Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Brawl of Civilizations? A Tale of a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter from Dagestan
The Brawl of Civilizations? A Tale of a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter from Dagestan

The Brawl of Civilizations? A Tale of a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter from Dagestan

No real honor or glory accrues to those who after the fact resurrect past predictions, but the ascension to global fame of fighters from the tiny Russian region of the North Caucasus is one that I anticipated in 1990. While studying Russian in Moscow, I had met and befriended both peers and elders from the North Caucasus mountain range, and in particular from the neighboring regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. These acquaintances intrigued me. They stood out from the multiple other ethnicities that I had begun to recognize in Moscow, from Russians, Tatars, Balts, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Georgians. To start, these men did not shuffle in public, but strode self-confidently, even defiantly, in public, holding their shoulders back and their heads high. In conversation they were similarly open and free. They could, and would, like the rest of us, curse in the deeply colorful and extravagantly rich Russian language.  But when speaking towards one other, I noticed, that they were conscientiously correct in language and respectful in manner. I also noted that they had a heightened admiration for the masculine forms of sport, such as wrestling, boxing, judo, and weightlifting. I was not surprised to learn that North Caucasians were overrepresented on the Soviet and Russian national teams in these sports.

The American public had its first unfortunate brush with a dark side of the sports culture of the North Caucasus culture in 2014, when the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, carried out the horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon that year, and when the Tsarnaev’s friend Ibragim Todashev was subsequently killed by the FBI during an interrogation. Many believe that when a legal technicality of eligibility ended Tamerlane’s dream of boxing on the American national team, he fell first despondent and lost without purpose and then fell under the spell of jihadist propaganda. Dzhokhar’s one clear record of success had been as a high school wrestler. As for Todashev, he had arrived in the US precisely for the sake of pursuing a career as a professional martial artist. According to his trainer, he was a skilled wrestler and fighter, but also a “hothead,” an exceptionally aggressive and “crazy” man who was profoundly sensitive to perceived slights or insults.

In October 2018, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s largest promoter of mixed martial arts, staged its 229th event in its home state of Nevada. Thanks to the two athletes headlining the event’s line-up – Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov – it was one of the biggest events in the twenty-five year history of the UFC, with millions of viewers from around the globe watching live. Consisting of twelve matches, UFC  229 did not disappoint in its level of athleticism. The bouts preceding the headline fight provided impressive displays of tenacity and skill, and built fan enthusiasm for the long-awaited battle of McGregor and Nurmagomedov. The thirty-year old Nurmagomedov went into the fight to mount his first defense of his title of lightweight champion, which he had won in April, and to preserve his perfect record of twenty-six victories and zero defeats. As for McGregor, also age thirty, he was already one of the sport’s icons. He had held the title of UFC champion in the featherweight and lightweight classes simultaneously and was a crowd favorite. With his fists and feet inside the octagon and his barbed tongue outside, McGregor excited and energized fans, expanding the UFC’s fanbase as he built his own.

The championship bout ended in the fourth round when Nurmagomedov compelled McGregor to “tap out” and quit the fight. Although not an epic match, it provided a satisfying conclusion in so far as it delivered genuine excitement and a clear verdict.  The end of the fight represented triumphs for both Nurmagomedov, who in addition to retaining his championship title acquired the status of an MMA legend with his record of twenty-seven straight victories, and for the UFC, which over the course of twenty-five years had managed to build itself into a global brand and was now staging its largest pay-per-view event ever.

Yet mere moments after Nurgamedov secured his victory, he threw into jeopardy his own career and the reputation of the UFC by leaping out of the octagon and into the audience to attack a teammate of McGregor. At the same time, three members of Khabib’s team jumped into the octagon and assaulted McGregor. For a sport that had spent more than a decade overcoming charges that it represented not a celebration of athleticism but of unvarnished brutality the post-fight spectacle was a public relations disaster. The athletes acted like street thugs and made the UFC look both vulgar and incompetent. A matter of seconds tarnished decades of polishing.

Putting an agreeable face on MMA is not an easy task. The sport offers the most primal form of athletic competition: one-on-one fighting with a minimum of artifice and rules. Therein lies its attraction: it showcases competition in its rawest form. To the fighters, it offers the purest glory, the same sort that Homer sang about in The Iliad. It is no coincidence that the world of MMA is filled with outsized egos and supercharged emotion. What made October’s post-fight altercation a surprise is not simply that it occurred, but rather that, Nurmagomedov was perhaps the last UFC fighter that one would have predicted to engage in such brazenly delinquent behavior.

