Russian Boxers Aim for a Knockout in Dubai

Dubai Fight AcademyMalik Omarov, a student at the Dubai academy, and Briton Olley Watson, left.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Abdulmalik Gadzhiyev competed in a martial arts tournament in Turkey last year, he fought under the flag of the United Arab Emirates, and his travel expenses were covered by a member of Dubai's ruling family.

But Gadzhiyev, like many people in this boomtown on the Persian Gulf, is not a local. A Russian citizen, he moved to the Emirates last year because he wanted to advance his career in the increasingly popular sport of Thai boxing.

During a recent interview at the Moskva Hotel, a popular hangout for Dubai's Russian expatriates, Gadzhiyev, 25, said he was satisfied with the move.

"It's actually quite pleasant to represent the Emirates because sports aren't very well developed here," said the tall, soft-spoken native of Dagestan.

Gadzhiyev is a product of the Dubai Fight Academy, a training center that has turned the United Arab Emirates into a force to be reckoned with on the international Thai boxing circuit.

The academy is the brainchild of another Russian: Vladimir Burdun, a former karate champion who came to Dubai in the mid-1990s and managed several businesses, including an import-export company and a restaurant, before he became the biggest promoter of Thai boxing in the country.

"Back then, Dubai was a completely different city," Burdun, 36, recalled at a table full of herring, sausage and pelmeni at the Bolshoi restaurant in the Moskva. "They weren't even thinking about sports."

Bald, powerfully built and always ready with a joke, Burdun is a prominent figure in the Emirates' community of Russian-speaking expats, which is estimated to number around 30,000. He has befriended sheikhs, businessmen and martial arts promoters from around the globe in his efforts to bring Thai boxing to the Emirates.

Working with his head coach, Dagestan native Magomed Suleimanov, Burdun has trained around 20 fighters to competition level in this desert country, where only a few decades ago the biggest sport was camel racing.

Burdun himself has come a long way, too.

He was born in the Siberian town of Kurgan, located east of the Ural Mountains near the border with Kazakhstan. From the beginning, sports were a major part of his life: His mother had been a skiing and triathlon champion in the Komi republic, while his father lifted weights, though not professionally.

In high school, a teacher introduced Burdun to karate, a martial art that had a troubled history in the Soviet Union.

When karate first appeared in the 1960s and '70s — its popularity fueled, in part, by the underground circulation of Bruce Lee films — Soviet authorities viewed it with suspicion and permitted only a few officially sanctioned karate gyms. In 1981, an article banning "unlawful karate instruction" was added to the Criminal Code.

Dubai Fight Academy
Burdun at War on the Shore, a Thai boxing tournament in Dubai in 2007.

Burdun practiced karate in basement gyms that were occasionally raided by police. "They made us out to be some kind of frightening people who could kill 10 guys with a single punch," he said.

After high school, Burdun went to an architecture institute in Yekaterinburg and received his degree in 1996. But he never worked in the field. Instead, he paid his first visit to Dubai in 1995 and liked what he saw. The next year, he relocated to the emirate and has lived there ever since.

"The Emirates is like a drug," Burdun said. "Once you come here, you always want to come back."

In the 1990s, the country was a hot destination for Russian shuttle traders who bought cheap goods there for resale at markets back home. Burdun and his friends were no different. They traded in a wide variety of goods, ranging from auto parts to household appliances.

Burdun also co-founded the Emirates' first Russian restaurant, Sibir, in 1996, but the venture ran into trouble and closed five years later. "It's a tough business," he said.

On the side, he continued to practice karate and fight in tournaments, becoming a five-time United Arab Emirates karate champion.

He started the Dubai Fight Academy in 2003. At first it was just a small, informal operation for himself and a few other martial arts enthusiasts.

That changed in 2005, when Suleimanov arrived in Dubai with the idea of developing the emirate's martial arts scene. The Makhachkala-born fighter, who had won a number of kickboxing and Thai boxing championships in Ukraine and Japan, met Burdun and agreed to become head coach at the academy. Together, the two decided to start preparing boxers for professional tournaments.

"It was a tiny gym back then," said Suleimanov, 28.

