MESA, Ariz. -- The first thing Islam Mamedov noticed about California was the weather. Then the women. It was early March, and even after years of warnings from lifelong friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, the culture shock was the most positive kind of bizarre for Mamedov, a 25-year-old lightweight who after a marathon flight found the frigid mountains of Dagestan replaced by the picturesque beaches and Sunset Boulevards of his most improbable daydreams.
It was all very strange, and in many ways, it still is. If five years ago, somebody were to tell Mamedov that he would be living part-time in America, a regular at one of the country's best MMA gyms -- San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy - training under the watch of a UFC champion, and considered one of the most promising prospects in one of the sport's big-three promotions, well, "I would've laughed," Mamedov says through his translator, smiling. "I would've never believed that.
"We grew up on Hollywood movies. We were always watching Hollywood movies, The Terminator or Die Hard. We were watching America all the time, and I didn't know: is all of that true? Is that the real America they're showing me in the movies? But (when I got here), it was just like in the movies. Everything surrounding me, I was in the movies. I still can't believe it."
Mamedov is the latest in the long line of Dagestani fighters to storm and seemingly overtake the MMA landscape -- a childhood neighbor of Nurmagomedov's who grew up like many of his countrymen, braving poverty and the elements in the mountainous region of the North Caucasus, where street fights and wrestling practice are considered ways of life, but until recently were rarely thought of as viable means of escape.
Mixed martial arts changed that however, and the Dagestanis are now here to stay, a wave of marauders with five-syllable last names and supernatural discipline bases having seized everything from the world contender lists -- Nurmagomedov, Rustam Khabilov, Ali Bagautinov -- to the ranks of the sport's brightest prospects. "I think it's in the blood, it's in the culture, the culture of Dagestani people," Mamedov says.
"Freestyle wrestling is like a cult over there. It's like a cult, because all of the kids in school, they first dream to be an Olympic champion in freestyle wrestling. It's really one of the national sports there. I don't even know, I cannot name one guy who hasn't trained as a freestyle wrestler or any other martial art."
"When you're four years old, you have no other choices," adds WSOF executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz, who has helped several Russian fighters find opportunity over the past several years in the United States. "You have to be a gangster or you have to be a sportsman. A lot of them choose to be a sportsman, and I think it's the nature of the North Caucasus. They are the toughest people on this planet. They don't eat much, they don't sleep much. Everything, they have little. And when you have this kind of environment, you're hungry to achieve. They want to achieve, they want to have a better life. They're a very simple people, they're not a flashy people, but these guys are born to be champions. Their mindset is so different."
After joining the transatlantic party late, Mamedov is making up for lost time. His World Series of Fighting debut in April, just one month removed from first stepping foot on American soil, was a master class of polished grappling and brute strength aggression that left poor Leon Davis dazed on the mat in a little over four minutes. His sophomore effort against hard-nosed Jimmy Spicuzza in August was no less of a massacre, ending with 13 seconds to spare in the opening round.
Now Mamedov is raring to take the next step off his journey, agreeing without hesitation to participate in WSOF 25's throwback one-night, eight-man tournament, against a field filled with proven UFC veterans and WSOF contenders. The winner is slated to receive an automatic title shot against WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, and while many of his competitors were fidgety or anxious on Wednesday about the challenge that awaited them, Mamedov carried the steely air of a man who had dealt with far worse in his days.
"Normal people don't do this. Normal people don't want to fight three times in one night," Abdel-Aziz said. "You can be the greatest of all-time, but something has to be different in your mindset (to want to do this). It's more survival.
"His style, he's probably one of the favorites to win this tournament because of the way he fights. For this tournament, this is the type of guy you want. He doesn't take much damage, he has very good control, and he can finish. And he knows, you cannot think about winning. If you start thinking about winning the whole tournament, you already lost. If you start thinking about one fight, you already lost. You have to start thinking about how to win every round, decisively without taking much damage. It's math, and you have to be a smart fighter."
Eight months into his American experiment, Mamedov has proven to be adept at exactly that. As a fighter who grew up watching the behemoths of Pride FC run through similar wringers on their road to glory, he knows the rigors that lie in wait Friday night. And as a student who was raised in the game idolizing ex-UFC champion Frankie Edgar, he understands how intelligence, above all, is the table-setter that wins fights on an international level.
And so Friday night, Mamedov plans to do exactly what he always does, regardless of the daunting old-school format: win, then ready the stage for the next Dagestani import to sweep through the States.
"As long as mixed martial arts is getting popular worldwide, a lot of guys who used to wrestle or used to do combat sambo, they will keep integrating into mixed martial arts," Mamedov says. "It's in our blood. Fighting, struggling for all our lives, it's in our blood. If you go through Dagestan's history, we're the people who are always struggling for our freedom, for our lives. After everything we've survived, it's in our genetics to fight."