Whereas manufacturing drama was a known specialty of McGregor’s no less than striking with foot and fist, Nurmagomedov had been the embodiment of stoic humility and self-control. Indeed, Nurmagomedov cultivates a persona – public and personal – the polar opposite of McGregor. Where McGregor is loud, boastful, emotional, volatile, and flamboyant, Nurmagomedov is sober, pious, self-possessed, and humble. Judging by his explosion in Paradise, one might be tempted to conclude that Nurmagomedov’s public persona was an act, but that would be mistaken.  To the contrary, his behavior stemmed from the same persona that Nurmagomedov has cultivated from his childhood, and it should not have surprised. UFC 229 was more than a martial arts match. In its bid to forge a global enterprise and to stoke fan excitement, ticket sales, and profits, the UFC unwittingly crossed into the realm of cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict.

The Formation of a Highlander

Although Khabib Nurmagomedov is a global star, it is his local roots in his native land of Dagestan that he prizes and celebrates. Located in the northeast of the Caucasus Mountain range, Dagestan is an unusually rugged piece of real estate, with high mountains, rough hills, and unnavigable rivers running through extraordinarily steep valleys all impeding movement and communication. The very name Dagestan, a compound of the Turkish dağ, or mountain, with the Persian suffix stan, or land, conveys the topographic reality. The name that the 10th century Arab geographer al-Masudi gave to Dagestan and the Caucasus, Jabal al-Alsun, the Mountain of Languages, communicates another essential feature of Dagestan: its extraordinary ethnic and linguistic diversity. Dagestan is home to over thirty ethno-linguistic groups. The physical and human geographies are related. By isolating communities, the terrain nurtures ethno-linguistic diversity.  The jagged and hard lands of Dagestan are suitable largely only for animal husbandry, and shepherding was traditionally the dominant way of life for the region’s inhabitants.

Nurmagomedov’s one flamboyant indulgence is his distinctive headgear, a huge, white shaggy sheepskin hat that he proudly wears on his walks into the octagon. For those from outside the Caucasus, Nurmagomedov’s papakha, as fur hats from the Caucasus are known, appears bizarre and unrecognizable. Indeed, many American fans believed it to be a sort of crazy wig.

The reality – and symbolism – of Nurmagomedov’s papakha is quite different. The papakha is a totem of the Caucasus. It is worn throughout the north and south of the mountain range and comes in varied forms. Some styles have found favor far beyond the Caucasus. The tall, comparatively streamlined and tubular style was adopted first by the Cossacks, and then later by Imperial Russian cavalry officers, Turkish officers including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Soviet generals. Nurmagomedov, however, chose as his own the cruder and less fashionable shaggy style worn by highland shepherds. He sought not to score sartorial points, but to pay homage to his heritage and to send a message to the world about the values he cherishes and the kind of man he strives to be, an archetype of his homeland. Similarly, when UFC marketers approached Nurmagomedov to ask him to come up with a catchy nickname, he chose the “the Eagle,” not because of a personal attraction to that bird of prey but because the eagle is a symbol of Dagestan. His paraphernalia – t-shirts, sweatshirts and the like – that feature images of an eagle use the Dagestani stylized version.

Dagestan, like most mountain regions, has never been a particularly wealthy region. Its lack of arable land, remote location, and ruggedness have historically impeded its economic development. It remains today the poorest region in Russia. That is not to say, however, that Dagestan has lacked history or culture. It is, in fact, one of the most continuously inhabited regions in the world. The city of Derbent dates back to the 8th century BC, making it by far the oldest city in the Russian Federation. It sits on the Caspian shore at the narrowest point between that sea and the mountains, hence its Persian name Darband, “barred gate,” and the location there of a fortress to control the flow of goods and people north and south. In 642 AD the Arabs of the original Islamic Caliphate captured Derbent, thereby making the south of Dagestan one of the oldest lands of Islam (by way of comparison, the date conventionally cited for the conversion to Christianity of the Rus’, the forerunners to the Russians and Ukrainians of today, is over three centuries later, 989).

Dagestan over the centuries developed its own high culture of Islam, and from there it spread to neighboring regions, such as Chechnya.  Arabic functioned as a lingua franca among the educated highlanders, and Dagestani scholars acquired renown even in the holy Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina for their command of a pure Quranic Arabic.

