Issue 204

April 2024

Kyle Dimond investigates why the mountains of Dagestan have become the pinnacle of MMA, synonymous with total dominance in combat sports. In the past decade, the name of this republic has become a regular reference point for fans. Usually found in the same sentence is a family name. Nurmagomedov.

When one thinks of the fighters from this region as a family tree, there are many branches with great fighters spread throughout the MMA world. At the top of the table stands one of the greatest UFC fighters of all time, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and his protege, the current lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. However, ask anyone associated with them who is the most important figure in this Dagestani revolution, and they will give you one name. Khabib’s own father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.


The story of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov tells you a lot about the culture in Dagestan, where his son and students were also raised. Born in 1962, Abdulmanap grew up in wrestling, which was common among all young males. Dagestan is in the Caucasus Mountains, a range separating Eastern Europe and Western Russia. This area of the world has produced some of the finest fighters in combat sports today, be it from Dagestan, Chechnya, or Georgia. People from these places have not had it easy. Coming from a warrior culture, you cannot tell the history of Dagestan without speaking about war and struggle. That, in turn, ties directly into wrestling.

Wrestling has been a constant through all the difficult times caused by financial struggles or conflicts with Russia. The USSR has always been a major player in wrestling. It’s a way to raise tough, hard-working men and give them a potential way out because of how well-treated the nation’s sporting stars often are. It has even been said that a benefit of wrestling compared to any other sport is how cheap it is to participate in, needing only a singlet and some shoes before training to your heart’s content.


VICE reporter Alzo Slade traveled to Dagestan to give his impressions of this hotbed for talent and returned with this view.

“The wrestling champions over there and the MMA fighters, they know them like the Michael Jordan’s and the Tom Brady’s over here,” Slade said. “I had to do my studying before going over there, and I was familiar with the MMA fighters but not necessarily all of the wrestlers. I was asking them about (Olympic gold medalist) [Abdulrashid] Sadulaev, and I wasn’t saying his name right, and they were laughing at me because it’s like someone coming over here and mispronouncing Michael Jordan’s name. How could you not know?“

With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Abdulmanap was a very highly regarded member of society. A Master of Sports in freestyle wrestling, he would become the senior coach of the national team for the Republic of Dagestan. He even coached his brother, Nurmagomed, to win the World Sambo Championship. His list of students reads like a history book, with 18 world champions training under his wing and a chapter that appears to name major MMA talents in most weight classes.


For all of Absulmanap’s success as a wrestling coach, it wasn’t until his son started to achieve success on the global stage that the wider combat sports world began to take notice. Khabib Nurmagomedov had, like his father, started wrestling from a young age. The difference was that he had his father as his coach with Abdulmanap, hoping that training the next generation would keep them away from extremists. In 2011, Dagestan was named the most dangerous place in Europe as a result of the terrorist prominence in the region.

Khabib trained in wrestling, Judo, and Sambo, becoming a Master of Sport in the latter two. Competing in Russia and Ukraine, Khabib’s MMA journey consisted of 16 consecutive wins from 2008 to 2012 before he found his way to the UFC. His run marked the introduction of combat Sambo to the wider MMA world. Wrestling has always been a dominant aspect of the sport, but Sambo added some new features. His UFC debut in January of 2012 may have been the first time fans heard the words Nurmagomedov, Dagestan, and Sambo mentioned in the same sentence. That was something they were going to get familiar with really quickly. 

Khabib’s run of dominance may never be replicated again in MMA. His brand of grappling had no countermeasure. He was relentless in his approach to taking people down, and once they were there, they would either get finished or be beaten up until the bell sounded. This meat grinder style was referred to throughout his career as ‘father’s plan.’ From his second fight in the UFC, Khabib would also work with Javier Mendez and the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) to help improve his overall game. Despite this, he never strayed too far from the path and his wrestling background. Abdulmanap was strict to ensure they stuck to the plan regardless of what happened. Take opponents down and break them until the referee steps in, or they get submitted. 

