soviet propaganda. It appeared as the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and more recently was taken up as the symbol for Russia’s ruling political party, United Russia. While Khabib was still a child learning to walk on a wrestling mat, Greco-Roman great Alexander Karelin had already earned the nickname ‘Russian Bear.’ It seemed fitting that the bear eventually found Khabib, the fighter many believe is destined to become Russia’s first UFC champion.
Khabib’s upbringing was not particularly unique among Dagestani families. While most children did not have judo and wrestling champions for parents, almost all young boys between the age of eight and ten tested their resolve on a wrestling mat. Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap, provided a small gym that encouraged rural youth to participate in basic combat sports to build confidence, discipline, and ensure preparedness for the potentially traumatic experiences that ravished the North Caucasus. Having lived through radical fundamentalism and separatist warfare in the Chechen Wars in the 1990s, Abdulmanap took a pragmatic approach to combat sports and its pivotal role in the formation of Caucasus youth.
"I believe every man must be ready for war … even in peaceful times,” Abdulmanap told BloodyElbow in 2015. “It is always a topic of discussion in the Caucasus."
Born into a family of champions, Khabib not only carried the expectations of his own success to the United States, but also a highlander’s proud heritage and traumatic memories of the past.
The Eagle in the Mountains
Khabib hails from Dagestan, one of Russia’s most troubled republics during the past few decades. According to stats provided by the General Prosecutor’s Office in Russia, the region is home to the highest amount of terrorist crimes in the nation. The data suggests that 966 cases of terrorism-related incidents were recorded in 2016 alone. By comparison, Chechnya, Russia’s more notably controversial republic led by de facto dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, had 187 terrorism crimes in 2016, less than one fifth the amount of activity reported in its neighbor. Unfortunately, this well-publicized data has only further marred an already tattered North Caucasus image throughout the rest of Russia.
Approximately 80% of Russia’s population is considered ethnic Russian (commonly referred to as Slavic) and 75% adhere to the Russian Orthodox faith. The fall of the Soviet Union’s centralist government allowed minority groups to demand cultural and political autonomy. Eventually, as a result ethnic tension rose as those groups’ have struggled to regain their identity and homelands from traditional Russians. Under Russian president Vladimir Putin, who believed that as many as 2000 potential ethnic conflicts existed in Russia, the Kremlin resumed control of ethnic regions and selected their leaders (e.g. Chechnya/Ramzan Kadyrov following the Chechen Wars). This is a large part of why Russians generally make a clear distinction between ethnicity and nationality, the latter of which is never questioned. But, because of this diverse ethnic history, the Russian Federation has been plagued with issues of racism.
Racism can seep into all aspects of society, including sports. However, given that various ethnicities still represent the Russian Federation and its tri-color flag, minority athletes are more likely to find unexpected support among the broader public. Often, that support comes at a price.
“The Russian sports fans that I talk to say that in Russia, popular athletes are those who win in popular sports, and that ethnicity is not an issue. But in reality this is only true on the surface,” said Joanna Paraszczuk, a researcher on terrorism in the North Caucasus. “North Caucasian athletes are only popular or even acceptable as long as they present themselves as Russians rather than as Dagestanis or Chechens.”
According to Paraszczuk, judoka Beslan Mudranov (an ethnic Kabardian from Kabardino-Balkaria) and freestyle wrestler Abdulrashid Sadulaev (an ethnic Avar from Dagestan) are primary examples of this homogenization process. Both won gold medals for Russia at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, and were lauded as ethnic Russians.
“Their North Caucasian identities were largely erased: e.g. Sadulaev is nicknamed the "Avar tank" but was dubbed the "Russian tank" by most of the Russian media,” Paraszczuk explained. “North Caucasians are extremely cynical about this issue: memes which shows Mudranov winning at the Olympics and the caption "The Olympics: the only time that Russia loves North Caucasians" were widely shared on Facebook and VKontakte in August.”
Khabib’s tenure with the UFC has been riddled with similar misconceptions. Paraszczuk noted that “North Caucasians complain that MMA fans outside of Russia don't understand that MMA fighters from the North Caucasus aren't Russians.” Since the UFC is primarily tailored to a North American audience, these concerns aren’t without grounds in reality. For years, former UFC play-by-play commentator Mike Goldberg bellowed inaccurate explanations of Khabib’s background, helping cement the geopolitical misconception among fans that all Russians share a relatively homogenous ethnicity.
Some of the concern that North Caucasus fighters are being whitewashed is due to the rejuvenated ethnic bonds that have arisen following the fall of the Soviet Union. Violence eventually stemmed from renewed calls for independence and autonomy, which re-established the clear ethnic divide visible within Russia. As Chechnya sought independence in the 1990s, for example, the resulting bloodshed, civil war, and acts of domestic terrorism helped affirm longstanding central Russian feelings of racial hostility towards the various ethnicities of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 2008 the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights announced troubling surveys that showed that xenophobia and other racist expressions were prevalent in approximately half the country’s population.
Those from the Caucasus are used to racism. “They call us n*****s to our faces,” a Chechen fight fan told BloodyElbow in St. Petersburg, Russia’s multicultural hub. “They don’t care about us.”
While racism is a significant problem plaguing the Russian Federation in the form of neo-Nazism, antisemitism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia, it could be argued that MMA occupies an interesting vacuum within society. With Fedor Emelianenko no longer the dominant force he once was, Slavic Russian MMA fans are forced to look to North Caucasus fighters as the representatives of Russian might within the eight-sided cage.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, with his perfect 24-0 record is in title contention on the biggest international stage. And he stands as a perfect example of the limitations of choice.
“Khabib is really on of the most popular athletes in Russia,” Lazorin explained. “Russian press write his name everyday and he is on top now. For example, Russian soccer players don’t get big results now but Russian MMA fighters get big fights.”
