This past weekend we saw a big night for the Russians at UFC 267. Wins by Petr Yan, Islam Makhachev, Khamzat Chimaev, Magomed Ankalaev, Alexander Volkov, Zubarua Tukhugov, and Albert Duraev showcased some of the best Russian talent to date. Only Shamil Gamzatov and Roman Kopylov (who lost to Duraev) failed the Russian state on Saturday. All of the success means only one thing: the Russians are coming.
As a matter of fact, they’re already here. We’ve had Khabib Nurmagomedov achieve perfection. Then Petr Yan became only the second Russian champion. Make no mistake about it, however, more are coming. With Makhachev and Chimaev looking as good as they did Saturday along with other contenders like Zabit Magomedsharipov, Movsar Evloev, and the others mentioned above, there’s no way we won’t see more Russian champions. It’s inevitable.
I’m not here to predict who the next Russian champion would be. I’m simply pointing out that there will be one without a doubt. The sheer number coming up through the ranks bodes well for their odds. Their knack for combat sports, and specifically wrestling which is a cornerstone of MMA (best base for MMA, bro), will carry them far in the sports of mixed martial arts.
The Region That Breeds Champions
The Russians are built for combat sports it seems like. Take a look at the medal tables from the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Dominated by ROC which is Russia this Olympic cycle. Year in and year out, Russians, specifically Dagestani and Chechen wrestlers, are consistently at the top.
Look at Abdulrashid Sadulaev, the Olympic champion. Sadulaev has said in the past he has no reason or want to do mixed martial arts. Who can blame him? He’s royalty in Russia. He makes enough for an honest living. He’s from Dagestan as well and has escaped the poverty stricken area with wrestling. He has no need to get punched in the face.
These athletes are in of the poorest of regions of the world and sport offers them a way out, much like football and basketball for Americans who are impoverished. Wrestling, or one on one combat for that matter, is at the heart of the country. Across the world, there are hundreds of styles of folkstyle wrestling based on culture. For years, many have looked up to athletes like Sadulaev, Karelin and more as ways to make a better life for their families.
While it may have started as an alternative to wrestlers who couldn’t cut it on the World and Olympic stage, MMA has become a new way out of poverty and to take care of one’s family. It was another outlet for those looking for an escape.
With mixed martial arts getting more and more popular, the earlier future athletes will start practicing for the sport. It won’t be wrestlers transitioning over to mixed martial arts. They will be MMA fighters from the start. This will highly increase the skill level early on in an MMA fighter’s career.
We are already seeing that with IMMAF and fighters becoming ready early on. These fighters are bred for mixed martial arts. Khamzat Chimaev, Muhammad Mokaev and more are examples of how good fighters can be with 10 or fewer wins.
In boxing we’re seeing this as well albeit with amateur boxing. The most notable is the amateur records of both Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk. Both hail from Ukraine, which is only 800 miles (1900 kilometers) apart. The Ukrainians both have north of 300 amateur fights and Lomachenko has nearly 400. We seem the two now as Lomachenko dominated everyone until Teofimo Lopez and Usyk unified the cruiserweight division and is looking to repeat that at heavyweight.
The UFC’s Russian Push
Russians are fanatics of combat sports. Judo, boxing, and wrestling are all some of the country’s favorites. Lest we forget sambo, a combat sport invented by and dominated by Russia. The country has a strong desire to see and compete in combat sports.
The UFC and Endeavor brass assuredly know this. The UFC is harvesting the region and increasing popularity in the area with the local stars. The more that these Russian fighters do in the UFC, the more brand awareness the company will get there.
In a region that’s so rabid about fighting sports and so loyal to their stars, it makes sense business-wise. Ultimately I believe the UFC would like to build a pay per view market in Russia. They’re going about it making Russians bigger stars and eventually the free TV cards will be a rug pulled out from under them. Will it work? If the UFC gets the brand where they want it to be, it possibly could. If not, they’ll still make more and more as popularity increases with TV deals.
That said, ESPN is on their side too. If the UFC can get a strong foothold in Russia and cultivate a pay per view market, the blueprint will be there for China, Africa, and anywhere else the two corporations want to do business. With ESPN on their side, both benefit from more pay per views sold and will both be throwing everything they can to the wall to see if it sticks.
There are phases this sport and all sports go through. Different meta come through and change how the sport is done. We’ve seen the Brazilian beginnings, American wrestling dominance, and the internationalization of the UFC. There’s the rumblings of an African revolution in the UFC with Francis N’Gannou, Kamaru Usman, and Israel Adesanya all champions. But I predict none will be as pronounced as the coming Russian invasion. We’re going to see many, many Russians come through and we will see more champions.
It is in line with the UFC pushing into these markets. The more successful the UFC is in these regions, the more popular the sport gets. The more popular the sport gets, the more the money, science, and resources are put behind it. So, while I may be American and the only champ at the time of this writing is a fraudulent champ in Aljamain Sterling, I say bring on the Russians. We’re growing this sport.