Back then, the MMA world didn’t know that ‘father’s plan’ didn’t just apply to Khabib. It was a plan to see their domination continue long after his lightweight title reign.


At UFC 254, Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in the Octagon after extending his record to 29-0 with three title defenses. His father had passed away in July, several months prior, and Khabib had promised his mother that he would not continue fighting without his father in his corner. Though Khabib would go on to become an invaluable coach for many fighters, it was time for him to pass the spotlight. Fortunately, a new wave of Dagestani fighters was ready to take his lead.

Several fighters followed ‘father’s plan,’ and Khabib's route through the UFC created a wake that others could trail. That’s not even to mention the fighters from around this region who aren’t from the same bloodline, such as Magomed Ankalaev, or, to use an example from boxing, Artur Beterbiev. Khabib introduced the MMA world to a new style, and it was like he tore open the floodgates with his bare hands. Suddenly, fighters from this area of the world with Sambo backgrounds started to appear across the MMA world and with it, the style of fighter that no one wants to come up against. Abdulmanap laid the groundwork and created the plan, but Khabib showed that the plan wasn’t just practical. It was incredibly difficult to stop. It was time to show that the great coach’s son wasn’t just an exception.

UFC commentator John Gooden had a front-row seat to watch as fighters from Dagestan started to build their reputation at the highest level. He says that he first heard about fighters from the region due to some gyms in the US that were attracting Dagestani fighters, crediting Greg Jackson in particular as sounding the first alarm. 

“I can’t remember the MMA media helping perpetuate the fear of a style as much as the Dagestani wrestling,” Gooden said about their reputation. “I do believe on regional and national levels, you will have certain teams/ gyms that have a fearsome reputation. Back in the day, Brazilian fighters were heavily feared, too. In fact, you’ll often hear fighters from Dagestan speak of their respect for Brazilian fighters, and we all grew up watching their dominance.”

Gooden also emphasizes the mastermind at the top of the tree as the real force of change behind a movement that is unlikely ever to be replicated. “I actually think coaches don't get enough credit, full stop. Unless you train in martial arts or high-level sports, one might not appreciate the role, in fact, ‘roles’ that a coach plays in the life of a fighter/ sportsperson. Abdulmanap deserves all the plaudits given the countless world champions he has created and how he helped develop the combat sports scene in Dagestan.”


The fighters that Khabib surrounded himself with under the watchful eye of his father were also part of the plan. With them all coming from the same background, they had the same dedication and complete focus that was apparent in Khabib from an early stage. Part of this naturally comes down to their devout Muslim faith. No matter what success they see, this team does not deviate from what they have always done. For them, it’s not about anything else other than proving themselves to be the best and supporting their families in the process. This was clear when Khabib retired, and you can see this echoed in this quote from Abdulmanap speaking about his life in the Anatomy Of A Fighter series, ‘The Dagestan Chronicles.’

“That world that I see through the window, the place where I was born, this is enough for me. I know that I am mortal, I can’t earn all of the money but everything I did for my motherland and Russia and for MMA in the world, I think I devoted myself and my students prove it. I won’t regret about it. Nothing is eternal.” 

The next student to bring Abdulmanap’s teachings to the global stage was Islam Makhachev. With a three-year age gap, from the moment Islam arrived in the UFC, he was seen as Khabib’s protege. So much so that even when they were both contenders in the lightweight division, there was never any question about whether they would need to fight each other. Khabib's retirement left the door open for Islam to take his place, which happened with a sense of inevitability.

Makhachev may have suffered a loss in the UFC in his second Octagon appearance, but this one slip aside, he has been similarly dominant at 155 pounds. Similarly to Khabib, a few factors delayed his progress. Still, every time he stepped inside the cage, he put the division on notice, clearing every hurdle more impressively than the last. People questioned whether Makhachev could replicate this never-before-seen dominance that Khabib produced, but with every passing fight, it became harder for his detractors to convince themselves.

