Is UFC champion Nurmagomedov 'new face' of Russian soft power in Mideast?

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the first Russian to hold a UFC champion title, but there's more to it when it comes to the Middle East.

al-monitor UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov poses for the media during the UFC seasonal press conference at T-Mobile Arena, July 5, 2019, Las Vegas, Nevada.  Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.
Maxim A. Suchkov

Maxim A. Suchkov


Topics covered


Sep 6, 2019

MOSCOW — This Saturday, Abu Dhabi will host the much anticipated Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, match between Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Russian mixed martial artist, and Dustin Poirier, an American.

Khabib, 30, is nicknamed “The Eagle” and holds the longest undefeated streak in mixed martial arts, or MMA, with 27 wins and no losses. He is the first Russian to win a UFC title. His latest fight with Conor McGregor drew a lot of money and attention and aroused certain political issues. During the traditional pre-match trash talk, the flamboyant Irishman fired off insults at Khabib to spice up the event. Nurmagomedov defeated McGregor in the fourth round via submission in a dominant performance. No sooner had the fight ended, however, did Nurmagomedov​ scale the octagon and try to attack McGregor's teammate, resulting in a massive brawl between the two teams.

Nurmagomedov was fined $500,000 and banned for nine months, while McGregor faced a $50,000 fine and a six-month suspension. Team Khabib was extremely unhappy with the decision, seeing it as a political move. “Politics forever,” read the official Twitter account of Nurmagomedov.

“I’d like to apologize before the Athletic Committee of Nevada, the city of Las Vegas," Nurmagamedov said after the fight. "This is not the best side of me. But I am only human. Everybody is talking about how I jumped outside the octagon. But [McGregor] spoke about my religion, my father, crashed the bus, hurt [my people]. My father taught me to respect other people. Now I am an unrivaled UFC champion. I wouldn’t want someone to trash talk opponents, their religion and the nation. One must not touch such things.”

A more overlooked account was developing in Russia. On social media, the story has split people into two groups. One supports Khabib “as a compatriot,” someone who represents Russia on the international arena. The other sides with McGregor, arguing that he belongs to “European civilization,” which, according to the narrative, is Russia's own destiny, not the “Muslim Orient” embodied by Khabib. This subsequently developed into a broader debate over what values young Russians should share: those promoted by McGregor — a laid-back, liberal, free-spirited lifestyle — or those preached by Khabib – who hails from a traditional patriarchic family, expresses respect for elders and possesses zero tolerance to those challenging conservative society. The debate exposed the gap between East and West in Russian society. Then Putin stepped into the game.

The Russian president met with Nurmagomedov​ and his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, to congratulate both on the victory over McGregor.

“I know you were not there for team or for country, you performed personally for yourself," Putin said. "But at the end of the day you are a Russian citizen and we care about it. We care about what people think about our citizens wherever they are. So we followed everything that was going on and we felt for you. Thank you.”

In his pursuit of a happy medium between the two national narratives, Putin reoriented the focus to external enemies. “We are all different inside our country family," he said. "But if somebody from outside attacks us, we can jump also and everybody will regret it. Better not to come to this point.”

Shortly after, the state-run Channel One aired an exclusive interview with Nurmagomedov, remarkably titled “Our Khabib,” to show the human side of the fighter.

Born in a small village in Dagestan, one of the most economically challenged Russian regions in the North Caucasus, Nurmagomedov’s story is typical of many Dagestanis, except not everyone has reached his level of success. Raised in a house with his brothers and cousins, he became interested in martial arts at an early age and went into wrestling.

Murad Magomedov, a wrestling coach from Dagestan, told Al-Monitor, “Sports, wrestling, martial arts, is a traditional way for young men in the Caucasus to stay disciplined, to avoid bad addictions, to have them busy and oriented toward making it into the professional sports so that they can make a living. If young men are unemployed, slacking and have no motivation they are easy targets for foreign recruiters.”

In 2015, official estimates stated that up to 15-20 people daily would leave Dagestan for Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Preventing the radicalization of young people has become a real issue for Russian authorities. Sports success stories from people like Nurmagomedov​ are key in shaping alternate examples of what a young man from an underprivileged area can achieve. (The overwhelming majority of Russian Olympic champions in wrestling are natives of the Caucasus.)

Nurmagomedov is expected to earn about $6 million for his Abu Dhabi fight with Poirier. He is also keen to help his community back home. “My goal is to build a school and a kindergarten in my native village,” Nurmagomedov said. “A human has to know how to write and read and be able to listen. It’s very hard without education. Kids have to be busy with something.”

The Abu Dhabi fight will be Nurmagomedov’s first appearance after the ban. He has told Arab media outlets that he has the “hunger” and “fire in his stomach” to "finish" Poirier.

The event made it possible for the UAE to sign a multiyear deal with the UFC with the hopes of drawing new fans from the Middle East to the sport. The deal grants the state media channel exclusive broadcasting rights for the Middle East and North Africa.

For Moscow, Nurmagomedov’s increasing popularity among young Arabs is an opportunity to promote its image from a power that fights in Syria to a power that embraces the conservative values that Khabib promotes. Moscow wants to show that it understands the needs and interests of the locals. That Khabib is fighting an American lends greater meaning to the event. Putin was invited to the fight but declined, referring to his visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in October. Yet some other prominent figures are expected to attend, like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This Saturday, Nurmagomedov may be fighting for himself only. But in the great scheme of big politics and soft power, he has grown to become more than a UFC fighter.

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