With the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled for Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sherdog.com staff and contributors sat down to put together hypothetical MMA Olympic teams for the following countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, Australia and Sweden. This 10-part series will map out the yellow brick road to Rio de Janeiro for the men and women who call the cage home, Zika virus be damned.
Russia in various forms has played a significant role in the Olympics for more than a century, from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union to the United Team and its current iteration as the Russian Federation.
Any discussion regarding Russian Olympians begins with the incomparable Aleksandr Karelin, the man widely considered to be the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time. Karelin was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and won nine world championships during an incredible 11-year span between 1989 and 1999. “The Russian Bear” is reported to have compiled an unimaginable 887-2 record in international competition and enjoyed a historic 13-year undefeated run before being beaten 1-0 by Rulon Gardner in the gold-medal match at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Karelin was a national flag bearer at three consecutive Olympics: 1988, 1992 and 1996.
Others have fulfilled Russian hopes by reaching the Olympic podium, including gymnast Nikolai Adrianov, who, before being surpassed by American swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008, held the all-time medals record for males (15) for nearly three decades. Adrianov won seven golds, four of them at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. More recently, gymnast Alexei Nemov medaled 12 times and swimmer Alexander Popov did so on nine occasions, becoming the first man since Johnny Weismuller to repeat as a gold medalist (1992-96) in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events.
In a hypothetical scenario that allowed Russia to field an MMA team for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the country would have a considerable talent pool upon which to draw. At the front of the pack stands undefeated lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, whose style and disposition make him one of the favorites at 155 pounds.
Red Devil Sport Club trainers Vladimir Voronov and Aleksander Michkov, two men who helped give rise to the great Fedor Emelianenko, will serve as the squad’s head coaches. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, Alexander Shlemenko, Beslan Isaev and Murat Keshtov round out the training contingent for Russia.
2016 Russia National MMA Team• Heavyweight: Vitaly Minakov
• Light Heavyweight: Shamil Gamaztov
• Middleweight: Anatoly Tokov
• Welterweight: Andrey Koreshkov
• Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov
• Featherweight: Marat Gafurov
• Bantamweight: Magomed Magomedov
• Flyweight: Magomed Bibulatov
• Women’s Bantamweight: Julia Berezikova
• Women’s Strawweight: Aleksandra Albu
HEAVYWEIGHT: In light of Emelianenko’s decline and Sergei Kharitonov’s lack of activity, Minakov has emerged as Russia’s top heavyweight. The 31-year-old four-time combat sambo world champion owns a perfect 18-0 record in MMA competition, including wins over Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans Cheick Kongo, Fabiano Scherner, Eddie Sanchez and Josh Copeland. Minakov captured the Bellator MMA heavyweight title with a first-round technical knockout on countryman Alexander Volkov in November 2013 and successfully defended it before being stripped over a contract dispute with the promotion. He boasts 16 finishes among his 18 career victories. Alternates: Alexander Volkov, Sergei Kharitonov
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Gamzatov, 25, has surfaced as one of Russia’s top young fighters, and the fact that he competes in the thin 205-pound weight class gives him even more of an edge. A Master of Sport in combat sambo, he makes the most of an attritive clinch game, pairing strong takedowns with devastating ground-and-pound and solid submission skills. The Tataev Team rep has compiled a 10-0 record with 10 finishes, seven inside one round. Gamzatov made his World Series of Fighting debut in January, stopping Teddy Holder with punches in 2:32. Alternates: Rashid Yusupov, Viktor Nemkov
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Another prospect with considerable promise, Tokov has become a star of the Absolute Championship Berkut promotion while also competing under the Rizin Fighting Federation and M-1 Global banners. The 26-year-old Alexander Nevsky Club representative has the wind of a 17-fight winning streak at his back and has not lost since 2011. Victories over A.J. Matthews, Maxim Shvets and Jordan Smith highlight his resume. His current record stands at 24-1, with 19 of those wins resulting in finishes. Alternates: Ramazan Emeev, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky
