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

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    Ramzan Kadyrov and Salman Zhamadaev with WFCA championship belt

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    Magomed-Rasul Khasbulaev from Dagestan, nicknamed “Frodo”, strikes the head of his rival Salman Jamadaev

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    Doctors provide first aid to Rustem Zhirikov from Adygea

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    Chechen fighter gives an interview with Russian state television immediately after the fight

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    Fighters during the tournament “Battle on the Kuban”, which was held in one of the nightclubs

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    The participants of a training camp completing their morning exercises on the shore of the Caspian Sea

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    Magomed-Rasul Khasbulaev from Dagestan, nicknamed “Frodo” vs Salman Jamadaev

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    Chechen fighter Beslan Ushukov against Ukrainian Askar Mozharov.  Ushukov won by the choke.

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    Ramzan Kadyrov’s ten-year-old son, Akhmat, warming up before a fight with his rival

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    Security in front of the place leading to the Octagon

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    Chechen fighters watch the fights at the Grand Prix Akhmat Final

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    Timur Sokurov, Kabardino-Balkarian mixed martial arts fighter, jogging on the banks of the river Kuban

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    Ramzan Kadyrov and Salman Zhamadaev with WFCA championship belt

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    Vladimir from Yakutia (Siberia) working out punches in a stance during morning training (Makhachkala, Dagestan, Russia)

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    Friends help Kamal Ibrahimov (Armavir) off the gloves after the fight. Ibragimov defeated his opponent from Armenia

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    Fighter of the club “Akhmat” Yunos Yevloyev comes to fight against Magomed Bibulatov

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    Evening prayer during a training session at the fight club under the leadership of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov (far right) (Makhachkala, Dagestan, Russia)

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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.”

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