Martial Destination: Dagestan’s Peaceful Warriors – Part 2 – An Interview with Sabir “Cobra” Bagautdinov

Many people seek martial arts training from the source be China, Japan, Korea or Thailand; there is a draw in many of us to fulfill a long life dream to visit where “all started”. I was no different and did the “China Thing” over a decade ago. However, there are outstanding instructors closer to home and given the actual political climate between Canada the USA and China it is good to know there are better options to expand ones martial know how with less risk or cost. Five years ago, as I was researching about competitors from Dagestan, I came across a video where a young fighter living in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) was dismantling his competition at local and national Sanda/Sanshou events. Among his opponents were seasoned veterans some of which I know personally. It goes without saying I was very impressed by this competitor’s fighting IQ, his speed, transitions from striking to grappling and the way he was able to improvised on the fly to something else when the opponent was attempting to counter.

It wasn’t until this January 2019 I had the chance to travel to Toronto for couple days that I seized the opportunity to contact him through his school web site and Facebook page (AST MMA). It took a few days to get in touch as Sabir had some issues with his Facebook account, my first impression was that he was very polite in his replies. I had been coaching kids and teenagers for a few years now as a hobby given that I make a living practicing engineering. I wanted to have some additional knowledge on better ways to coach Sanda/Sanshou for competition. I have some apprehensions though, being a good competitor not always translate to also being a good coach, some individuals with experience tend to be cocky and off-putting. My concerns were quickly settled after my first lesson by Sabir’s friendly and supportive approach. Given that I only had 4 days in the city I decided to spent as much time as I could training. We settle on an average of 3 hours session a day, and by the end of the fourth day I ended up quiet sored. I left the hotel with what I thought was enough time to arrive on time for the 9:30AM appointment. Soon I realized traffic was quite heavy, there was road construction everywhere and as I was approaching my destination some road closures forced me to deviate from my original route.

The rental vehicle GPS was unable to show where the closures where and kept sending me to roads that could not be accessed. As I was in a stand still in a traffic jam, I quickly gazed my cellular phone and saw a message from Sabir with instructions on what road to take. I finally arrived an hour later from our intended time and Sabir was already waiting for me. The spacious school is located at 770 Birchmount Rd #27, Scarborough, ON. After some quick introductions we started our first session that lasted three hours. Once I changed, we went for lunch at a Japanese restaurant close to the school; after the meal I proceeded to interview him about his life in Dagestan and the Five Directions of the World Martial Arts School experience.

DSCF1981
Sabir with teachers and students at the Five Directions of the World School. Source: Five Directions of the World School

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from a very small village called Drujba which translates to “Friendship” people are very friendly there. The republic is called Dagestan and now we live in two cities one in Dagestan where my parents have a house and another republic where my father owns a business. My parents and sister live where the family business is. When growing up I lived in Dagestan and every summer I visited my parents in the other city.

Q: How did you end up learning martial arts?

A: People who know about Dagestan they compare it to Sparta, you know? You have a son and like in Sparta when the son reaches certain age, he is kicked out to learn how to survive. If he makes it, it means you are a warrior. Basically, is not that rough but if you have a son you want your son to do some kind of martial art, boxing. Wrestling is kind of a national martial art. Back in the days wrestling was the only thing available then things became more open to other martial arts, kick boxing started to come to Dagestan, Sambo as well. My Dad wanted me to do something like that. My uncle started to show me things when I was like four- or five-years old stretching, boxing and some acrobatics. When I was 7 years old a friend of my uncle who was a kick boxer started teaching, I joined his class for couple years until my uncle or Dad found out about that boarding school (Five Directions of the World) when I was nine years old. They told me to think about it for a year, it seemed I have a choice but hmmm no (he shakes his head and laughs). I said Ok I’ll do it, I didn’t know how tough it was or what it was only that I will be going away.