WELTERWEIGHT: Perhaps Russia’s second best chance at gold behind Nurmagomedov, Koreshkov has thrived in Bellator in wake of Ben Askren’s departure. Currently on a six-fight winning streak, he captured the Bellator welterweight crown with a unanimous verdict over Douglas Lima in 2015 and successfully defended it with an even more lopsided decision against former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting champion Benson Henderson on April 22. A 25-year-old Shlemenko protégé, Koreshkov has shown marked improvement since his loss to Askren three years ago, and considering the likelihood of further growth, he should remain a dominant force at 170 pounds for the foreseeable future. Alternates: Albert Tumenov, Abubakar Nurmagomedov
LIGHTWEIGHT: Nurmagomedov is the undeniable centerpiece of the Russian squad, provided the oft-injured lightweight’s health holds up. At 23-0 and with wins over Gleison Tibau, Abel Trujillo and former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, he has been hailed by many as the sport’s uncrowned king at 155 pounds. Injuries, however, have limited Nurmagomedov to just one appearance in the last two years -- a second-round technical knockout against Darrel Horcher on April 16. His relentless pursuit of takedowns and crushing top game make him well-suited for international competition, allowing him to conserve energy and limit damage. Nurmagomedov was a two-time combat sambo world champion before transitioning to MMA. Oh, and he wrestled bears as a kid. Alternates: Rashid Magomedov, Mairbek Taisumov
FEATHERWEIGHT: Gafurov has done nothing but win since arriving on the MMA scene in 2010. The 31-year-old Dagestani grappler’s 14-0 ledger includes victories over Taisumov, Rob Lisita, Narantungalag Jadambaa and Kazunori Yokota. A former M-1 Global champion and the current One Championship titleholder at 145 pounds, Gafurov has submitted his last five opponents with rear-naked chokes. That kind of low-impact, quick-strike offense would undoubtedly play well in a tournament setting. The aptly nicknamed “Cobra” has 11 finishes to his credit, 10 of them inside the first two rounds. Alternates: Rasul Mirzaev, Magomedrasul Khasbulaev
BANTAMWEIGHT: Sporting a gaudy 13-1 record, Magomedov finds himself on a 12-fight winning streak. The 24-year-old suffered his only career defeat in 2011, when he wound up on the wrong side of a split verdict against Arsen Ubaidulaev. The Dagfighter rep has sharpened his skills alongside stablemates Timur Valiev, Omari Akhmedov and the unbeaten Vagab Vagabov, among others. Magomedov owns a 6-0 mark in M-1 Global and claimed Absolute Championship Berkut gold in March with a five-round split decision over the previously unbeaten Petr Yan. Alternates: Petr Yan, Oleg Borisov
FLYWEIGHT: Bibulatov took the inaugural World Series of Fighting 125-pound title with a five-round unanimous decision over Donavon Frelow in October and has since advanced to the final of the 2016 Akhmat Fight Show flyweight grand prix with wins over Irmeson Cavalcante de Oliveira and Giovanni da Silva Santos Jr. He also won an Absolute Championship Berkut tournament at 135 pounds in 2014, further proof that he could excel in an Olympic-style format. Just 27 years old and entering his prime with an unblemished 12-0 record, Bibulatov has proven more grinder than finisher thus far, with six decisions among his 12 victories. “Gladiator” has already indicated a desire to take his talents to the UFC, where a showdown with challenger-starved champion Demetrious Johnson could come sooner rather than later. Alternates: Ali Bagautinov, Yunus Evloev
WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT: A natural flyweight, Berezikova would be required to move up in weight to secure a spot on the Russian roster. The 32-year-old has won eight of her past nine fights and last appeared on Oct. 23, when she cut down Rosy Duarte with second-round punches and knees at a Eurasia Fight Night event. Berezikova has tested herself against some of the world’s best, as her four career losses have come to Tara LaRosa, Julie Kedzie, former Cage Warriors Fighting Championship titleholder Rosi Sexton and reigning UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Alternates: Anastasia Yankova, Kseniya Lachkova
WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT: Albu has finished her first two opponents in the first round. The 26-year-old karate black belt made her Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in April 2015, when she guillotined Izabel Badurek at a UFC Fight Night event in Krakow, Poland. Anchored at the MMA-KEGI camp in Moscow, Albu has since put her MMA career on hold to recover from a variety of injuries and to complete her college degree. Alternates: Daria Mikheeva, Yulia Kotlyar
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• United States
• Great Britain