VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight contender Carlos Condit remembers exactly what he was thinking the first time he saw the newest imports at the gym of his longtime coach, Greg Jackson, in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I thought, ‘Where the hell are these guys from?’” Condit said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Even if Condit knew the answer to that question, he probably wouldn’t have known much about the place.
Few Americans do.
But those that follow mixed martial arts have been learning more and more about Dagestan, a tiny republic of Russia with a population of less than 3 million. In addition to being a battleground for insurgency and political unrest, the republic has become a hotbed of fighting talent.
Ali Bagautinov has a chance to bring the first UFC title to the republic when he fights Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight belt tonight in the main event of UFC 174 at Rogers Arena.
“If I win, I’ll be the first Russian to do so,” he said through a translator. ”But definitely not the last.”
Bagautinov has won all three fights since signing with the UFC last year. His teammate at Jackson’s gym, Rustam Khabilov, suffered his first UFC defeat last week in a main event loss to former champion Benson Henderson. Khabilov was ahead on the scorecards when he was choked out in the fourth round. Lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, who trains at American Kickboxing Academy, is 22-0 in his career, including 6-0 in the organization.
Several other fighters, including some who train with Bagautinov in Albuquerque, have just been signed by the UFC or are competing in some of the other MMA organizations awaiting the opportunity.
“I’ve been hearing about all the stuff going on in Russia for a long time and then we started signing some of the Russians,” UFC president Dana White said. “Obviously, if you look, they’re all ranked in the top 10. These guys are legit.”
Bagautinov cited the importance of wrestling in the culture as a main reason for the success. He was a high-level wrestler who went on to become a world champion in combat sambo, a Russian grappling martial art.
Bagautinov, 29, also pointed out that the current generation of fighters had role models to look up to in Russian stars Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski. Emelianenko, though he never signed in the UFC, was long considered the top heavyweight fighter in the world. Arlovski, the UFC heavyweight champion in 2005 and 2006, is making his return to the organization on the card tonight against Brendan Schaub, after fighting in other promotions since 2008.
“Russia has a lot of very good fighters. This is just the beginning,” Bagautinov said. “We have a lot of different kind of sports, and several different fighting sports, and are so competitive our whole lives.”
Condit believes the future is bright for the Dagestani imports. In addition to the solid fundamental wrestling base, he cited life in the troubled region as a contributing factor.
“For starters, it’s their incredible wrestling abilities,” Condit said. “They are top-notch, world-class wrestlers to start with. Then, add on top of that the different striking prowess they each bring to the table. They are just impressive martial artists. For Ali specifically, his wrestling’s on point. He’s got great boxing skills, and he is just so mentally strong.
“These guys also come from a place that makes them hardened individuals.”
Bagautinov is also focused. He left Russia immediately after the birth of his son, Shamil, to start training for this fight. Bagautinov said he hasn’t even held his child yet.
He hopes to bring the belt back home and make it the first gift he gives his son.
Combined with his desire to be Dagestan’s first world champion, Bagautinov knows what’s at stake tonight.
“It’s a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I embrace that,” he said.
Bagautinov faces a tall task. Johnson has won five straight fights, including three consecutive title defenses.
Johnson says he’s ready for the next challenger.
“He has that sambo background,” Johnson said. “The thing he does well is he wrestles, and he can catch kicks and take people down where he just likes to smother people on the ground. He’s very deserving of this title shot, and we’ll see how good he is on Saturday night.”
The bout headlines a pay-per-view card that airs live at 7 p.m. FX (Cable 24) will air the preliminary card at 5 p.m., with two fights streaming live on the UFC’s online Fight Pass platform at 4.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.