Sabir
Sabir at his gym. Author’s personal collection

They (the School) was only taking kids from 5th grade, that was when I was ten years old and when I finish my 4th grade we went to the boarding school to present the exams. You couldn’t just get in, you had to qualify, to pass the exams. The exams were regular school stuff and physical abilities. When it comes to regular academic knowledge it was more about math, Russian and English. Because they were going overseas to compete. They (the school) wanted you to know English. I didn’t know English at the time, in cities some schools start teaching it in 2nd grade. I did good in math and Russian and since my uncle had been teaching me, I could do the splits with the chairs, I was very flexible. The boarding school was only for boys but I did have female classmates from the nearby village. When I was in 5th grade we have five girls until we were in grade 10 after which they were no longer with us. In part because of the increased demand, they needed more spots for new boarding students. Training (Martial Arts) wise the girls did not train, they tried to have classes for girls, but they did not work very well due to the demands and expectations from the coaches. The school now has three gyms, classrooms and dormitories for 300 students. There is a lot of demand to get in, like 100 applicants for one spot.

Q: What martial arts were taught during your time at the boarding school?

A: When I started at the school, I did Taolu as well, the founder of the school had trained in China so he knew Taiji, Taolu all sort of things; the whole Wushu system. He (the founder) would practice meditation. His background was in Karate and when he was in Moscow, he had a huge gym, he was a phenomenal coach too. Basically, we had Taolu, we had Tsigun/ Цигун/Qigong, we also had wood boards breaking and conditioning the body. We also had Sanda/Sanshou and Taekwondo. Now they have Taekwondo and Sanda and also thinking to start mixed martial arts as well, because is becoming more popular. Taekwondo is there in order to ensure the school has included an Olympic sport in the curriculum.

Q: How was a typical day at the school?

A: Now that I have lived in Canada for a while, when I think about it is kind of crazy by Canadian standards. We would wake up at 6 AM, go for a run if it was winter you run on the snow. Most of the time we stayed in, but let’s say summer time or when it was warm, we would run outside for about 15-20 minutes (3 to 5 kilometres); 30 minutes in total while we gather our things. Then we go back and for an hour and a half depending on the coach we would probably do one technique the whole time, repetitive work until 8AM. After that from 8AM to 8:30AM is breakfast, 8:30AM to 9AM we would quickly brush our teeth get ready and at 9AM we start school. From 9AM to 2PM we had our regular school. At 2PM we have lunch for half and hour, then we have time to rest until 3PM, from 3PM to 4PM we have a school gathering where a new group of staff would be looking after us until 8PM. At 4PM we were divided into two groups; one group would do homework from 4PM to 6PM. The second group was training. After 6PM the groups switched, those doing homework trained from 6PM to 8PM and those training did homework on the same time frame. From 8PM to 9PM we had dinner, from 9PM to 10PM we had free time, brushing teeth and at 10PM we go to sleep.

Q: Everyday?

A: Everyday

Q: Monday to Friday?

A: Monday to Saturday, on Sundays you didn’t wake up as early but say 7AM or 8AM we ate from 8AM to 9AM as usual but from 9AM until lunch time we were cleaning the whole place. We were divided into groups cleaning our gyms, except the actual school like the class rooms. For that we had cleaning crews, the rest our gym, our rooms, the hallways and even the outdoor alleys we cleaned it all. We had about 300 people doing that, when I started there were about 100 people, there was a lot of construction going on at that time and even the kids were helping carrying bricks from one place to another. I think they were saving money and making money at the same time (laughs). After the cleaning was done until bed time, we watched movies and rest, just chill.

AST MMA
AST MMA Club in Scarborough. Author’s personal collection

Q: How often did you go back home for a break?

A: We went home every month, mind that once you walked in the school you could not leave the facility, there are fences, gates like the army. However, at the end of each month you could go home for three days. I was not going because my home was far, my mom did not drive and my father was in another republic so there was no one to pick me up. I was only going home every two/three months, we also had spring break, summer and winter holydays.

