In the months following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant victory against Conor McGregor at UFC 229, the Eagle’s popularity has continued to soar. After defeating McGregor by fourth round submission to cement his status as the undisputed UFC lightweight champion, the Dagestani native embarked on a victory tour around the world to celebrate his accomplishment. He also met with an array of controversial politicians and world leaders such as Russian president Vladimir Putin, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov,and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The Middle Eastern portion of Nurmagomedov’s expedition also included stops in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he met with members of the respective royal families. While in Dubai, the UFC champion posed alongside Sagid Murtazaliev, an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling who was accused of financing terrorism and is a suspect in several murders. He fled Russia and is currently wanted by the government.
The picture of Nurmagomedov alongside Murtazaliev showcases the fighter’s growing popularity among corrupt politicians and gangsters. While not unexpected in a place like Dagestan where combat sports are exceptionally popular, it also sheds light on the concerns that face popular athletes from the region, as well as the dangerous trajectory many undertake following a career in sports.
Understanding the potential threats facing the current UFC lightweight champion begins by making sense of the socio-economic and political climate in Dagestan, and how Islamic insurgency and corruption scandals played a role in the deaths of countless Dagestani athletes.
Gangsters and Politicians
Over the past few years, there has been a startling trend of athletes from the North Caucasus being targeted or killed as the result of gang violence, Islamic insurgency, blood feuds, or political power struggles. Each case revealed the dangers that arise when athletes from the region reach celebrity status and are confronted by politicians or gangsters who want to use them as a means to an end. While such incidents occur throughout Russia and the Caucasus, the highest number of murdered athletes has been in Dagestan.
Some Dagestani athletes who transitioned to law enforcement after sports were targeted by insurgents due to the deep-rooted tension between the police and militants in the region. In January 2012, renowned Kung Fu and Wushu Sanda champion Yunus Huseynov was killed by a militant. Huseynov, who at the time was working for the Federal Security Service (FSB) division in Dagestan, was shot seven times while off duty. The killer reportedly shouted “Allah Akbar” as he fired seven rounds into the victim.
Two months later, noted judoka Ali Bulachaev was killed under “mysterious circumstances” when he was gunned down in his car in March 2012. It is believed that Bulachaev, who died at the scene from the gunshot wounds, was targeted due to his work with law enforcement in Dagestan. Following Bulachaev’s murder, his wife Patimat Abakarova became involved with a Dagestani terrorist group. Abakarova was radicalized by her cousin Sabine, who was married to the leader of the terrorist group that was responsible for killing 13 and injuring a hundred others in May 2012. Sabine’s husband was eventually eliminated by a special operations unit while Patimat was arrested in 2013 for an attempted bombing in Makhachkala.
In 2014, 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.
While none of the aforementioned athletes are recognizable names outside of the Russian Federation, Western audiences were introduced to the dangerous world of Dagestani sports in 2016 when former Bellator featherweight Shahbulat Shamhalaev was shot in a fashionable restaurant in Makhachkala.
Shamhalaev, who had walked into the restaurant armed with a pistol and a hunting rifle to settle a score, was shot from behind by two assailants. The dispute between the fighter and the assailants, who were later identified as the bodyguards of a Dagestani politician, began the previous day when one of the bodyguards held a gun to Shamhalaev’s head.
”It all started one day before the shootout,” an unnamed athlete told MK. “On May 31, Shahbulat was dragged from a conversation into an argument. Words were exchanged and eventually the guy hit Shamhalaev. He wanted to respond but they got out a pistol and began firing into the ground. Then they pointed their guns at his head and said: ‘Do not show off then get killed.”
After being shot six times in the restaurant, Shamhalaev was hospitalized and placed in a medical coma. He awoke several days later, attacked a nurse, and attempted to escape the hospital before being stopped by security. Doctor’s blamed Shamhalaev’s bizarre actions on the “hallucinogenic effects” of the medication. He was discharged three weeks later.
