The New Faces of Russian MMA
15 years ago Russia was home to some of the greatest fighters in MMA. The name Fedor Emelianenko was synonymous with elite level fighting. The quiet Russian heavyweight dominated the MMA landscape for years and was considered the best pound for pound fighter in the sport. But Russian greatness didn’t stop there. Big names such as Sergei Kharitonov, Igor Vovchanchyn, Vladamir Matyushenko, and the older Alexander Emelianenko were ever-present in top 5 heavyweight and light-heavyweight rankings. They fought with a terrifying ferocity that reflected growing up in a chaotic post-Soviet Union era. Anytime a Russian fighter entered the ring you knew that a brutal slugfest was in the making.
But the MMA landscape is always changing, and through the late 2000s Russian fighters virtually disappeared. The reasons for this are uncertain and could be endlessly debated. Many thought that stricter medical and PED testing stateside as MMA exploded in the United States, played a major role. Fighters such as Alexander Emeliankenko had US bouts scrapped on multiple occasions for undisclosed medical reasons. Fighter such as Fedor appeared flat when competing in organizations that had clear drug policies. This was a very cry from the days of PrideFC when fighters where explicitly told they wouldn’t be tested for PEDs. Certainly the aging of the greats such as Emelianenko played a role, but it nonetheless remained difficult to understand why younger prospects didn’t emerge to replace the former greats. It seemed, at times, that Russia’s days of producing great MMA fighters was simply over.
In the middle half the 2010 decade that began to change, and several new faces burst onto the scene
In 2012 “The Eagle” Khabib Nurmagomedov quietly made his UFC debut. Since his debut the Dagestani fighter has been flawless in his run to the UFC title, remaining undefeated through 8 fights. His domination of the lightweight division finally resulted in capturing a lightweight belt in 2017 with a win over Al Iaquinita. His ultimate and greatest challenge will come on Saturday night when he faces pound for pound great Connor McGregor to unify the lightweight title. Many close to the sport and calling this the biggest fight in MMA history. To put into perspective the significance of this, the last time a Russian was involved in a historic MMA fight was Fedor vs Cro Cop in 2005, almost 13 years ago.
In the Heavyweight division Alexander Volkov has emerged as a top contender for the heavyweight title. The massive 6’8 fighter nicknamed ‘Drago’ in reference to Rocky IV has been absolutely dominant in his 5 UFC outings. His next fight on Saturday night against Derrick Lewis is a likely #1 contender fight with the winner facing Stipe Miocic for a vacant belt sometime in 2019. (Presuming Cormier faces Lesnar and retires). If Volkov can pull off this feat he will be the first Russian heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC and the first Russian heavyweight to hold a major belt (Pride/UFC) since the sale of Pride in 2006.
In the featherweight division, another Dagestani, Zabit Magomedshapirov, is turning heads. The 145 lb Zabit has looked like the next evolution of MMA since his and received performance of the night bonuses in his first two outings in the UFC. He is currently 4-0 in just two years of UFC level competition, and has been fast tracked into fighting the elite of the division. His next challenge will likely come against a top five fighter in the featherweight division. Given the level up hype surrounding this fighter, it’s not impossible to imagine him challenging Max Holloway for the title belt by the end of 2019.
We are in an unprecedented situation where Russian fighters could foreseeably hold 3 major belts by the end of 2019. Russia is back in the fold, and the MMA landscape is a better place because of it.