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Nothing Lost in Translation: Dagestan Native Shahbulat Shamhalaev Making His Way in Bellator

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Shahbulat “Sha” Shamhalaev is a man of few words. The 29-year-old M-1 veteran (11-1-1) simply enters the cage and lets his fists do the talking.

Though he acquired his fighting vocabulary in the Russian republic of Dagestan, there was no need for translation when Shamhalaev defeated Cody Bollinger and Mike Richman with first-round TKO wins in the quarter- and semi-finals of the Bellator Season 7 featherweight tournament.

Shamhalaev’s devastating punches have earned him the nickname “The Assassin.” “He’s a natural born killer,” said his manager, Sam Kardan, who brought him over six months ago from Russia’s Team Goretz to train with the BombSquad in Ithaca, N.Y.

There, Shamhalaev quickly made an impression on his new coach, Ryan Ciotoli. “Sha’s a scary dude,” he said. “When he goes out to fight, he fights. He’s trying to punch a hole through your face. Out of all the fighters I’ve ever trained, Jon Jones included, he’s probably the most talented guy.”

While Ciotoli calls Shamhalaev’s technique “unbelievable,” conditioning has been a central aspect of his training in Ithaca. “When he first got here, he was in terrible shape,” said Ciotoli. At the same time, they have been working on his cage game, since in Russia he was more accustomed to fighting in boxing rings.

Shamhalaev, for his part, likes training in Ithaca with such partners as Anthony Leone, Kenny Foster, and Pat Audinwood. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I kind of click with people here. I feel especially good about the sparring,” he said via an interpreter.

When not training, Shamhalaev has been trying to improve his English by watching movies at a nearby cinema. “I haven’t liked anything so far,” he said. “I don’t know what the movies are called, so I just say ‘can I get a ticket for the next movie?’ I haven’t been lucky yet.”

More reliable forms of entertainment are playing video games or skyping friends on his iPad.

Many of these connections are to Dagestan, where he grew up by the Caspian Sea in the capital, Makhachkala.

“The way people look and behave is completely different from Russia,” he described the predominantly Muslim region. “But I’m not Dagestani. In Dagestan there are forty ethnicities. I’m Dargin.” Thus, although Shamhalaev spoke Russian in our interview, his first language is Dargwa, used by about half a million people in and around the republic.

Asked about the dangers of living in Dagestan – which borders Chechnya, the site of two recent wars, and has seen escalating street warfare since a militant Islamist organization has attracted a local following – Shamhalaev simply said: “It’s normal; one can live there. Generation after generation, there are set rules. Everybody knows what the rules are and what happens if you don’t follow them. But if you’re doing things you’re not supposed to, they will kill you.”

Tradition, respect for elders, and family are big in Dagestan, he said. Quite literally, in fact. Shamhalaev may have only two brothers and a sister, but he doesn’t even bother to count beyond the 18 first cousins.

His family is happy for him to be fighting, especially given Dagestan’s proud history and reputation in combat sports. For example, Dagestani MMA fighters currently hold championship titles in four of M-1 Global’s six weight classes.

Traditionally, however, Dagestan is famous for its wrestlers.

“The whole Russian Olympic wrestling team is Dagestani guys,” Shamhalaev explained. And the republic’s reputation in the sport goes far beyond Russian borders. “Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Macedonia… half of those teams are Dagestani,” he added.

As proud as Shamhalaev is of his republic’s wrestling prowess, his own preference is to be on his feet. That is where he started his training in Sanshou at the tender age of five, later adding kickboxing and Muay Thai.

At 17, he began fighting in earnest. Until 2009, when combat sports were legalized in Russia, that meant traveling to Moscow and muscling his way into underground bouts held in casinos and occasionally circus rings.

Weight-classes existed, but weigh-ins didn’t. Eye-gouging or breaking fingers were generally prohibited, but rules on head-butts or elbows varied by organizer.

Whatever the rules, Shamhalaev was in it for fun. And it’s no wonder he enjoyed himself – he doesn’t remember losing any fights.

Since legalization, Shamhalaev has turned his persistent wins into various Russian national and world titles in Muay Thai, Sanshou, kickboxing, and karate.

Most recently, in the U.S., he has been fighting his way through Bellator, which he likes for its straight-forward tournament format.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt either to be getting paid much better. In Russia, a $1,750 cash wad meant the night had gone well – $500 for showing up, $250 for winning, $1,000 for Fight of the Night. Shamhalaev’s first Bellator payout was a $16,000 check.

Now Shamhalaev has the chance to up the face amount to $100,000 in Bellator’s featherweight tournament final against Rad Martinez (14-2-0).

Is he worried about meeting the Utah native on his home turf in Salt Lake City? “I’m going to be alone with him in the cage,” Shamhalaev shrugged.

Martinez, for one, is looking forward to the challenge. “He’s a killer and likes to knock people out,” he said of his opponent. “His other Bellator fights were a couple of quick ones” – a fate Martinez is determined to avoid. “Hopefully my wrestling will be a strength for me. If I can stretch the fight out into the third round, that would be an advantage.”

Shamhalaev knows that well. “Rad is big,” he said. “He’s going to try to rush at me, and I’m going to try to get out of the way. It’s going to be like bull-fighting. I’ll be the torero.”

Olivia M. Hall is a freelance writer and anthropologist based in Ithaca, NY. Contact her at Olivia.MMA.Hall@gmail.com.

(Photo courtesy of Bellator MMA)

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