While Shamhalaev never clarified the reasons behind the attack, reports suggested that Shamhalaev was shot because of his publicized friendship with renowned coach and Russian MMA pioneer Musail Allaudinov, the late head coach for the Gorets fightclub in Dagestan who was assassinated because of his ties to detained Makhachkala mayor, Said Amirov.
Investigations into Allaudinov’s death revealed that the renowned coach was gunned down by an automatic weapon while on the highway. His Toyota Camry was peppered with 27 bullet holes, and the murder weapon was left next to the car, which suggested Allaudinov’s death was a contract killing.
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. Investigators also did not rule out the possibility that Alaudinov could have been murdered on the ex-mayor’s orders to eliminate a potentially key witness. Police believed that Alaudinov was well aware of Amirov’s criminal activity based on their publicized working relationship, and thus became a liability.
By all accounts, Alaudinov was a pioneer in Dagestani MMA. He founded the Gorets gym, which produced talent such as UFC middleweight Ramazan Emeev and former UFC fighter Rashid Magomedov. However, while the gym was renowned for its talent, reports confirmed that Alaudinov was also offering his best fighters to the former mayor as part of his security detail.
Alaudinov’s death is a cautionary tale about the consequences that come from being involved with corrupt politicians and gangsters. Dagestan has both in abundance and that continues to be a cause for concern whenever athletes from that republic rise to stardom. While Nurmagomedov may be able to avoid such interactions to the best of his ability, he is also faced with an ideological threat from militants who believe he is a danger to their cause.
An Ideological Dichotomy
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 Nurmagomedov 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 Nurmagomedov 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’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, Nurmagomedov is aware that his success abroad is pivotal in inspiring Caucasus youth entrenched in Russia’s societal problems. Yet while Nurmagomedov’s stardom and influence are undeniable, his ties to controversial politicians make him a polarizing figure and a target for radical groups as well. This became evidently clear following Nurmagomedov’s title defense against McGregor at UFC 229.
In November 2018, journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem delivered a message from the Northern Syria to Nurmagomedov on the ‘On the Ground News’ YouTube channel. Abdul Kareem, an American reporter who has been labeled as a jihadi propagandist by the New York Times, explained that the Syrian people were not happy with Nurmagomedov’s alignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.
“I am here in Northern Syria and this is a message from a big brother to a little brother. I ain’t [sic] got no problem with you except for one thing and that is some of the statements you make about Vladimir Putin. I’m not saying that you praise him but what I am saying is that congratulating him on his victory as president and things of that nature like appearing with Kadyrov from Chechnya — I gotta [sic] tell it to you straight: there are a lot of good Muslim families that have lost so many of their family members here because of Vladimir Putin bankrolling Bashar Al-Assad’s army. They’ve been bombing this place back to the stone ages.
“You are a role model, whether you like to be or not. Don’t fall into the trap.”
While it is unclear whether Abdul Kareem acted as a mouthpiece for Islamic militants when it delivered the message to Nurmagomedov, his statement emphasizes the UFC champion’s current ideological dichotomy. Nurmagomedov views himself as a role model and representative for Muslims around the world. However, his political allegiances to Putin and Kadyrov — two leaders responsible for the Russian military’s onslaught within Syria and the subsequent deaths of thousands of Muslim civilians — makes him a polarizing figure for many Muslims who sympathize with the Syrian struggle.
Though Nurmagomedov’s popularity has arguably reached unprecedented heights for a Dagestani native in Russia, he will have to navigate his newfound stardom if he is to avoid the potential threats facing him. The UFC champion has already interacted with several world leaders since his UFC 229 victory, including Putin, Kadyrov, Erdogan, and members of the UAE and Bahrain royal families. He also posed with a wanted criminal and is managed by a man who has a questionable past. For some, this was a missed opportunity for Nurmagomedov to amend misleading stereotypes about Muslims that flourish in the Western world. Instead of meeting with moderate Arab leaders, the UFC champ preferred to visit countries like the UAE, Turkey, and Bahrain, where repressive regimes rule with an iron fist. This will continue to make Nurmagomedov a polarizing figure, as well as a target for politicians and Islamic insurgents alike.