Photo from ufc.com (Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

Throughout the long history of mixed martial arts, Wrestling has proven to be one of the more dominant styles and easier transitions.

The vast majority of high-level MMA fighters and champions have strong backgrounds in some form of grappling but a solid wrestling foundation is essential to succeeding in professional MMA competition.

The evolution of professional MMA has come a long way since the early days of PRIDE and the UFC but now the style of wrestling in MMA has evolved.

The emergence of Dagestan wrestling originally came into the UFC spotlight during the early 2010s, from Hall of Famer and former lightweight champion Khabib ‘the Eagle’ Nurmagomedov.

The Eagle made an immediate impact on the combat sports scene, entering the UFC as a major hype train with an undefeated record and a never before seen grappling dominance.

Khabib captivated fans with his brutal ground game but left many wondering how he did it because the sport had seen many dominant wrestlers before but there was something different about him.

Not only could he take down opponents with ease but he was able to drag them down into deep waters and control them in any position for as long as he wanted, showing incredible endurance.

Khabib introduced Dagestan wrestling to the mainstream.

Khabib Nurmagomedov spoke at the UFC 254 media conference before his title defence against Justin Gaethje.

“If I’m going to take him down once and he defends, I’m going to go all night,” Khabib said.

“This is the big difference between US wrestling and Dagestan Wrestling.”

As the name states, the style originates from Dagestan, a small Republic in Northern Russia.

The style is similar to American freestyle wrestling and involves strong takedowns, heavy top pressure and aggressive chain wrestling.

Photo from ufc.com (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The key difference between the two, according to former light-heavy and heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier is relentlessness.

Cormier also spoke with the media before Khabib’s title defence saying, “It’s Dagestan … They’re not doing all that much over there apart from learning to fight and wrestle”.

“I wrestled there and dudes can all wrestle, they’re not hanging out, going to the movies, they’re wrestling and they’re fighting, I love it.”

Fighters from Dagestan can start their training as early as three, four or five years old and many devote their lives to their craft, be it wrestling, sambo or MMA.

Russia is one of the leading countries in the sport of wrestling and has delivered many champions to the World and Olympic stage but Dagestan has sent its fighters to conquer the MMA cage.

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Khabib may have been the first high-profile fighter from Dagestan but almost a decade after his debut and over two years since his retirement, the floodgates have opened and a wave of dominant Dagestan wrestlers have poured into every world-class MMA organisation.

Including family members from Khabib Nurmagomedov’s own family tree.

Islam Makachev is the UFC Lightweight Champion and a close family friend of Khabib.

Usman Nurmagomedov is the Bellator Lightweight Champion and Khabib’s cousin.

Umar Nurmagomedov is a top contender in the UFC’s Bantamweight division, also Khabib’s cousin.

Saygid Izagakhmaev is a Lightweight rising star in ONE Championship and Khabib’s personal protegee.

American wrestler and current UFC fighter Bo Nickal spoke about Dagestan fighters at a UFC media conference before his fight at UFC 285, “Those guys compete at such a high level, I think that the way they compete, I enjoy that intensely, I enjoy seeing the way that they structure their training”.

“Really the way they live their lives, it’s obviously super disciplined, fully focused, they’re all in, committed to their goal.”

Since the early days of MMA, fighters with a primary background in wrestling and grappling have had the highest statistical win percentage over those who prefer to strike.

During this period MMA was very young and had not yet developed into the well-rounded sport it is now, most fighters were quite one-dimensional, focusing on either wrestling, boxing, karate, etc.

As a result of this, many dominant strikers were outclassed by wrestlers because they weren’t as skilled as their opponents at defending takedowns and didn’t know how to wrestle-up back to their feet.

Several forms of wrestling and grappling have been showcased in different MMA organisations, from freestyle wrestling, greco-roman, judo, sambo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Nowadays, fighters are incredibly well-rounded, often focusing on one dominant style through some form of striking or grappling but they now have the knowledge and skills to defend against their opponent’s strength.

Not many people have had great success against Dagestan wrestlers, the person who had arguably the greatest success against this style would be UFC Featherweight Champion Alexander Volkanovski who fought against UFC Lightweight Champion Islam Makachev in an all-time great clash.

Photo from ufc.com (Thomas Gerbasi)

Volkanovksi spoke about his game plan to negate Islam’s wrestling during the UFC 284 press conference, “He’s an incredible fighter and he’s done so well because he’s very calculated”.

“He doesn’t take unnecessary risks, we know where he’s strong, we know where he wants to take it, we know where I want to keep it.

“So I believe that he will look for the takedown but that ain’t going to be easy so he’s going to have to be forced to fight on the feet as well.

“He’s a well-rounded fighter, he’s going to want to shoot and he’s good at that so I need to be prepared for everything.”

Although Volkanovski failed to defeat Islam, it was an incredibly close fight and he was very successful in defending Islam’s takedowns.

Even when Islam secured a takedown Volkanovski was repeatedly able to scramble back up to his feet and was also able to defend effectively from the ground.

Volkanovski gave Islam his toughest fight and showed the world that while Dagestan wrestling is extremely dominant, it can be challenged.

Dagestani fighters continue to find success in many MMA organisations, showing no signs of slowing down and it could be a long time until their opponents find a way to turn the tables.

But if there’s one constant in MMA, it’s that the sport will continue to evolve.

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