Islam would prove to be a tremendously important factor in the nineteenth century when the tribes and clans of Dagestan mounted a desperate struggle over the course of three decades (1829-1859) to hold off the relentless Imperial Russian Army. In that struggle, known as the “Caucasus War,” Islam helped motivate the mountain peoples to resist Tsarist rule, allowing their leaders to frame the war as a holy war against unbelievers (the Russians) and apostates (those mountaineers who chose to side with the Russians) but it also provided a unifying identity to bind the varied highlanders to each other as well as a common, written legal code that enabled them to synchronize their efforts.

The three most important figures of the Caucasus War were Avars, members of the same nation or ethnicity as Nurmagomedov. This was not a coincidence. The Avars, the single largest nation in Dagestan with roughly one quarter of the region’s population, are highlanders. By the nineteenth century they had consolidated a formidable culture of Islamic learning and scholarship, and together these factors allowed the Avars to take the lead in the highlanders’ struggle against Russia. The most famous of highlanders’ leaders was Imam Shamil (1797-1871), who led the war for a full quarter century from 1834 until his capture in 1859. Thanks to his exploits in resisting the Russian empire, Shamil acquired fame in the West, where newspapers in London, Paris, and New York reported on his activities. In the Muslim world he became, and remains, a hero for his defense of Islam. He is in a very real sense the father of today’s Dagestan, a country that defines itself as Muslim and cherishes the example of Shamil’s courage and sacrifice in resisting Russian control even as the great majority of the public accepts the reality that a break with Russia today would only condemn the republic to greater isolation and deeper impoverishment. Dagestanis, including their mixed martial artists, revere Shamil. Today’s Avars take tremendous pride in the leading role that Shamil and their other ancestors played in the Caucasus War.

The Russian encounter with the Caucasus overlapped with the golden age of Russian literature. Authors such as Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy immortalized the highlanders in their prose and poetry. Thus if Shamil is the world’s most famous Avar, the second most famous Avar is Hajji Murad, a historical figure in the Caucasus War but more importantly the hero of Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. The highlanders of the Caucasus, with their stylish tunics, colorful papakhas and athletic dances fascinated the Russians with their refusal to buckle before the tsar, even in the face of overwhelming odds.  “Their god is freedom their law is war,” wrote Lermontov, pithily portraying the highlanders as perpetual rebels. Contemporary accounts attested to the exceptional ferocity and skill of the highlander fighters, but it was Russia’s authors who immortalized the romantic image of the highlanders as indomitable warriors.  Paradoxically, Soviet schools popularized and perpetuated that image among Dagestanis, Chechens, and other North Caucasians by teaching the Russian literary classics.

The reputation of the North Caucasian highlander for being a formidable fighter was not a mere creation of Russian literature or a passing phenomenon of the time of Shamil. After the conquest of the North Caucasus, Tsarist officers rated the military potential of the highlanders highly. Eventually they established the so-called “Savage Division” for North Caucasians, so-called to play upon the notions that the highlanders were uncivilized and fearsome, the latter being the highest praise for a fighting force. Many North Caucasians were not averse to serving in the Russian army.  To bear arms was honorable. For whom precisely was less important. Thus, for example, one of Shamil’s own sons entered the Ottoman officer corps, choosing to leave the Caucasus and serve the Sultan, whereas another entered the Tsarist officer corps. North Caucasians similarly served with distinction in the Ottoman army (and later in Turkish intelligence). When operating in the North Caucasus in 1918 and 1942 respectively, Ottoman Turkish and German officers respectively took note of the martial disposition of the North Caucasians. They made for outstanding warriors and were fearless in battle. At the same time, however, they proved distinctly less amenable to conventional military discipline. The highlanders regarded automatic submission to abstract rules and authority as an affront to their honor. 

Perhaps not all that much has changed. Dagestanis remain a sore spot in today’s Russian army. I recall during my first visit to Dagestan speaking there with a friend’s uncle who told me that he had a son my age. When I asked what the son was doing, he replied nonchalantly, “Oh, he is in jail.” Uncertain how to respond in such a situation but even less comfortable with my silence, I followed up by asking, “For what?”, and then regretting that question for fear the answer might be a horrible crime. “He was in the army, and he struck his commanding officer in the head with a brick, so they put him in prison” came the response. And then he added with a touch of pride, “No one pushes my son around.” Today, one can find on Youtube an entire genre of videos of Dagestani (and other North Caucasian) conscripts who refuse to submit to military discipline.

