Fighting, faith and politics: The UFC's first Muslim champion

Fighting, faith and politics: The UFC's first Muslim champion
Khabib Nurmagomedov will fight the infamous Conor McGregor on Saturday in Las Vegas.
4 min read
05 October, 2018
Khabib Nurmagomedov during open workouts at the Park Theater in Las Vegas [Getty]
Mixed martial arts champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor will clash in a much-anticipated Ultimate Fighting Championship match-up in Las Vegas this Saturday.

With no losses in his MMA career, Nurmagomedov is the current UFC lightweight champion and has become the latest combat sport athlete to become a hero among Muslim fight fans.

He is celebrated not only for his ferocious fighting skills and perfect fight record but also for his overt religiosity and humility - contrasting directly with the striking style of McGregor and his extravagant and controversial antics.

Sometimes referred to as "Cage Fighting", Mixed Martial Arts or MMA sees two competitors attempt to defeat the other by either causing unconsciousness by striking, submission or scoring a greater number of points.

The rules allow the combatants to use a variety of techniques that utilise kicks, punches, takedowns and chokes to immobilise their opponents.

Once considered a brutal minority spectacle, MMA has become mainstream in the past decade largely due to the influence of the UFC and its embrace of popular culture,  not to mention celebrities taking up Brazilian Jujitsu - one of MMA's core disciplines.

The sport has also resonated with many Muslims around the world who have their own well-established martial arts traditions such as the Wushu and Silat styles developed by Chinese Muslims as well as wrestling cultures in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is a two-time world champion in Combat Sambo, a sport with its origins in the Soviet Union's Red Army, and has become the most popular fighter in Russia since the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. He is at the forefront of the increasing number of Muslim fighters competing in the UFC and frequently speaks about the importance of his faith, posting verses from the Quran on his social media accounts, choosing not to compete during Ramadan and being critical of socially liberal trends within his native Dagestan.

Watch the preview of two men beating the
living daylights out of each other for (a lot of) money

His father, Abdulmanap, an accomplished coach, claims his son learned to walk on a wrestling mat.

Footage of Khabib Nurmagomedov wrestling a chained and likely de-clawed young bear as a child has helped fuel the mystique of the undefeated fighter. Nurmagomedov credits much of his success to his father for running a small gym in his village that encouraged young men to benefit from the discipline and confidence-building benefits of mixed martial arts.

The training was also intended to prepare potential military recruits for combat in the volatile North Caucasus region.

The storied histories of the Caucasus republics help explain the increasing popularity of MMA among many Muslims. Dagestan has suffered frequent acts of terrorist violence in recent times by groups claiming affiliation with the Islamic State group, while neighbouring Chechnya has also experienced sporadic attacks against Russian targets since the end of the second Chechen War in 2009.

These violent tensions perpetuate longstanding Russian hostility towards non-Slavic ethnicities in the Caucasus and Central Asia and are likely responsible for increasing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

The dream of emulating Khabib Nurmagomedov's lucrative career in MMA has inspired a rising number of young Muslim men to enter the sport who would otherwise be unemployed or tempted to join violent separatist groups.

Though considered a role model, Khabib Nurmagomedov's pious image was recently questioned after footage of him emerged asking homeless men to perform push-ups for cash. More seriously, he is linked to a number of figures that are mired in controversy. Among the most well-known is the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov himself, a former militia leader installed by Vladimir Putin in 2007.

That a Kremlin loyalist who rules with an iron fist is a fan of MMA comes as little surprise. Kadyrov's interest in combat sports and attempts to enhance his strongman image result in him frequently hosting celebrities such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, as well as hosting the Egyptian team and posing with Mohamed Salah during the 2018 football World Cup.

This use of "soft power" helps him to keep his chokehold over Chechnya and evade responsibility for human rights abuses committed by his regime.

Ramzan Kadyrov has also set up his own MMA organisation - the WFCA - which has a huge MMA training facility and acts as a feeder to the UFC. The UFC has so far ignored the controversies surrounding the Chechen dictator and appears to be happy for some of its biggest names to attend WFCA events.

Khabib Nurmagomedov undoubtedly understands his position as a sports icon living in a volatile region and has remained silent on politics - preferring instead to stay focused on fighting the tough men he faces inside the cage.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of 'Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism' and is co-author of 'British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism'.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid