Nine days before Islam Makhachev defeated Charles Oliveira for the lightweight title at UFC 280 in October, he conducted a series of interviews about the fight.
Makhachev answered questions about the upcoming fight with relative ease, including questions about his home in the Russian republic of Dagestan. During a special media call, he was asked his opinion on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war in which Ukrainian MMA fighter Yaroslav Amosov served. Instead of providing insight, he ended the conversation.
The question was valid, but so was Makhachev’s decision not to answer. It is a question without a proper answer. If he supports his native Russia, he is criticized throughout America. But if he criticizes the war, then that has the potential to create a whole new set of problems. So why not just avoid the question?
“Many Russian fighters are afraid to talk about it,” Amosov said, speaking through a translator. “And many are zombified by their propaganda.”
Amosov is the reigning Bellator welterweight champion. Undefeated in the cage, he has won all 26 of his matches. But he encountered loss in a very different way earlier this year when he was protecting Ukraine as a member of its armed forces.
A champion leaving his sport to fight in a war is just one example of how the war in Ukraine has significantly affected the world of fighting. As Christmas approaches, there is no end in sight.
“War is bad for everybody, but people should ask, where is the war going on and who started it?” says Amosov. “If someone told me we were going to invade someone else’s country, I wouldn’t have gone.”
Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 and the war has caused tens of thousands of deaths and Europe’s largest refugee situation since World War II. There is plenty of shared history between the two nations, and Ukraine was formerly under Russian control until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It appears that this current war is a strategic plan to wipe out the modern state of Ukraine and replace it under Russian control. And with a plethora of Russian and Ukrainian fighters in every major MMA organization, the war has affected fighters.
Nearly a dozen Russian fighters were asked about the war, but all offered similar answers.
Speaking through a translator, UFC star Petr Yan said: “I just keep doing my job as an athlete. Sports should be without politics. I hope everything will return to normal.”
Askar Askarov, a former UFC flyweight, also spoke through a translator, saying: “I’m just doing my job and training hard. I’m not focused on anything else.”
Bellator’s Vadim Nemkov said, through translation, “Keep sports out of politics.” Reigning Bellator lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov was asked the question, but his translator said there would be no answer.
The pattern is clear. The potential for negative consequences exists for those willing to speak out against Russia. One fighter refused to speak about the record because his mother was scheduled for surgery in Russia, and he refused to make any comments that could put her in the slightest danger.
“The culture [in Russia and Ukraine] is very, very different from America,” UFC heavyweight Alexey Oleinik said. He was born in Kharkiv when it was part of the Soviet Union, but it is now part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Fighting out of Moscow, Russia, Oleinik also believes — you guessed it — that sports should be separate from politics.
“I’m not a political analyst, I’m a fighter,” says Oleinik. “I’m not a blogger, I don’t want to talk about it on social media.”
Russia is part of both Europe and Asia, and a noticeable difference with the US is criticizing public figures. It’s a way of life in the US, but it’s very different in Russia.
“This is hard to explain,” says Oleinik. “But only people living in these countries, only those people can judge what is happening in Russia and Ukraine. No one from outside. No citizens from other countries can speak about this.
“I hope it will be finished soon. Russia and Ukraine, it’s one people and one nation, so it’s very terrible.”
The war has affected the fighters in different ways. The Russian fighters have, for the most part, been silent. For the fighters from Ukraine, it is a terrible strain to know what is happening back home. A complicating factor is that so many Russians and Ukrainians train and spar together.
When it comes to the war, the stage is set for the fighters. There are no consequences or repercussions for those who remain silent. However, it is a dangerous blueprint, as history has repeatedly taught that silence is as loud as thunder.
Dober looks to make more noise in the lightweight division
Drew Dober jumped into the lightweight rankings after his win over Bobby Green last Saturday. Dober endured a significant amount of punishment from Green in the first round, then unleashed a brutal assault in the second round
Dober called out Michael Chandler and Jalin Turner for a fight, both of which could be a crunch. The fight against Turner would also have some unique optics, pitting the 6’3″ Turner against the 5’8″ Dober. Turner is ranked 10th in the division, so that fight would represent Dober’s chance to crack the top 10.
Another interesting option for Dober is Paddy Pimblett. There are few secrets in MMA, and it’s painfully obvious why people are lining up to face Pimblett after so many of his flaws were exposed in his fight against Jared Gordon at UFC 282. At first, I thought Ilia Topuria would be the only to spoil Pimblett’s hype train, but Topuria is on a different path after dominating Bryce Mitchell. Dober would benefit from fighting Pimblett, as would everyone else in the top 15.
May your days be happy and bright
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There will be much more coverage next week. It includes the top 10 fighters for 2022, the fights to watch for 2023, and my chance to play Nostradamus and predict what will unfold in the coming year.