Like virtually all Dagestanis today, Nurgmagomedov is a Muslim. Moreover, he presents his faith as a central component of his life, the thing that ties together his striving as an athlete, his ethics, and his role as a son and father. He peppers his Instagram and Twitter accounts with notices of Islamic holidays, reminders of God’s presence and power, and images of the devout. Nurmagomedov is no innovator оr pioneer in this. A central component of the myth of the North Caucasian warrior is that Islam provides a critical advantage or edge. Many North Caucasians subscribe to this belief, explaining that their affinity for fighting, and combat sports including wrestling and boxing, is a legacy from a commitment to a religious mandate to defend their faith.

The reality, however, is that the North Caucasians’ love for fighting and reverence for physical courage and prowess predates Islam and is rooted in the Caucasian highlanders’ culture more generally. The Dagestanis’ great rivals in wrestling, for example, are the North Ossetians, fellow North Caucasians but predominantly Christian. The Ossetians’ zeal for combat sports is no weaker. When the armies of the Muslim Caliphate, authors of one of one most stunning records of conquest in history, entered Dagestan, the ferocity of the locals stunned them. Indeed, their resistance helps account for why Islam took centuries to penetrate from Derbent into northern Dagestan and beyond.

Similarly, it is important to remember that the Great Caucasus War was as much a struggle to deepen the influence of Islam among the Dagestanis and Chechens as it was a struggle against the Russians. Islamic law was of limited influence, and much of mountaineer culture contradicted Islamic norms. Shamil, for example, expended great effort trying to suppress the highlander tradition of blood feud, seeing it as contrary to Islam with its concept of communal guilt and as an obstacle to highlander unity. The fact that the Circassian tribes of the northwest Caucasus, who were only nominally Muslim, continued to fight the Russians for five more years after his surrender similarly testifies that Islam cannot account for the tenacity and martial excellence of the North Caucasians.

The origins of the Dagestanis’ zest for combat sports lie in what Nurmagomedov’s papakha symbolizes, the life of the highland shepherd. Its difficult topography and linguistic diversity impeded the emergence or establishment of any central government. Life in the mountains was hard.  There were no sheriffs or police to guarantee life or property, and so every village had to provide for its own security. A man who could not contribute to the defense of his village or clan was worth little. The highlanders prized reputation and honor, because these could serve as powerful deterrents to potential aggressors. For much the same reason the practice of blood feud flourished. The highlanders engaged in blood feuds not because they were too stupid to see the negative consequences of escalating a dispute between two people into a dispute between two clans, but rather because in the absence of a police force, the threat of escalation was the best deterrent to any attack. By the same token, the certainty of wholesale retaliation added incentives for clans to restrain their own members, lest the collective be dragged into a fight sparked by a hothead. Given the near impossibility of living solitary in the mountains, expulsion from the collective was one of the harshest punishments a village or clan could impose on its members, and was assigned only for the most serious crimes, such as murder. One expelled from his clan was known as an abrek, a term later romanticized and used to refer to those who defied Russian and later Soviet authority by taking up arms and going into the mountains.

Alongside prizing physical vigor, courage, and honor, North Caucasians have long paid heightened respect and deference to older men, especially relatives. Although urbanization and related processes have undermined this practice, it still retains some force. Nurmagomedov has had an unusually close relationship with his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who was himself an accomplished athlete in wrestling, judo, and sambo before going on to earn the title of “Distinguished Coach of Russia. The elder Nurmagomedov would train Dagestan’s leading wrestlers in the gym on the ground floor of his house. Khabib grew up here, and would crawl around on the mats during practices and then took his first steps on them. Famously, when Khabib was nine years old, his father introduced him to an unmuzzled bear cub and dared the son to wrestle him. It was a test of Khabib’s courage, and one that he passed with distinction. Without hesitation, he heeded his father and grappled with the bear cub.

The Challenger from Ireland

In challenging Nurmagomedov for the lightweight championship belt, McGregor was therefore coming up against a product of а martial tradition with deep roots. McGregor, however, possessed just enough knowledge about his Avar opponent and his Caucasian background to put himself in danger. As noted above, the Irish fighter routinely employs barbed comments and rhetorical bravado outside the cage. He does this in part to boost his fan base and bottom line, but also in order to rattle his opponents’ confidence and unsettle them psychologically. Against Nurmagomedov he escalated his psychological game in two ways. The first was a physical escalation.

