Anyone who has visited Dagestan understands why this majority-Islamic slice of the Russian Federation in the northern Caucasus has produced so many mixed martial arts superstars.

It is a mountainous region with a proud, rebellious history, one where sports and physical combat – like war – are exalted as the truest expressions of masculinity.

Ahead of his eagerly awaited clash with Ev Ting at ONE: ‘Call to Greatness’ in Singapore on Friday, Saygid ‘Dagi’ Arslanaliev has opened up about his rough and tough homeland.

“Dagestan is my home, my foundation, my roots – everything that I am comes from the spirit of this land. We are born to be strong, that’s why fighting is in our blood,” he says.

Proud Dagestani

Although he trains out of Istanbul and holds Turkish citizenship, Arslaniev has made no secret of his Dagestani heritage,

“I am proud to be called ‘Dagi’,” he says.

Arslaniev is one of the most exciting prospects on the ONE Championship roster now, finishing his opponents in five of his six fights since joining the championship in 2016. His only other bout is recorded as a loss after he was disqualified at ONE: ‘Quest for Power’ for kicking the head of his downed opponent, Georgi Stoyanov.

Despite this hitch, Arslanaliev bounced back quickly, submitting Tetsuya Yamada in the third round of a fight at ONE: ‘Iron Will’ in Bangkok in March last year.

And in September, Arslanaliev notched his most impressive victory to date against Timofey Nastyukhin at ONE: ‘Conquest of Heroes’ in Jakarta.

That fight saw Arslanaliev stage a remarkable comeback against his opponent, who had enjoyed some early success, managing to pin the Russian knockout artist against the cage and subject him to a blistering succession of vicious blows that prompted the referee to wave the contest off at 1:57.

Hard work

Arslanaliev credits growing up in his homeland for his astonishing rise in ONE,

“The success I am enjoying now didn’t happen by miracle, I had to work for it. Being hardworking is a part of the Dagestani mindset,” he says.

“Look at the face of an old Dagestani man, and you will tell that he’s been working hard all his life. This is how you earn respect with members of your family and within your community,” he explains.

It is fair to say that, for non-Russians at least, mixed martial arts has put Dagestan on the map. The region is a majority-Islamic part of the Russian Federation that borders Chechnya, with which it has much in common, including a strong rivalry.

For a native of this proud region, the culture of respect integral to mixed martial arts comes naturally,

“Respect for the elders and hard work are a tradition, and, unlike some other nations, we live according to our old traditions,” Arslanaliev says.

“I am not saying it is better or worse, I am not saying that Dagestan is better than other places, either. But I can confidently say that I love Dagestan.”

Global reputation

Even within his combat-loving homeland, Dagi’s destiny seemed to point with particular force towards martial arts. He grew up in Buynaksk – a town with a population of just 40,000 but a reputation across Russia for producing fine combat athletes.

“In Russia, Buynaksk is still synonymous with sport,” he says.

“Everyone knows that we are more than ‘Dagestan tough’; we are skilled because our coaches are some of the best specialists in Russia.”

To a young Arslanaliev, martial arts seemed like the best path to respect and success in a region that prized physical prowess above all,

“People here are tough, and often life here is tough – you have to be ready to put in some work to get ahead. Being an athlete is one way of doing it,” he explains.

“In Dagestan, people respect you if you are strong. I got into sports because I wanted to be stronger and be able to defend myself.”

Dream job

Arslanaliev is convinced, then, that there is nothing he would rather be doing than fighting for a living,

“That led me to martial arts, and now I can do what I love and make money – that’s perfect,” he says.

“Fighting as a job really suits me, as I am a Dagestani through and through – being tough, aggressive, and uncompromising works really well in the cage.”

He faces a stiff challenge in Singapore on Friday, in the form of Ting, who has been striking a confident note in recent interviews. Arslanaliev, for his part, is promising another combustible performance,

“At the end of the day, people come to see a good show, and I can give them fireworks.”