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Fighters flock to Russia's Dagestan where wrestling is a way of life

Eyes focused on each other, boys in colourful singlets practise wrestling takedowns as others watch from the side of the modest studio, leaning against walls covered with peeling paint and splintering wood panelling.

The sports hall in Kayakent, a small town in Russia's Dagestan region in the Caucasus, has seen better days.

But it is immensely popular with local children, who come from humble origins and one day hope to repeat the triumphs of their older peers in bringing home world championship medals.

And in Dagestan, successful wrestlers can gain almost iconic status.

Such was the excitement about homegrown celebrity Khabib Nurmagomedov when he became the first Muslim or Russian national to win a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) title in April that he was mobbed by about 2,000 people at the airport and needed a police escort for him and his father.

The 30-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter is set to apply his wrestling techniques on Saturday when he defends his title against MMA star Irishman Conor McGregor in Las Vegas in the headline UFC fight, arguably the most anticipated in the sport's history.

Nurmagomedov, known as The Eagle, grew up wrestling and was initially mostly coached by his father, before moving to Dagestan's main city, Makhachkala, to train with a coach there.

- Humble beginnings -

With Dagestan becoming a steady supplier of world and Olympic champions, the mountainous region's training grounds have even started attracting foreign athletes.

"After we opened this school in 1996, we saw the first results already in four-five years," said Magomed Arangereyev, who coaches at the Kayakent sport school.

"After six years... our boys started winning in Europe, then world championships."

The facility initially didn't even have mats.

Arangereyev had to work on concrete floor until a fire wrecked a larger town's sports school, which closed down and gave him some equipment.

Now, he says, the school is over capacity, with 60 young boys sometimes coming to practise, in the town of just 11,000 people.

"We can no longer accommodate everyone since we have no space," he told AFP in an interview at his office, lined with dozens of trophies and photos of local wrestlers who have reached success internationally.

In Dagestan, wrestling is the "number one sport", Arangereyev said, not football or hockey popular in the rest of Russia.

- 'Best in the world' -

Different ethnic groups in the diverse region historically practised traditional wrestling, making the area a fertile ground for the modern sport.

"This tradition is over 100 years old. Our great grandparents wrestled, and we have national wrestling high in the mountains," said Gaidar Gaidarov, who coaches at a famous wrestling school in Makhachkala.

The success of wrestlers trained in Dagestan has now made the region a top draw for the sport.

Gaidarov no longer just trains local young men but also ambitious athletes from all over the world who are not afraid to move to Dagestan, a region that borders war-scarred Chechnya and has itself been a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

One wrestler now training with Gaidarov and running trails in the surrounding hills is Cuban-born Italian national Frank Chamizo, who last year became a world champion in his category.

Training in the Gamid Gamidov school in Makhachkala where Gaidarov works, French national Saifedine Alekma said he came to Dagestan after his progress stalled at home.

"Here you find the best wrestlers in the world," he said, during practice in the large gym. "Even just in this room this evening you can find 20 or 30 world and European champions, junior or senior."

Success in wrestling is simply a part of Dagestan's heritage, Gaidarov said.

"Dagestan is a republic where people like to wrestle," he said. "Our boys want to win."

"I think it's genetic -- our grandparents wrestled, we wrestled and our children will also wrestle."

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