As a result of McGregor’s decision to step away from the UFC in order to box Floyd Mayweather, the UFC indicated that it would strip McGregor of his lightweight belt following the conclusion of UFC 223 on April 7, 2018. Nurmagomedov was expected to win his match at UFC 223 and thereby take the vacated lightweight championship. In what was either a futile attempt to stop this, or, as is more likely, a publicity stunt to guarantee a championship match with Nurmagomedov, McGregor led a group of teammates and followers into the parking garage of Brooklyn’s Barclays center. There they mounted an attack on the bus transporting the scheduled fighters from their press conferences. During the skirmish, McGregor called out to Nurmagomedov, daring him to come out of the bus and fight. He then picked up and threw a metal dolly at the bus, shattering a window and injuring one fighter such that he had to withdraw. As the overwhelmed security detail ran around frantically, McGregor and his posse fled the scene.

The spectacle made the UFC look bad, but it refrained from punishing its star athlete. To the contrary, the UFC approved a showdown with Nurgmagomedov. McGregor thus fulfilled his first goal. He was less successful with his second goal, spooking his opponent. To the contrary, McGregor’s hooliganism and the UFC’s tepid reaction to it violated Nurmagomedov’s sense of justice and triggered his indignation.

McGregor proceeded to amplify his mistake in his attempts to rattle Nurmagomedov with his rhetoric. In the weeks and days leading up to the fight the challenger demonstrated that he done some homework on his opponent, but only enough to insult him gratuitously, and too little to discompose him.  Alongside generic jeers such as calling his rival a rat, McGregor accused him of having a glass jaw, adding, “my Chechen friends, the soldiers, they told me that they had chicken jaws in Dagestan.” The Chechens and Avars have a great deal in common, both in their shared Islamic faith and especially their shared struggles in the 19th and early 20th centuries against Russian and Soviet power. But like all human societies, the Chechens and their Dagestani neighbors have their local rivalries, and McGregor’s reference of his Chechen acquaintances’ low opinion of Dagestanis was a clever way to unsettle his Avar opponent’s self-confidence, for all the same qualities that Nurmagomedov aspires to embody as a public figure are traditionally revered in Chechnya as well.

McGregor was not content to leave it at that general level, but proceeded to attack Nurmagomedov’s personal relationships. He pointed out that Nurmagomedov’s financial patron and booster, the wealthy Dagestani businessman Ziyavudin Magomedov, had recently been arrested, jailed, and charged with embezzlement and racketeering.  McGregor taunted his opponent as a poltroon, saying “You took money from Magomedov. Now what? Putin locked him up! Say something to Putin about locking Magomedov up. Say something! Ask him to release him.” But it was when McGregor derided his father as a “quivering coward” who feigns respect for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov that set Nurmagomedov afire. Not only does Nurmagomedov enjoy an unusually close relationship with his father, but he had made loyalty to his father a signature aspect of his public persona.

By directly insulting his opponent’s father in a public setting where retaliation was essentially impossible, McGregor was not merely humiliating him but subverting his integrity by forcing him to compromise his honor and image as a fearless highlander whose law is personal honor and the defense of family and faith. Wittingly or not, he mocked Nurmagomedov’s faith. Using the athletes’ pre-fight press conference as a venue to flog his new business venture, a brand of whiskey, McGregor poured a glass of the drink and slammed it on the table. Acting like a belligerent drunk, he razzed Nurmagomedov to take a taste. When Nurmagomedov averred that he did not drink, McGregor feigned disbelief and radiated a mocking contempt, dismissing Nurmagomedov as a “backward <expletive>” for his refusal to drink. Islam’s ban on alcohol is well known, and McGregor’s stunt could come across only as a direct insult of Nurmagomedov’s faith.

Nurmagomedov, who only recently started to learn English, had no chance of keeping up with McGregor. When, however, McGregor implied (erroneously) that Dagestan’s Avars had been chased from their lands by the Russians while boasting that his clan had stood and fought the British empire, Nurmagomedov fired back by asking McGregor why it is that he speaks the language of his conquerors, English. It was a potentially deft point, as English is the dominant language in Ireland. McGregor, however, did not skip a beat and replied in Irish (formerly known as Gaelic). The press conference concluded shortly thereafter.