If there’s maybe one difference between the two dominant lightweight champions, it’s that Makhachev is more confident with his striking. Khabib certainly improved in this area over the years, but the age gap between them means Makhachev has had more time to work on this area. This was especially true at UFC 294, where Makhachev produced his most emphatic win to date, stopping the featherweight champion at the time, Alexander Volkanovski, with a head kick (followed by strikes) in the first round. Makhachev still has many years left at the top with dreams of accomplishing something that will separate him from Khabib, becoming a two-weight world champion.

His career so far, after watching what Khabib did, has almost felt predictable, which, when you’re talking about a sport like MMA, is simply unfathomable. It also raises a major red flag for people in other divisions looking at a fighter from Dagestan who appears to be destined for the top. If it looks to be true, chances are that it is.


Islam Makhachev may not be blood-related to the Nurmagomedov family, but at this point, he embodies their DNA just as much as a true sibling would. However, Khabib does have two direct relatives who also keep the style and name of his family present in modern-day MMA discussions.

Umar Nurmagomedov currently finds himself in a similar position to where Khabib was between 2014-16 and where Islam was in 2020. At 17-0, the 28-year-old fighter has shown he has all the potential in the world. However, several periods of inactivity or canceled fights have stunted his progress. The pedigree of his team and surname, as the cousin of Khabib, has meant that he was on the radar from the moment he signed with the UFC. There has also been a lot of belief in him because of this, once again feeling that it is only a matter of time before he makes it to the top. So much so that, though it didn’t happen, he was booked for his first main event against the #4-ranked contender at the time in Cory Sandhagen last August, which was a massive jump up the rankings.

Umar returned to action in March with a win over the debuting Bekzat Almakhan. His journey so far in the UFC has followed the paths of Khabib and Islam almost eerily closely, though he competes at bantamweight. He dominates each opponent he fights but still lacks some real name value on his record. Injuries and struggles to get fights have slowed his progress, yet he is constantly spoken about in regards to the top of the division despite having yet to face a fellow top 15 contender. 

As was previously stated, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s list of students who have gone on to compete in MMA reads like a ‘fighters to watch out for’ list. The only person who knows these fighters and their late coach is the head trainer at AKA, Javier Mendez. In a recent interview with MMA Mania, Mendez was asked who the most talented fighter he has ever worked with was. With UFC champions like Khabib, Islam, Daniel Cormier, and Cain Velasquez to choose from, his answer came as a surprise as he singled out the Nurmagomedov family’s best-kept secret, Usman Nurmagomedov.


Usman’s name will not be new to MMA fans who have their ear to the ground. The undefeated Bellator lightweight champion has been making waves for some time now, but Mendez firmly believes that he doesn’t get the mainstream attention he deserves because he isn’t in the UFC. Usman is Umar's younger brother and, therefore, a cousin of Khabib. At just 25 years old, his record stands at 17-0, with one no-contest and 14 wins via finish. Usman is now technically a PFL fighter following the promotion’s acquisition of Bellator last year and undoubtedly was one of the biggest assets they secured as part of that deal.

As the reigning lightweight champion, he has won over Patricky Pitbull, Benson Henderson, and Brent Primus. However, this was overturned to a no-contest following a positive banned substance test that was later declared to be unintentional. He was set to return to defend his title against Alexander Shabliy in Paris on May 17, but an injury postponed the bout.

‘Father’s plan’ was already proven to have worked. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov provided the perfect conditions and mentoring to produce a dominant world champion that some believe simply couldn’t be beaten. The plan remains in play with his unfortunate passing and his son Khabib’s retirement. This combination of nature and nurture produces world championship fighters that have helped define this MMA era. Dagestan has always been known for producing warriors. The only difference is that the entire world can now see them.