Q: How many years did you study at the boarding school?

A: I started in 5th grade, until 11th grade and I graduated from high school there. From 2000 to 2007, however I stayed in the school one more year to train to become an instructor/coach because there was a chance to compete in the youth World championships. While training I was also teaching the kids program. Overall, I lived and trained at the school for eight years.

Q: When did you come to Canada and why?

A: I came in 2008, when I was graduating my uncle came to visit me in Dagestan and asked me what I thought about going overseas, so I said are you asking me or are you telling me? (laughs). I said it would be cool, who didn’t want to have that experience, right? By then I already been to Armenia, Dubai, Italy. When my dad was doing business bringing fabrics from Dubai, he sent me there as a present for achieving straights As that year. While doing business in Dubai my father met another Russian guy whose son was studying in Canada. That conversation picked my dad’s interest and discussed it my uncle. My father had a contact in Canada and they met in Russia and through that acquaintance I was able to register in a college in Toronto to study. I was giving the opportunity and took it without hesitation. I really love it here, there are so many opportunities. When I came I had very little English, I never dream to have my own gym, living in Canada away from home and family helped me find myself. To me it is a big accomplishment.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your competition history

A: Back home I only competed in Sanda as I did not practice any other martial art, we were pretty busy with our competitions. I went to Italy for a championship in 2002 and I managed to win the competition overall, I think I had about 70 amateur Sanda fights, I always ended up in the podium. We went to Armenia where I fought an Iranian guy in the finals, I believe I won that fight but the judges did not see it that way. It is weird to count the number of fights on that type of tournament. Either you win the tournament or you don’t, are you the champion of that competition? or not. When I came to Canada it was hard to find fights, they would ask how many fights I had and it was hard to explain.

Q: How did the coaches prepare you for competition?

A: At the school the regular schedule was twice a day six times a week, when preparing for competition a month or two months prior we had one more daily session. Evening classes were mostly sparring, partner work gloves, shin pads all equipment on; the coach might assign something specific to work on with your partner. Even if there was not sparring, we still practice with a partner. During the day it was pad work but most of the time we did resistance training with elastic bands punching and kicking, speed and strength training. We could also do weights. Morning class we did pad work, mid day class resistance and speed six days a week.

Q: Can you tell me more about your coach/es?

A: My coach is Ukrainian; his name is Alexander we call him uncle Sasha, there is a legend we have about him. In the 90s he heard about our school, mind you he is like a fanatic towards anything related to martial arts. He heard about this martial arts school in Dagestan, as the legend goes, I assumed he took a bus to the border and then he drove his bicycle to the school from there. Some say he actually biked all the way from the Ukraine to Dagestan. He is still single because for him marriage would take away the time he allocates for coaching the kids. He is such a fan of the martial arts and what he does. For what I know he was originally an outstanding boxer back home but an accident hindered his career, back then I was too afraid of my coach to ask him directly about his life and such. Muslim Salikhov was my coach’s first student, he also coached Ataev Bozigit our heavy weight and Beletov Dzhanhuvat another legend in our school. They were all top students whose pictures decorate the walls of our school, the ones everyone looks up to. Our school director is the head coach, followed by Alexander and then everyone else about five to six more coaches. My coach’s team was made out of the best fighters from the other groups, those he had handpicked himself. Among those was Zabit Magomedsharipov, he was my team mate in a different weight division. I was in his team, we were the kids and junior representatives for the school for local and national competitions, with our school director teaching the adult classes.

Q: Is martial arts more popular than other sports and is it due to additional support from the government?