In terms of theatrics, McGregor dominated the press conference.  The mouthy Celt overmatched the laconic highlander. His effort to project an appearance of calm disinterest notwithstanding, Nurmagomedov betrayed discomfit. He uncharacteristically snapped at an unwitting journalist for hailing him with the traditional greeting of Muslims, “as-Salaam aleykum” (Peace be upon you), and then in the same breath congratulating McGregor for his whiskey.

When the two fighters entered the ring, however, Nurmagomedov became the dominator. He decisively won two of the first three rounds, and even stood toe-to-toe and traded blows with McGregor, an accomplishment in its own right given that McGregor was considered the more talented and dangerous striker. Then in the fourth round Nurmagomedov put his vaunted wrestling skills to good use by putting a fulcrum choke on McGregor and forcing him to “tap out,” or surrender.

It should have been an immensely satisfying victory for Nurmagomedov. He had first demonstrated a clear and consistent all around superiority and then won decisively by compelling McGregor to tap out. During the fight, as Nurmagomedov manhandled him, McGregor declared that the insults he had hurled at the press conference were just “business” and nothing personal. Nurmagomedov only taunted him to talk further while raining blow upon blow upon the suddenly humble McGregor.

Yet just one moment after his victory, the Dagestani threw it in jeopardy by scaling the cage and leaping out of the ring in an attempt to pummel a teammate of McGregor’s, Dillon Danis, who was standing in the audience. The sheer athleticism and fearlessness of the leap was awesome in the true meaning of the world. A melee then ensued as Danis tried to engage the new champion and multiple security guards pounced to separate the two.

Just as that melee began, a series of scuffles erupted inside the ring as three of Nurmagomedov’s teammates from the Caucasus, including a cousin, one after another exchanged blows with McGregor. Confused security guards, coaches, and others scrambled to protect McGregor and to prevent a still larger explosion of violence.

For an organization that had spent two and a half decades clawing its way to respectability and was seeking to consolidate an image of professionalism by beaming its biggest promotion to date live around the globe, the post-fight brawls were a disaster. UFC 229 concluded not with the ritual celebration of athleticism that is the post-fight cage interview but instead ended in mayhem.  Commentators prior to the fight had speculated about the possibility of fisticuffs between opposing fans, but no one had thought that the fighters and their teammates would indulge in such violence.  UFC President Dana White put it in an understatement, “I’ve been working hard to promote this sport, this is not what a mixed martial arts event is normally like.”

White was certainly correct, but he should not have been surprised. In its ardor to stoke excitement and sell the fight, the UFC had condoned McGregor’s outrageous assault on the bus in the Barclays Center and his incendiary rhetoric at the press conference. As Nurmagomedov plaintively put it at the post-fight press conference, “He talk about my religion, he talk about my country, he talk about my father, he come to Brooklyn and he broke bus. He almost kill a couple of people. Worry about this. Worry about this [excrement]. Why people talk about I jump over the cage?” The result blew up in everyone’s face. McGregor was humbled and humiliated, the UFC was embarrassed, and Nurmagomedov besmirched his own reputation as well as that of the UFC.

The Geopolitics of Mixed Martial Arts

The consequences of the post-fight fracas will live on. McGregor declined to press criminal charges against his attackers (it appears that he touched off the first altercation), and this lowered the stakes for those involved.  But the UFC’s announcement that it would expel the Chechen Zubaira Tukhugov from its ranks and the Nevada Athletic Commission’s decision to suspend McGregor and Nurmagomedov and to withhold Nurmagomedov’s purse have generated controversy. Tukhugov has been unrepentant and even celebratory on social media, as he boasted of fulfilling his promise to take vengeance on McGregor by striking him in the face and made sure to deny emphatically any notion that McGregor had landed a blow on him. Nurmagomedov thus has stood steadfastly by his teammate. He threatened to quit the UFC if Tukhugov is in fact kicked out. Bahraini royal family members have also taken up Tukhugov’s cause against the UFC.

Meanwhile, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, chided his fellow Chechen for merely slapping the Irishman when Chechen tradition demanded a harder blow. Kadyrov admonished him: “If you give your word to stand up for your friend again, remember! Strike like you were taught in those same meadows [of your village] – silently, briskly and sharply.” Tukhughov took the advice in good nature, offering Kadyrov warm thanks for the advice and consistent support.

As for the withholding of his winnings pending an investigation, Nurgmagomedov has been dismissive, stating ”We have defended our honor and this is the most important thing.” Still, the fracas left Nurmagomedov on the day after his crowning victory in a mood that was more rueful than exultant.

