Cities of Men, Cities of God: The Complex Worlds of UFC Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov

Recently, Bloody Elbow published an article detailing the many crooks, warlords and alleged terrorists connected to the UFC’s current Lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s an insightful, well-researched piece. It might also be an odd indictment and an unfair assessment of who Nurmagomedov might be as a human being.

It’s an undeniable truth that nefarious men surround the world of professional fighting. Don King once stomped a man to death over $600. He went on to become one of the most successful boxing promoters in modern history. Worse, from cartels to mobs, organized crime continues to play an extensive role in sports here in the United States and abroad. David Howman, the former director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, insisted in 2014 that organized crime controls, at least, 25 percent of all sports around the world.

The world of professional fighting is also replete with brash young men who insist on making poor associations in their bluster, arrogance and, most importantly, naivety. Muhammad Ali, one of the most beloved sports figures of all time held a long and foolish allegiance to the Nation of Islam and its notorious leader, Elijah Muhammad. Though he would ultimately abandon the Nation of Islam, Ali’s allegiance to Elijah Muhammad was so zealous at its peak that he turned a cold shoulder to the assassinations attempts on his friend and mentor, Malcolm X. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Jonathan Eig, a recent biographer of the boxing legend, told Dave Davies:

“There were some who felt like Elijah Muhammad had suggested that it would be OK if Malcolm X were assassinated, that – but Ali did not struggle with this decision at all, and he was actually quite cold toward Malcolm and said that he thought Malcolm deserved to die before the assassination. So at one point, Malcolm’s wife approached Ali and said, please help me do something. There have been attempts on Malcolm’s life already, and Ali brushed her off.”

Khabib, alongside so many athletes, may be no different than Ali in his own dubious associations. Also, expectations of sociopolitical savvy for young athletes are often unrealistic, especially for someone from such a hopelessly complex, war-torn region.

Cities of Men

Similar to its more notorious neighbor, Chechnya, Khabib’s homeland of Dagestan has struggled to break free from the brutal grasp of Russia for well over 200 years. As a result, Dagestan remains mired in ethnic and religious turmoil as various sides continue to clash over power and legitimacy. While these conflicts are relatively subdued at the moment, violence and chaos are an indelible stain on the region.

Tyranny, corruption and abject poverty exist on an intimate level for most people in this part of the world. Authoritarianism often finds a foothold among such disorder as well beginning with seemingly virtuous acts of charity and goodwill. For example, as vile and terrible as the Taliban are, many Afghanis welcomed them in all those years ago:

“[The] Taliban initially enjoyed enormous good will from Afghans weary of the corruption, brutality, and the incessant fighting of Mujahideen warlords. One story is that the rape and murder of boys and girls from a family traveling to Kandahar or a similar outrage by Mujahideen bandits sparked Mohammed Omar (Mullah Omar) and his students to vow to rid Afghanistan of these criminals.” – Taliban’s rise to power (Wikipedia) 

Rather than being caught in the constant chaos and crossfire of feuding warlords, there was finally some semblance of order (though, ultimately, that supposed order rapidly devolved into a cruel stranglehold).

Regardless of all the bipartisan vitriol, our system of government here in the States is still a beautiful, well-oiled machine of checks and balances compared to most of the world (much to the chagrin of some). It’s exceedingly difficult for those of us living in America and elsewhere to fully fathom what it must be like to endure in tumultuous war-torn regions like Khabib’s homeland.

Cities of God

Beliefs of any kind are such a private affair that it’s hard to make any kind of definitive statements without erring toward rumor or hubris. It’s clear though that faith plays a central role in Khabib’s life. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Khabib stated:

“Everybody makes mistakes, and we have to ask Allah to forgive us… I want to be a good example, a good role model.”

One can also make a reasonable argument that Khabib’s religiosity suffers at times from the same sort of rote dogmatism that affects many other athletes including UFC fighters like, say, Matt Hughes or Yoel Romero. The differences in their respective faiths are not much of an issue considering they all seem to approach their beliefs in similar, superficial ways. That’s less of a judgment and more of an observation given Khabib’s recent treatment of the homeless for a few laughs. While he may want to be a good example, such mockery of those less fortunate than him is clearly antithetical to the tenets of the faith he supposedly holds so dear.

Still, time is at a premium, especially for a professional fighter at the top of his game. It’s next to impossible to ruminate and reflect with any sort of depth regarding one’s beliefs with the laborious schedule fighters must maintain. Certainly, one can’t honestly expect some careful exegesis on faith from a young fighter in his prime. Vexing questions are often left to others. I suspect this is the case for Khabib. Given who some of his handlers are this is, at the very least, worrisome. Good men seek difficult questions while bad men offer easy answers (perhaps an odd statement to interject, but necessary given the discussion at hand). 

Alongside the seemingly irrevocable shadow cast by Russia, Khabib’s homeland struggles with an insurgency that attempts to use faith as its main Machiavellian prop. Many argue (including myself) that the vast, limitless coffers of Saudi Arabia and other like-minded Gulf states fuel these insurgencies. Aside from oil, Salafism is SA’s chief export, especially to volatile regions with large Muslim populations such as Bosnia, Pakistan and Syria.

Salafism is a hopelessly narrow, often draconian interpretation of Islam fueled by dogged literalism and a suffocating, superficial approach to the tenets of faith. Its decidedly evangelical approach finds its adherents constantly proselytizing ad nauseam online and elsewhere. Even Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world and a democracy to boot has had to deal with a dramatic rise in Salafism (Interestingly enough, Indonesia also elected a woman for president almost two decades ago).

This is not to say that Khabib is under the pernicious spell of Salafism either. Salafism does, however, continue to have a dangerous influence in Dagestan and that is a legitimate cause for concern both for the region and, possibly, for Khabib himself.

The current UFC Lightweight champion stands amid the perilous confluence of all the tyranny, chaos and religious fundamentalism that plague his homeland. It’s almost a moot point whether or not Khabib Nurmagomedov unabashedly supports the terrible men that exist on the periphery of his worlds. Even if he wishes to speak out against them there are tremendous risks involved, if not to him than to those under his stead in Dagestan. One can’t so much as post a meme of Putin or anyone else in such positions of power without serious consequences (See Enes Kanter).

Khabib Nurmagomedov hails from a region where there is little sanctity for life or liberty. Like so many athletes before him, he is, at best, a minor player in a complex and violent world. Faith is an integral part of who Khabib is, but one has to ask what kind of faith given the chaos around him. Only he can answer that. Ultimately, for Khabib and for many Dagestanis like him, fighting has nothing to do with the various sociopolitical machinations of the world, it’s simply the only way to survive.

© 2018 Gable Gripes All Rights Reserved

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