Combat champions: inside the bloody world of MMA in the North Caucasus

28 March 2017

Mixed martial arts, which dates back to the Olympic Games 684 BC, draws a huge following in the Russian North Caucasus, where even the smallest towns offer training for both adults and kids. Last year, Russian photographer Maxim Babenko travelled to MMA tournaments in Dagestan and Chechnya, documenting the life of Russian fighters, from the gruelling morning training sessions on the snowy banks of the river Kaban or the windy shores of the Caspian sea to the brutal face-offs in the ring. Speaking to various fighters, he came to learn that Caucasians truly believe fighting to be in their blood. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov even puts his own children in MMA fights. “Dagestan and Chechnya are places where everyone strives to be dangerous. Everywhere you go you see people in T-shirts with images of fighters, symbols of fight organisations, names of martial arts. At any time of the day everybody is running or doing exercises on the horizontal bar,” Babenko reveals. Although the long-troubled regions of Chechnya and Dagestan have been trying to shake off the label of being a “dangerous” place, in the world of MMA this reputation only seems to have worked in their favour. “This year at the World Championship of Amateur MMA the Russian team took seven gold medals out of seven, the photographer explains. “All of them are from Dagestan.”