Nurmagomedov’s reputation was tarnished, but by no means destroyed. Dagestanis, of course, flooded the streets to celebrate the victory of a native son. Next door, Ramzan Kadyrov very publicly embraced Nurmagomedov as a fellow highlander and Muslim. It was excellent public relations for Kadyrov, who supports avidly MMA in Chechnya as a means to burnish his image as a masculine leader and warrior worthy of Chechen tradition, and to “instill his vision of a hyper-masculine society rooted in prize-fighting.” He has had some success. As one American sports journalist described Chechnya, “This was the most intimidating place I’ve ever been. Every man and boy between the ages of 11 to 75 looks like they are about to kick your a–.”

Embracing Nurmagomedov’s victory also offered a diplomatic payoff, as it underscored brotherhood and goodwill between Chechens and Dagestanis, neighbors who share much in common but who also know rivalries and nurture competitive pride. The fact that McGregor attempted to exploit that tension added an element of urgency to the Kadyrov’s reception of the Dagestani champion.  Kadyrov simultaneously boosted his value to Moscow as a key figure not just in Chechnya but in the North Caucasus as a whole.

His victory had a special resonance among Muslims throughout the world. Many of his Muslim fans rejoiced not only in seeing one of their own win a great victory, but also in seeing a Muslim man who proudly asserted his Muslim identity triumph in the most primal of sports over a Westerner who had denigrated Islam. For some, Nurmagomedov became a religious hero as much as an athletic one.

Leaders of Muslim countries have also shown themselves eager to embrace Nuragomedov. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, hailed Nurgamomedov at the celebratory opening of Istanbul’s third international airport, a major project of Erdoğan’s AK Party. Kyrgyzstan’s president Sooronbai Zheenbekov also received Nurmagomedov, as did royalty from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Not long after, he left for Nigeria on a charity mission among that country’s Muslims, further solidifying his credentials as a sports celebrity and Muslim figure.

To be sure, Nurmagomedov enjoys great appeal among non-Muslims as well.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was among the world leaders who have hailed Nurmagomedov, claiming his victory as one for Russia and its school of martial arts, and seeing it also as a moment to underscore the unity of the Russian Federation and its peoples. Putin publicly received Nurmagomedov and his father in person. It was a natural fit for Putin. Putin has long touted his background in judo and sambo (a martial art invented in the Soviet Union that takes its name from the Russian acronym for “unarmed self-defense”). The Russian president remains a skilled practitioner of those martial arts and promotes their development inside Russia. In a televised conversation, the Russian president remarked that although the Dagestani was fighting in a commercial context and represented not a national team but only himself, Russians all the same had been rooting for him as one of their own. Describing the Russian Federation and its peoples as “one big family,” he referenced Nurmagomedov’s leap outside the cage to warn those listening, “If someone from outside attacks us, we can jump such that they won’t know what him them!”

Given Nurmagomedov’s dual status as a phenomenal MMA athlete and an ambassador for Islamic piety, the future of his relationship with the UFC could be portentous for the future of the UFC as a whole, or at least for any plans for expansion into the Muslim world that it might have. The Nurmagomedov-McGregor fight inflamed passions larger than those of any mere sports rivalry.  That surprised the UFC, but it should not have. The primal nature of mixed martial arts competition makes it a promising product for a global market. The passions that combat sports can elicit, however, make it a volatile product. As the UFC works to build its audience around the globe in an era of increasing multi-polarity, it will have to do a better job modulating emotions. Professional wrestling in the US in the past exploited geopolitical tension with Iran by introducing the character of the “Iron Sheikh” (who was often indistinguishable from an Arab). This past spring, promoters of professional wrestling stoked anti-Iranian sentiment to build interest. It is an easy and cheap ploy, but a dangerous one.

With the UFC, with its roots in America, moving into the vast market of China, one of the homelands of Asian martial arts, at a time of rising Chinese pride and geopolitical tensions, the potential for a damaging blowout is easy to imagine. The UFC would be wise to listen to the chastened Nurmagomedev’s plea at the post-fight press conference, “Media little bit changed MMA. This is not trash talking sport. This is respect sport. Like I told you guys before, I wanna to change this game… You cannot talk about religion, you cannot talk about nation, guys you cannot talk about this stuff. This is, for me, it’s very important [sic].”’

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