In the last few years, Russians have become some of the most feared MMA opponents in the UFC as well as in other promotions. The most prominent names hailing from the country proved to be dominant champions in their divisions or equally formidable challengers.
From Valentina Shevchenko's exquisite flyweight reign to Khamzat Chimaev's 'boogeyman' reputation to Zabit Magomedsharipov leaving behind the biggest 'What If' of the UFC, Russian fighters have been the talk of the town in the sport for a while.
Way of the Fighter says as of October 2023, the UFC listed 52 Russians on their roster - both current and retired - of which only 20 are active, 29 are under contract and three are retired.
While mixed martial arts was always a dedicated sport in Russia, one particular fighter from the mountains of Makhachkala, Dagestan put the country on the map at a global scale. It was none other than the undefeated former lightweight kingpin, Khabib Nurmagomedov, who also happens to be the first Russian to hold a UFC championship belt.
The week leading up to Nurmagomedov's title win at UFC 223 was full of unexpected obstacles and controversies, but none that actively pertained to him. First, on April 1, his original title fight against Tony Ferguson got canceled for the fourth time owing to the American suffering a knee injury.
Ferguson was replaced by Max Holloway, but he was pulled from the fight after NYSAC declared him unfit to compete with one day remaining. The UFC's next choice was Anthony Pettis, who weighed in 0.2 pounds over the championship limit and chose to not re-weigh. NYSAC played a spoilsport in the promotion's second choice, Paul Felder, as he was not in the UFC's rankings at the time.
Finally, Al Iaquinta emerged as the challenger for the fight, set to take place on April 7, 2018. However, further issues persisted as Iaquinta also weighed in 0.2 pounds over the 155 lbs. mark. At the end, only Nurmagomedov was deemed eligible to win the championship, which he did in an emphatic manner.
When it comes to pre-UFC 223 drama, one simply cannot forget Conor McGregor's infamous bus attack, which left multiple fighters injured and unable to compete. Nurmagomedov, however, was unscathed.
The other "first" Russian UFC champion
While Khabib Nurmagomedov was technically the first Russian to win a UFC belt, former heavyweight Oleg Taktarov has a different take on the matter.
After losing to Dan Severn at UFC 5, he returned at UFC 6 and won the tournament fighting thrice in the same night. While the eight-man tournaments of the old days are not considered equal of a UFC title, Taktarov feels differently.
In an Instagram Live chat few years back, he dismissed Khabib Nurmagomedov as the first Russian champion and claimed the status belonged to him.
As per Sportskeeda, Taktarov said, "Where did you find that Khabib was the first Russian champion?... There were three champions [Royce Gracie, Steve Jennum, and Dan Severn]. The sixth championship I won. Where do you see someone else?"
Among the three fights Taktarov won that night, on July 14, 1995, his guillotine choke win over Anthony Macias in just nine seconds is still the fastest submission in UFC history, per Tapology.
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