Words via Darryl Rigby
The Russians are coming.
Well, to be honest, they’ve already arrived – that opening line just seemed like a colourful and an all too tempting way to begin this piece!
But with Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) now the UFC lightweight champion and a raft of his fellow countrymen marching up their respective divisional rankings, an all-out Russian invasion on the sport of MMA could soon be imminent.
For long-time fight fans, Russians competing at the pinnacle of mixed martial arts is nothing new. At the height of his powers around a decade ago, Fedor Emelianenko (37-5-1NC) was the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet, with many still regarding the former Pride and Strikeforce champion as the greatest heavyweight of all time.
But fast forward to 2018 and there’s now more than one solitary fighter flying the tricolour flag for the former Soviet state; there’s a whole host of scary, bear-grappling beasts from the East all looking to challenge the US and Brazil as the dominant nations in the sport, and they may well have the armoury to pull it off.
Leading the charge, with little need of an introduction, is Khabib. Over the past few years, ‘the Eagle’ has established himself as the most dominant figure in the entire sport of MMA, using his unstoppable takedowns and face-pulverising ground-and-pound to wipe the floor with just about anybody and everybody unlucky enough to cross his path to the title.
Such has been the supremacy he’s displayed throughout his 26-fight unbeaten professional career that, even in the UFC’s talent-rich 155lbs division, only a few questions need answering before the Dagestani’s total dominance of the lightweight ranks is confirmed.
Indeed, if Conor McGregor’s laser-like stand up striking, which seems to be one of the last remaining potential threats to Nurmagomedov’s rule, fails to neutralise the Russian’s irrepressible brand of grappling, we might not hear the words “New UFC lightweight champion” through Bruce Buffer’s microphone for quite some time.
However, Khabib isn’t the only man mounting a Russian assault on the MMA battlefield. Indeed, he isn’t even the only Nurmagomedov!
His cousin, Abubakar (14-1), who’s currently gearing up to take part in the Professional Fighters League, is also a high-level fighter in his own right, with his only defeat coming due to a cut in a competitive contest with the ever tough Magomed Mustafaev.
The ‘Dagestani Gangster’ who, like his older cousin, also possesses a smothering, sambo/wrestling-based style, was set to make his UFC debut back in January but, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately for competitors in the UFC’s welterweight division – the fight fell through for reasons that remain unclear.
After the cancelation of the bout, he was left without a contract by the promotion and instead he opted to stay with World Series of Fighting. Despite his UFC career failing to materialise, though, don’t be surprised to see him on the global stage sometime in the near future – particularly if he impresses during the upcoming $1m PFL tournament.
Also on the front line of the Russian invasion is Zabit Magomedsharipov (15-1), a frighteningly talented up-and-coming prospect who is on the rise in the UFC’s 145lbs division.
Blending flashy, eye-catching kickboxing with the gritty, in-your-face wrestling style that’s fast becoming emblematic of fighters from the region of Dagestan, Zabit has all the necessary weapons in his arsenal to wreak absolute havoc at 145lbs.
After making his name at ACB, one of Russia and Europe’s premier MMA promotions, he signed for the UFC in 2017 and has since gone on to score wins in his first three contests.
Zabit trains at Mark Henry’s gym in Tom’s River, New Jersey with the likes of Frankie Edgar and Edson Barboza and, since his transition to the team, the Russian has received glowing praise from his coaches, with the general consensus being that he has the skillset to go all the way to the top.
With the likes of Max Holloway and Brian Ortega at the summit of the featherweight division, there’s no doubt Zabit has his work cut out if he’s to get his hands on the belt, but if the Russian continues his rapid progress, expect to see this guy making his accent up the 145lbs ladder towards a title shot in the not-too-distant future.
At heavyweight, Alexander Volkov (30-6) is making some noise, too. The knockout artist from Moscow is currently riding on a 6-fight win streak after signing for the UFC in late-2016, starching Fabricio Werdum in his most recent outing in March.
Volkov’s certainly not the finished article, and his win over ‘Vai Cavalo’ may say more about the aging Werdum surpassing his sell-by date than it does about Volkov’s potential as a future heavyweight champion. Nevertheless, with a knockout victory over a former UFC title-holder, the Russian put himself firmly on the map and established himself as a viable contender in the division.
Furthermore, with heavyweight being one of the most talent-barren weight categories on the UFC’s roster, the shallow nature of the division means that a few wins can easily land you a title shot – especially if you happen to have an entire country behind you; a country whose market the promotion is finally set to tap into with the UFC’s maiden event in Russia set to take place September.
Other notable mentions include Gadzhimurad Antigulov (20-4), another Dagestani who’s currently on 14-fight unbeaten run who certainly looks like one to watch at heavyweight; flyweight Magomed Bibulatov (14-1) who, despite being KO’d by John Moraga in his last fight, was also riding on a 14-fight unbeaten run and looking rather impressive in the process; and master of the Ezekiel choke, Aleksei Oleinik (56-11-1) who may not be heading too far up the heavyweight rankings any time soon, but looks a stern test for anybody in the division and deserves an inclusion sheerly for the fact he has 11 career victories via the super tricky submission!
Since MMA’s inception back in the early 90s, fighters from the US and Brazil have held near-total dominance in the sport, with the vast majority of the major promotions’ champions from that day until this hailing from the two countries. With that considered, there’s s no doubt it’ll take a special group of fighters to upset the trend.
Perhaps, though, with their crop of current and budding fighters, Russia may now possess the talent to finally break the North/South American monopoly, and in these times of mounting political conflict between East and West, as fears over Russia and their global intentions resurface, Russophobes may want to look away now.
Images via the UFC
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