February 19, 2013

O’KASICK | Shah of the Cage

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When he first walked the streets of Moscow, Shahbulat Shamhalaev had just one thing on his mind: he needed to find a fight.

The task might seem easy enough in a vodka-fueled metropolis where the bratva, or “brotherhoods” of the Russian mafia, have roots as deep as those of the Kremlin. But Shamhalaev, also known as Shah, had not traveled 1,000 kilometers from his Dagestan home in the Caucasus Mountains merely to end up in a night club free-for-all. Instead, he had sought entrance into the illicit Moscow underground of mixed martial arts.

“Before 2009, MMA was illegal in Russia,” Shah said. “We had to work to find fights.”

An expert in the Chinese military art of sanshou, Shah fought an untold number of bouts in casinos, circus rings,and undisclosed locales. The organizers did not strictly enforce rules or weight classes. Headbutts might be allowed. Fighters might differ by more than 30 pounds. One thing did remain constant, though, for all competitions — the gambling action kicked off at a furious pace before the night’s first bell and didn’t stop until after the last arm of victory had been raised.

“They never asked me to throw a fight,” Shah said and smirked, alluding to the match-fixing ways of the organizers. “They knew what we are like from Dagestan.”

From the Red Square to Big Red Country

Shah’s life today must feel like a light-year away from his MMA beginnings in Russia. Moving to Ithaca six months ago to train with Team Bombsquad, the 29 year old scored two first-round TKOs in the Bellator MMA featherweight tournament, mixing lightning-fast strikes and brutal ground-and-pound.

Shah now faces Rad Martinez in the tournament finals on Feb. 21, which will be broadcast live on Spike TV at 10 p.m. Another triumph will earn the 145 pounder a $100,000 contract with the promotion and a shot at the Bellator Featherweight Champion.

“I was very surprised when I received my first check,” he said.

Shah earned $16,000 for his first Bellator fight, a modest sum for a top US promotion but up to twenty times what he typically earned with Russia’s leading organization, M-1 Global, after the sport was legalized in his country. Underground fights paid as little as $200 or sometimes nothing at all.

The Bellator wins brought Shah’s official record to 14-1-1, with his only loss coming back in 2009 to fellow Dagestani and current undefeated UFC rising star, Khabib Nurmagomedov. He never lost an unsanctioned bout, but can’t even recall his fight total.

Rad Martinez stands as a formidable foe aiming to stop Shah’s winning streak. At 14-2, Martinez paved his way to the finals with workmanlike decisions over two notable Brazilians. A Division I All-American wrestler from Clarion University and bully-sized featherweight, Martinez will look to take Shah down early and keep him on the mat as much as possible.

To counter Rad’s wrestling, Shah has sparred with a squadron of grappling-based fighters from Team Bombsquad, working laboriously on takedown defense. It will be a classic wrestler-versus-striker battle.

“It will be like a bullfight. I will be the matador,” Shah said. “Last fight, I had an injury and couldn’t kick legs. This fight will be prettier.”

Besides facing Rad, the Dagestani might feel like he will be up against the entire crowd, as the finals will go down in Salt Lake City’s Maverick Center, less than 10 miles from Rad’s hometown.

“I will be alone with him in the cage,” Shah said. “It doesn’t matter what the crowd shouts then.”

Man From the Land of Mountains & Fighters

With shaggy brown locks and a scruffy beard, Shah appears like a fighter nearing the end of his training camp and ready to step into the cage. In his spare time, he goes to movies to improve his English, and while not fond of American cuisine, he enjoys the soups at the Ithaca Bakery.

The food is still better, he said, than when he served in the 33rd brigade of the Russian army. They served meat that seemed to have been frozen since the days of Khrushchev.

Perhaps Lake Cayuga and Ithaca’s hills and gorges remind him just a little of the Caspian Sea and the Caucuses Mountains. When Shah speaks about his homeland, his grayish eyes become wistful.

Dagestan translates as “the Land of Mountains,” but it might as well be called the Land of Fighters. Four of the six current M-1 Global champions come from the small republic, which has just 2.2 million people but more than 30 ethnic groups and languages.

As in Chechnya, wrestling is the true pride of Dagestan, as it has produced more than 16 Olympic gold medalists over the years. Wrestling teams from around the world come to train in Dagestan’s rugged mountains, and nearby countries, such Azerbaijan and Turkey, regularly recruit Dagestani grapplers.

Besides contributing significantly to national wrestling in Russia, Dagestanis also comprised half the taekwondo team at the 2012 London games, and they are regular Olympic medalists as boxers, such as the former world heavyweight champion, Sultan Ibragimov, who retired with a record of 22-1-1.

“The whole world has passed through Dagestan,” said Shah, who hails from Makhachkala, the republic’s seaside capital. “We have many styles of fighting.”

Yet for all of Dagestan’s natural beauty and athletic triumphs, it has a darker side. For one, like neighboring Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim republic has rebel factions fighting to break away from mother Russia. Just last week, government security forces tracked and killed six Dagestani rebels plotting a suicide bomb attack. Furthermore, centuries of clan and ethnic conflicts have produced violent cultures of honor in which minor offenses, like incidentally flirting with the wrong guy’s girl, can lead to death.

“Generation after generation, everyone knows the rules,” said Shah. “You have to follow the rules and respect the elders.”

Taking into consideration where Shah has come from, he seems to have been born to be a fighter. He began learning sanshou at just five years of age and competing professionally at 17.

Thus, it is no wonder that when asked about why he fights, he gave a warrior-like answer: “I am just interested in fighting. It’s fun.”

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick