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How Dagestan is raising the next generation of MMA champions in the wrestling room

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When VICE reporter Alzo Slade traveled to Dagestan to document the wrestling programs that have produced Olympic gold medalists and UFC champions, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

He heard that the Russian republic was notorious for producing some of the hardest working and dedicated athletes in combat sports, but even that, didn’t prepare him for the first day of training on a mountaintop.

“I like to think that I’m in shape, but what those guys do it’s the real deal,” Slade told MMA Fighting after spending several days in Dagestan. “The MMA guys in the mountains, we wake up around 6:30 or 7 o’clock, right when the sun’s coming up. As soon as we get up, boom, we run about a mile or two across some rough terrain in the mountains. There was about a 50 foot patch of ice, these guys ran across the ice, feet plunged into icy cold water. You’ll see in the piece, I ran about 25 yards uphill as a sprint. They do that first thing in the morning.

“Then they come back and do some pad work for about another hour. Then we eat breakfast. Then we take a nap. After we wake up from the nap, we hike two to three miles up the mountain, steep climbs and then we wrestle when we get to the top of the mountain. These dudes just want to fight all the time. I legit thought I was in Rocky 4.”

Slade spent time in Dagestan for a story titled “Russian Fight Factory” that debuts on the Emmy winning VICE series on Showtime this Sunday night at 8 p.m.

While some stories about the Dagestani wrestling programs are legendary, Slade was blown away by the kind of dedication the athletes there show towards the sport.

Villages all over Dagestan promote wrestling camps where rooms fill up with 150 kids in practice and every single of them aspires to follow in the footsteps of great athletes from the country. At the top of that list is UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who serves as a role model for so many children in Dagestan.

“People already knew Khabib over there before but his popularity after he beat Conor McGregor, he’s become like a demigod over there,” Slade said. “It’s also important to note, it’s a Muslim country and all of the fighters that I spoke to, one of the things that they prided themselves on was when they become successful in the sport, in MMA, they want to give back to the community.

“They want to support families. They want to support young wrestlers and young MMA fighters coming up behind them. That was a big deal. So it’s not about the fame and the fortune. They know that exists but the fortune is used to further support their culture and their family and the community.”

In the United States, certain wrestlers or mixed martial artists have become household names but the list is rather short. That is not the case in Dagestan.

“The wrestling champions over there and the MMA fighters, they know them like the Michael Jordan’s and the Tom Brady’s over here,” Slade said. “I had to do my studying before going over there and I was familiar with the MMA fighters but not necessarily all of the wrestlers.

“I was asking them about (Olympic gold medalist) [Abdulrashid] Sadulaev and I wasn’t saying his name right and they were laughing at me because it’s like someone coming over here and mispronouncing Michael Jordan’s name. How could you not know? “

Daniel Bateman/VICE NEWS/SHOWTIME

Wrestling has also served another purpose in Dagestan and that’s keeping the kids there occupied with an activity after the country was called “the most dangerous place in Europe” back in 2011 due to constant terrorist attacks.

Fire fights broke out between police and militants. Bombs going off was a daily occurrence.

Now several years later, terrorism has largely been stamped out in Dagestan, but reminders are hanging on the walls in many of the wrestling clubs as children are encouraged to embrace athletics rather than fanaticism.

“Dagestan has a history of terrorism. It was a part of their history they’re not proud of honestly,” Slade relayed. “When you’re talking to the kids, they don’t care about none of that. They just want to wrestle. They just want to be the best. They just want to be champions.

“Now the adults, I kind of liken in to being at an inner city gym if you’re in America and you saw a D.A.R.E. poster about don’t do drugs on the wall. In the same way that basketball and football is used to keep kids out of the street is the same way that wrestling is used in a way to just keep an eye on the kids and give them something to make them feel significant.”

In many ways, Slade felt like wrestling — and by extension mixed martial arts — has almost become the national sport in Dagestan because so many people from parents to children are involved.

On the surface it might almost seem like the kids there aren’t given much of a choice when it comes to wrestling from such a young age but Slade says that’s not true at all. In fact, he saw the pure joy and enthusiasm from the children there who absolutely love wrestling and dream of Olympic gold medals and UFC championships.

“I didn’t get the sense that any kid was there out of significant pressure from the family or direct pressure,” Slade said. “I think it may be indirect pressure because wrestling is woven into the fabric of their culture to the extent that it’s a no-brainer.

“It’s a no-brainer that you’re going to wrestle. If you’re healthy, you’re going to wrestle.”

Check out “Russia’s Fight Factory” on VICE this Sunday night at 8 p.m. on Showtime.