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Rise of the Caucasus: Why Region is an MMA Hotbed

Top Contenders, Prospects Share Roots and Spots Atop Oddsboards

By now you’ve likely heard of a couple of MMA fighters like Khamzat Chimaev and Islam Makhachev. What about undefeated former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov? They all have one thing in common: they all have roots in the Caucasus region. Indeed, you will find them with short UFC odds when they fight. In fact, Makhachev is favored to defeat Charles Oliveira to become the new UFC Lightweight Champion.

The Caucasus: Conflict Breeds Fighters

The Caucasus is a region comprising mainly of the countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Southern Russia – most notably Chechnya and Dagestan. Now, long story short: These countries or regions have consistently been in conflict either against each other or the surrounding powers: Russia, Turkey (once the Ottoman Empire), and Iran (once the Persian Empire).

Rise of the Caucasus: Why This Region is The Hotbed of MMA
James Gilbert/Getty Images/AFP

As a result, many Caucasians grew up surrounded by conflict. Some get involved in martial arts at a young age, like Nurmagomedov taking up sambo and Chimaev wrestling. Growing up in a dangerous area can steal a person, giving them a “harder” mentality than those who grew up in relatively safe countries.

Dagestan was called the most dangerous place in Europe at one point. It’s become a stereotype in MMA that Dagestanis are the best fighters. Even the online sports betting odds won’t argue as a fighter that hails from the region will get chalky lines even if they are unproven.

However, not all those who grow up in a violent area become fighters. Likewise, not all conflict-ravaged areas in the world produce top-tier martial artists. So why are there still so many great fighters coming out of the Caucasus?

Grassroots Wrestling and Elevated Geography

Wrestling has long been considered the best base in mixed martial arts. Look through the list of all-time great fighters from Fedor Emelianenko to Khabib Nurmagomedov. They’re not only both Russian. but have a base in wrestling (sambo).

Dagestanis have embraced the idea of enrolling their children into wrestling programs to keep them away from terrorism and crime. Nurmagomedov’s late father, Abdulmanap, wrestled at an early age, then trained in judo and sambo in the military.

Even Azerbaijanis and Georgians have started to show out in the Summer Olympics with medalists in wrestling and judo. It’s not unlike Americans, with NCAA wrestling programs producing a wealth of once-dominant MMA fighters like Daniel Cormier and Ben Askren.

In addition, a healthy portion of Caucasians grows up in a mountain range. In fact, Chechnya and Dagestan (with Ingushetia) were briefly part of an independent nation known as the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

Constantly practicing wrestling, one of the most — if not the most — physically taxing martial arts at elevation can produce the most relentless fighters in the world. It’s why someone like Nurmagomedov “mauls” his opponents. Most fighters, even fellow wrestlers, cannot keep up with his pace and pressure.

Caucasian Fighters to Watch

Makhachev and Chimaev lead the list of top MMA fighters out of the region. You can bet on UFC on either as sizable favorites in their main events for UFC 279 and UFC 280, respectively. A few others to watch out for are Ilia Topuria and Giga Chikadze from Georgia. Both are ranked in their respective divisions and could be fighting for a UFC title in the future.

Arman Tsarukyan, an Armenian, was recently in the main event. He lost a narrow decision to Mateusz Gamrot, but is still a contender and is notable for giving Makhachev one of his toughest fights to date.

Outside of the UFC, Tofiq Musayev made a splash in his Bellator debut. The Azerbaijani knocked out title contender Sidney Outlaw in just 27 seconds and could very well be the next lightweight champion. Usman Nurmagomedov, Khabib’s cousin, has also been unstoppable in Bellator.

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