Russian MMA has never produced so many top-quality fighters as they are now, with the republic states of Dagestan and Chechnya in the North Caucasus—positioned at the south of the Russian Federation bordering Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea—producing a number of UFC stars over the last few years.
Unbeaten Dagestan lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov is without doubt leading the way for his compatriots, enjoying one of the biggest fan bases in all of MMA (just look at his and his upcoming opponent’s social media accounts for proof) and is on the cusp of a UFC lightweight title shot.
Meanwhile, the likes of Rustam Khabilov, Ali Bagautinov, Omari Akhmedov, Ruslan Magomedov and Albert Tumenov are all considered among their respective division’s best competitors—even Olympic wrestler Bilyal Makhov, a resident of Makhachkala, Khasavyurt, in Dagestan, is signed to the UFC roster without a fight to his name. Aside from those from the North Caucasus, fighters such as Alexander Volkov, Alexander Yakovlev and Ukraine-born Olesiy Olynyk proudly represent the country’s northwest region.
With such gluttony of impressive Russian fighters on its roster, and the undoubted popularity of the continually-rising Nurmagomedov, the UFC have long had Russia in their sights as a big market to crack. No surprise, given Russia’s thriving MMA scene—a scene which has spawned multiple successful promotions such as Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB), the UFC Fight Pass-broadcasted Eurasia Fight Nights (EFN), and M-1 Global. It’s also a scene which has a rich talent pool of local fighters and extensive financial backing from various—sometimes unscrupulous—characters from within Russia, such as businessman Ziyavudin Magomedov and Chechen figurehead Ramzan Kadyrov.
Hot off the heels of UFC’s New York City debut for UFC 205, questions were inevitably asked as to what new markets the UFC could head to in the future. After all, in just the last few years the UFC have appeared in new markets such as Croatia, Poland, The Netherlands, Singapore, The Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. UFC president Dana White made his intentions very clear in the post-fight press conference. “[Co-CEO] Ari [Emanuel] and I are going to Russia in the next couple of weeks,” said White. “We’re working on Russia, we’re working on China. We’re making some real big moves here in the next several months.” These sentiments were echoed by David Allen, the UFC’s senior vice president of UMEA, who said an event held in Russia was “a priority.”
Little over a month later, investigative journalist Karim Zidan, an expert on Russian MMA and social issues in both Chechnya and Dagestan, relayed reports from Russia saying both White and Emanuel met with Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Vitaly Mutko.
Mutko long served as a leading figure in Russian sports as the Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy (from 2008 to 2012) and the Russian Minister of Sport (from 2012 until October 2016). Mutko oversaw the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and was the leading figure for Russia’s winning bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2018—that’s in addition to presiding over the Russian World Anti-Doping Agency controversies which emerged in 2015. If you want to make inroads to the heart of Russian sport, Mutko is your man—despite the problematic issues which arose during his tenure of his previous roles within the country’s government.
According to R-Sport (as translated by @bayginavukat), Mutko said: “A little while ago I’ve met with the UFC owners. They say we do not have a single partner or a title fight in Russia. Our Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is there alone, beating everybody. They’ve [White and Emanuel] shown me their presentation. I was shocked when I saw what they were doing—the revenues, how much they get from the TV.”
Mutko, who also courted controversy in his previous role and as head of the Russian Football Union as he was deemed to have facilitated football hooliganism in Euro 2016 by the British press, is seemingly impressed by the UFC’s proposition and that can’t be a bad thing for their hopes of a future presence in Russia.
White and former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta often candidly pined about their desires to hold UFC events in Russia. But, they got nowhere—often relying on negotiations with Russian MMA household name Fedor Emelianenko and his manager Vadim Finkelstein with the hope a major coup such as that would provide enough gravitas to justify the introduction of UFC events in the country. However, both negotiations and relationships between both parties soured quickly on multiple occasions.
Just months into the UFC’s ownership under Emanuel’s WME agency, the promotion’s new direction has angered some of the sport’s rabid fanbase—with a series of staff and further cost-cutting exercises changing both the tone and, quite literally, the face of the UFC with Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell released from their ambassadorial roles. But, the fact Emanuel has already brokered a meeting with a man as in-demand as Mutko is rather telling and certainly suggests progress is being made in the UFC’s attempts to break into the Russian market.
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