It may not necessarily improve race relations, but his popularity among Russian Slavs suggests that some fighters from the North Caucasus could potentially transcend the ethnic divide. However, this acceptance mechanism is far from a perfect system and can also lead to further racial entrenchment.
“North Caucasians feel that despite his popularity Khabib's religion and ethnicity are still issues for some Russian MMA fans,” noted Paraszczuk. “A Chechen MMA fan told me that he feels nervous whenever North Caucasians fight internationally and represent Russia, since he thinks Russians don't really support North Caucasian fighters, and because Russian fans think North Caucasians like Khabib are humiliating Russian fighters (by stealing the spotlight from them.)”
The Muslim Fighter’s Thorny Path to Stardom
On November 24, 2015, a video purportedly released by the Islamic State featured highlights from Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fights in several clips. The video, titled ‘The Lone Wolf,’ called for a renewed focus on international terrorism. It also criticized Muslims like Khabib who fought for money and entertainment instead of defending Islam on the battlefield. It was an attempt to shame the fighter for his choice while simultaneously shunning him as a role model for Muslims. If Khabib could be shone to no longer be a legitimate role model for Dagestani youth, many of those who followed in his path might be pivoted towards fundamentalism.
Khabib was a counter to jihadi recruitment in the region, and the Islamic State was well aware of it.
“Khabib's appeal to Muslims could have a very positive effect in the fight against radicalization, in that his success and popularity give him a platform to counter radical voices who say that Muslims are forbidden from fighting MMA (and should turn to jihad instead),” said Paraszczuk, who has focused a significant portion of her journalistic research on tracking Russian-speaking foreign soldiers in Syria.
Following in the footsteps of his own father, who spent decades giving youth an alternative to insurgency through participation in sports, Khabib is aware that his success abroad is pivotal in inspiring Caucasus youth entrenched in Russia’s societal problems.
Khabib is also an accepted role model for North Caucasus youth because he not only represented his nation successfully, but proudly embraced the identity of his mountaineer ancestors. His nickname, ‘The Eagle,’ as well as his Papakha headgear, pay homage to centuries of highlander heritage. He is a practicing Muslim who speaks openly about his religiosity, his devotion to God, and his refusal to place fighting as a higher priority than his spirituality. These aspects of his personality have only furthered his position as a role model for North Caucasus youth, the vast majority of whom are Muslim.
The fans who resonate with Khabib’s career are the ones who crowded the Makhachkala airport to ensure the fighter received a hero’s welcome upon his return from battle in the United States, the ones who rioted in a Moscow mall when a planned Khabib Q&A didn’t take place on time, and the ones who make up a significant portion of his 1.9 million Instagram followers. Yet while Khabib’s stardom is undeniable among his fellow highlanders, some question whether his more controversial ties could also make him a more polarizing figure.
“The degree to which Khabib can be a role model in the North Caucasus depends also on the extent to which his success is seen as something he has achieved for himself, without connection to the pro-Kremlin regimes in his home region. If Khabib is presented by Russia and the local regimes in the North Caucasus as a ‘Russian’ fighter who is a willing part of this pro-Moscow establishment then this could contribute to the alienation of young men who are unhappy with the regime, who could then be targets for radicalization.”
Kadyrov, the somewhat-infamous president of the Chechen Republic, rose to power in 2007 and has ruled over his people with impunity ever since. He is considered a loyalist to Putin, and receives a sizable budget to spend however he chooses on the republic in return. He regularly reiterates pro-Kremlin statements on his popular Instagram account, his preferred medium for communication with his subjects.
Kadyrov’s foray into MMA began in 2015, when he founded the Akhmat MMA promotion (now WFCA) and invited former UFC champions Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum and Chris Weidman to attend the first show. He has since hosted other UFC fighters, including Khabib, Alexander Gustafsson, Frankie Edgar, Makwan Amirkhani, Ilir Latifi. Werdum also happens to be an ambassador to Kadyrov’s MMA promotion.
Kadyrov has shown some special interest in Khabib, promoting him on Instagram account and hosting him at Akhmat shows. While Khabib hasn’t shown any particularly public support for Kadyrov beyond accepting his invitations, Paraszczuk believes Islamic militant recruiters will continuously consider new ways to penetrate vulnerable minds.
MMA in the North Caucasus is simply too great a hotbed to resist.
“North Caucasian radical Islamists have already capitalized on the Russian media's presentation of Olympic athletes like Mudranov as Russians, for example, by criticizing them not only as ‘bad’ Muslims who fight for money but also as puppets in the service of the ‘infidel’ Russian regime. So it's easy to see how radical Islamists in the North Caucasus and elsewhere could use Khabib's success in the same way.”
Yet despite the difficult path ahead, Khabib appears to have fully embraced his role among his native people. His trajectory as a successful professional fighter in the United States has paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps. And because of his popularity, those around the fighter believe the long-term development of mixed martial arts in Russia rests solely on the Eagle’s shoulders.
Once his UFC career is behind him, Khabib will likely follow in the footsteps of other notable Russian athletes. Some decide to open gyms and help train a new generation of athletes to represent their nation. Other pursue a career in politics, whether at a local or federal level. In Khabib’s case, he could potentially take over Fedor’s role as the president of the Russian MMA Union when elections take place again in 2020. He could also take on a role as sports advisor to the Kremlin, or a more pronounced role in the republic of Dagestan as a future minister of sports. The opportunities seem endless for the young star.
Khabib’s success and stardom has allowed him to transcend the ethnic divide in Russia to a remarkable extent, but it has also served as a reminder that those who are gifted with exceptional tools are obligated to use them well.
Note: This longform feature was originally published ahead of UFC 209.