A: (Sabir things for a minute before replaying) I want to be honest, I can’t really say yes or not. Until I was ten years old, I did not know much of what was going on and after that I spent so much time at the boarding school, I didn’t have much contact with the outside world until I turn eighteen. My knowledge of the world was limited/missing. I was so focus on school and training I didn’t care for much else, football is big in Russia like a religion. Martial arts are too and not to sound sexist but is a manly thing to do, like boys must learn to defend themselves. Also, it goes like if someone else’ son does it then my son has to do it also, there is a little bit of pride involve. If someone else’ son is strong I want my son to be strong as well. Back in the day our ancestors, like the warriors of old those people had that vibe, to be strong, to defend the land. Horse riding, archery was common, wrestling was common, but to be honest I am not really sure.

Q: Lets go back to when you came to Canada to study, at what point you felt the itch to train again?

A: Before coming to Canada I thought I was done with training, I said to myself I’m done let’s quit sports. I was physically tired of it all, I did not want to do anything. After a while I kind of re charged my body. Nothing was hurting anymore, I was not sored I felt strong. I found one place in Toronto training once a week, for me it was strange coming from training twice a day six times a week to once a week. Then I found someone teaching in Burlington, ON three times a week (NOTE: Burlington is about 57km from Toronto). I had some friends who had better English who helped me contact the instructor. The instructor was Brazilian and had a small group who were very close and friendly, they helped me with my English too. Every sentence I spoke would take ten minutes, so they were really patience with me (laughs). After I started training again in late 2009 the World Championships were taking place and to compete you had to qualify. I knew I could not represent Canada, but it was a good opportunity to showcase what Russian Sanda level and style was all about.

I also went to Vancouver to compete, I realized that there were giving trophies almost as tall as me to the champion. In Russia we only got certificates and small medals, so I thought I would kill for those big trophies (laughs). As I competed some people started to notice me, taking videos and posting them on YouTube. Then one of my current business partners, Xi Lau (NOTE: An instructor, personal trainer, R.M.T. and MMA champion) contacted me praising my performance. Xi and another of my current business partners asked me to go to their gym to teach them and I agreed. That gym had Taolu and Sanshou classes, this was a good opportunity to use my experience and teach new people which is always cool. At the time the gym owner expanded the location even more, the reason was that he has four sons who were Wu Shu champions and this was a way to support their training and not really about the money. For Taolu training they have carpets, at that time Xi was studying at York University also doing BJJ and he invited a group of us to try it. I didn’t like it at the beginning but the coach said the right things and got me hooked. We started to realize that since we were already doing BJJ and striking we should also do MMA, putting it all together even though we did not know how at the time. We had an advantage with Xi ‘s knowledge on strength and conditioning he helped me prepare for competiton. We then realize we needed a better place to train that had not only enough space but also the tools to do so fitted for the goal we wanted; doing it on carpets with a lot of other people not related to our training was not what we needed. Our other partner is an architect and business savvy so he did all the work to locate a place, do the paper work, organize the whole thing; my job is to teach, PR and in 2014 we move in to the current location. For the next three months we did all the renovations required e.g. mats, drywall, tiles. We had an electrician do that job and hired a contractor to build the top mezzanine. Now we have a good number of students, but we still are working on it and with future plans to expand. Our school uses part of the original name from the old location, Apex Sanshou Team to AST MMA.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: First of I need to finish recovering from an accident in Russia. Once I get back into top shape I want to go pro in MMA as long as I am able to support my wife and daughter while fighting professionally. I feel like I have some unfinished business and taste the waters before committing fully.

Training

I wanted to give a general overview of the training I had with Sabir, every session started with a quick warm up e.g. a short jog around the gym, rolls, break falls, stretching and at the end of the session I did some reaction time drills with tennis balls, kicking and punching using resistance bands.

Day 1 was all about punching and ensuring proper body mechanics on focus mitts. Day 2 was all about kicking using a shield, Day 3 was wrestling, leg catches and sweeps and on Day 4 we put it all together. Overall, I had a great time, learnt many things and improved in others I already knew. Sabir and his team is without a doubt a must seek gym not only for Sanda/Sanshou but also other skills as well. You can contact Sabir and his team through the gym’s website of Facebook page.

Sabir and I
Sabir and the author at AST MMA Club

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