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Sucker Punch? Many Russians Back Irish Fighter McGregor Over Daghestani Khabib In UFC 229


Khabib Nurmagomedov (left) and Conor McGregor face off during a press conference for UFC 229 at Radio City Music Hall in New York late last month.

Undefeated in 26 fights and the reigning world champion lightweight in mixed-martial arts fighting, Khabib Nurmagomedov is beloved in his North Caucasus homeland and by fellow Daghestanis around the world.

But when Nurmagomedov -- known as The Eagle -- takes on MMA legend Conor McGregor in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 6, many of his Russian compatriots say they will be cheering for the brash, trash-talking Irishman.

The question dividing Russians is which fighter to support in the multimillion-dollar Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title bout known as UFC 229.

A recent poll by Russian sports website Sport.ru showed that 69 percent of the more than 26,000 votes tallied professed support for McGregor.

"Co-nor, Mc-Gregor! Co-nor, Mc-Gregor!" rang the chants from Zenit football fans on September 30 trying to rile hometown supporters of Daghestan's FC Anji, whose players were all wearing T-shirts with a photo of Khabib that read, "We are one team. No turning back!" (FC Anji had the last laugh, as it upset the top Russian club team 2-1.)

The reasons why many Russians might cheer for McGregor over their own countryman are as numerous as the insults the Irish fighter has dished out in the build-up to the fight, including attacks on the Daghestani's father, whom he labeled "a quivering coward."

"I want to make him humble, teach him, and not only smash him, but change his face," Nurmagomedov, who is 30 and trains in San Jose, California, told the press on July 28.

'Boxing-First' Vs. 'Wrestling-First'

Many admire the snazzily dressed, smooth-talking, high-living McGregor and his "boxing-first" style that has led him to knock out 86 percent of his opponents -- a sharp contrast to the sweat-suit wearing, soft-spoken, and stone-faced Nurmagomedov, a publicly devout Muslim who is said to live a sober, modest life.

Daghestan Transfixed By 'The Eagle' Vs. McGregor
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Some observers point to anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination against Caucasus minorities among ethnic Russians. But fighting styles might also play a part.

The Daghestani fighter's strength is the "ground game" -- an attempt to get his opponent on the canvas of the octagonal ring and either beat him into submission or put him into a wrestling hold to force a "tap out."

Some argue that the "wrestling-first" style is less exciting for fans.

Other Russian fans are upset with Nurmagomedov's involvement in an online campaign last month against several popular Russian singers who had to cancel concerts in Daghestan over insults and threats on social media.

Nurmagomedov spoke out in favor of canceling performances by Yegor Kreed, Allj, and MC Doni because of their allegedly un-Islamic music videos, song lyrics, and lifestyles. The debate led to a public spat between the Daghestani fighter and Timati -- an influential singer-producer-actor-entrepreneur who has hobnobbed with Russian President Vladimir Putin and hangs out with Chechen strongman Ramazan Kadyrov.

"If there was no bullying [by Nurmagomedov and his fans] of [pop] musicians, I would be there for Khabib," one Murmansk city official wrote in a private exchange on Instagram. "But in this case, of course, [I will cheer for] the [Irish] guy -- the showman, what charisma."

'Lick-Ass O'Hoolihan'

McGregor has stoked the division among Russian fans, showing up as a guest at the soccer World Cup final in Moscow in July, purportedly at Putin's invitation. Pictured with his arm around the Russian leader, whose crushing of dissent at home and foreign military ventures abroad have drawn criticism in the West, McGregor declared him "one of the greatest leaders of our time."

The 30-year-old McGregor, a UFC featherweight and lightweight champion before deciding to fight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. last year in one of the global fight industry's most lucrative events ever, has also tried to play up ancient tensions between Daghestanis and Chechens.

"The Chechen people know what I'm talking about when I called this man a coward," McGregor said. "[His father] and Kadyrov were at a mosque together, and he posts a picture of Kadyrov on his Instagram [account]. Kadyrov's the Chechen dictator…. But, Khabib's father, Lick-Ass O'Hoolihan, posts a picture of Kadyrov at his mosque."

An ethnic Avar, Nurmagomedov has ignored McGregor's ethnic taunts and even gave him a dose of his own medicine by asking him why he spoke English and not the native Gaelic language of Ireland.

Many oddsmakers point to McGregor's time off from the sport in making Nurmagomedov the favorite to win the fight; others think the Daghestani has never fought anyone as talented as McGregor and may suffer the first loss of his career.

Whatever the outcome, each fighter will have a legion of fans rooting for them in Russia.

With reporting by Valery Dzutsati and Aleksandra Garmazhapova of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, and RFE/RL Current Time's Evgheni Galchin.
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