It’s the North Caucasian Invasion.
Easy enough to label it something else. You know, slap it with the Russian Revolution moniker, then tie it up in a neat collection of archetypes involving bears and Aleksandr Karelin and nursery rhymes with huntsmen in them.
It’s easy, but it’s like a lot of easy things in that it’s not correct. Ozzy Dugulubgov, for one, wants to make that clear.
“I’m not Russian.”
Yes, Ozzy (born “Azamat”) Dugulubgov was born in Russia. But he was also born in the North Caucasus region, an area that was annexed by the Russians in the 19th century and has remained politically turbulent more or less ever since.
Like most fighters from that part of the world, Dugulubgov draws a bright dividing line between his homeland and the nation that controls it. Their common ground stretches to fighting, too; Dugulubgov is the latest in a string of elite North Caucasian MMA prospects.
In Dugulubgov’s case, the mark is being made in the lightweight division of the World Series of Fighting promotion. He fights Jonathan Nunez Saturday at WSOF 9, and if he wins, he’ll be 6-1 as a pro, five for his last five and 3-0 in WSOF. That’s title contender territory.
“This is the third fight in WSOF for me, and if I win it, it will bring me closer to a new stage and closer to the title shot,” Dugulubgov said.
The 25-year-old Dugulubgov (6-1) is certainly focused on that fight. Nunez is a former D-1 college wrestler, and will test Dugulubgov in that phase. But it’s Ozzy's homeland that really gets him talking.
It isn't exactly front-page news that misconceptions exist about places like the stridently Muslim North Caucasus region, which includes the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan and has recently turned out MMA phenoms like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rustam Khabilov and Frodo Khasbulaev, among others. With mild manners but clear conviction, Dugulubgov addresses those misconceptions, comparing the ethnic groups of North Caucasus with one that might be more familiar to the Western world.
“We’re almost like Native Americans,” he said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “We were natives of that area. At the end of the day, now we’re part of Russia. But we’re still a different people…I used to get so pissed when people called me Russian. But now I understand that’s just the way it is a lot of times. People don’t always understand what goes on, and I get that."
It has been five years since Dugulubgov left his parents, friends and hometown of Baksan, located in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, for the United States. He ultimately settled in New Jersey with his two younger siblings, for whom he is now the legal guardian.
“Family is important,” Dugulubgov said with the kind of gravitas that you probably don’t have unless you’ve done something like move half a world away from your parents and assume legal guardianship of your two younger siblings. “I miss my parents and my extended family. I would love to have them around me. When I have a day off, I love to spend time with my younger brother and sister. They live here, but I don’t see them much because I’m training all the time.”
That’s about all the softness you’re going to get out of Dugulubgov (6-1), especially if you’re another fighter. Although he touts a well-rounded skill set—honed in part by a wrestling-champ father and training with Renzo Gracie for the past three years—his bread and butter is taekwondo-based striking, an unusual weapon among the North Caucasian contingent. But unlike other MMA fighters with a deep background in the karate branch of martial arts, Dugulubgov doesn't nibble around the edges. He maintains distance but pounces on openings with extreme prejudice. The approach has netted him two knockout victories as a pro and a reputation as a precise headhunter.
He also attacks with a combination of calm and ferocity that's probably unique to the North Caucasus and Russian contingents. What about the region’s warrior combat poet spirit people are always referencing? Turns out that’s more than just an abstract nod to a fable or the region's recent military history.
“Fighting and being an athlete and being able to defend yourself was so important growing up. You have to know how to wrestle, and you have to be athletic,” Dugulubgov says. “Everyone who was even a little chubby, it was a big deal. In first grade, on up through the grades, people are always separating you out based on your level. You always had to face the challenge from your friends and those around you. Almost every day, you’d go back to the train tracks and there would be someone fighting each other. Sometimes in the early years, you fight your friend, but then you build a bond. All my friends, I fought them all.”
And he’s not done shedding light on the area. What about that quiet attitude of fighters from the region?
“Sometimes people say while I’m sparring or fighting, they say ‘Ozzy, kick his ass!’” he said. “But one of the things I grew up on was a style on the street where you really watch what you say. You say ‘your mother is this or that,’ and they will cut your head off. We don’t threaten each other. If I tell someone else I’m going to kill them tomorrow, you have to go do what you say.”
Dugulubgov may not be inclined to talk, but he says he doesn’t miss it.
“The way I see it is, why do you have to have so much thunder in your mouth if you have God in your heart and lightning in your hand?”
The Beaten Path series highlights the top prospects in MMA. For the previous article in the series, click here. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.