Burdun wanted the academy to focus on Thai boxing, a centuries-old martial art that has made impressive gains in popularity worldwide since the 1990s.

Known as Muay Thai in its homeland, it has much in common with kickboxing, but opponents can also use elbow strikes, knee strikes and kicks below the waist — which is why it has earned has the nickname "The Art of Eight Limbs."

Since the establishment in 1995 of the World Muay Thai Council, the sport's global governing body, the organization has grown from 39 member countries to 116.

Thai boxing can now be seen on networks like Fox Sports, ESPN and Eurosport, and it has also become a common way for fighters to prepare for contests like Ultimate Fighting Championship, where fighters with different martial arts backgrounds pummel each other on pay-per-view television.

"It's one of the most visually striking forms of martial arts," Burdun said.

Last year, Burdun organized War on the Shore, the Emirates' first professional Thai boxing tournament, which Burdun says has sparked the formation of a local fan base. Among these fans is a young member of Dubai's wealthy ruling family, Sheikh Maktoum bin Saeed bin Thani Al Maktoum, who sponsored Gadzhiyev's trip to Turkey in November.

Burdun's fighters come from as far away as Tunisia and Canada, which is perhaps appropriate for the Emirates, a country where more than 80 percent of the population consists of foreign-born noncitizens, many of them guest workers. At least four of Burdun's fighters have been Russian.

But the founder of the Dubai Fight Academy says he wants to attract more Arab and Emirati fighters, who are good for drawing big local crowds. "It's always pleasant to see someone like you in the ring and to root for him," Burdun said.

The thing he is determined not to do is to turn the academy into a fitness club.

Both Burdun and Suleimanov spoke dismissively of the way Thai boxing is practiced in fitness clubs, which they consider a watered-down version of the real thing. "They don't train professionals," Burdun said.

Stephan Fox, vice president of the World Muay Thai Council, praised Burdun's efforts. "I know Vladimir very well. … He is trying very hard to establish Muay Thai in the United Arab Emirates," Fox said by telephone from Singapore.

Fox, who is lobbying to have Thai boxing recognized as an Olympic sport, described Russia and the former Soviet Union as a Thai boxing powerhouse. "Some of the best boxers in the world come from Russia," he said. "No question."

As an example, he singled out Dzhabar Askerov, a fighter who trained at Burdun's academy and can now be seen on "Contender Asia," a reality show produced in Singapore that is following 16 Thai boxers through a series of matches. The show has 400 million viewers throughout Asia and will later be rebroadcast in Europe and North America, Fox said.

"Askerov is a thinking man's fighter, fighting intelligently with swift moves, turning his lack of height into strength. … The psychology student is reluctant to discuss his life in Russia and prefers to do his talking in the ring," the show's web site reads.

Many of Burdun's Russian fighters come from the North Caucasus, especially Dagestan, which has traditionally produced some of Russia and the Soviet Union's top fighters in Western-style boxing.

It now produces Thai boxers, too. At Russia's last national Thai boxing championship, held in Ufa in March, three out of the 14 fighters from Dagestan took first place in their weight categories, out of around 700 contestants, RIA-Novosti reported.

But a lack of funding and poor infrastructure have been holding back the growth of the sport in Russia, according to Burdun and Suleimanov.

Burdun complained that official Russian sports organizations were rife with corruption, while Suleimanov recalled how Russia's 2003 Thai boxing champions paid their own airfare to the world championships in Japan because of a lack of sponsors.

But things have improved under President Vladimir Putin, he noted. "Our oligarchs can avoid paying taxes now by sponsoring sports clubs," Suleimanov said.

For Gadzhiyev, who was friends with Suleimanov when both were teenagers in Makhachkala, leaving Russia was a necessary step in his efforts to forge a career in Thai boxing, which he discovered at age 15 when he saw a match on television.

In 2004, he paid his own way to Thailand to participate in an amateur tournament, where he won third place. After a stint fighting professionally at places like the Arbat casino in Moscow, he returned to Thailand for further training.

Gadzhiyev moved to Dubai last year after learning about Burdun's academy, where he plans to coach after the inevitable end of his professional fighting career. Most Thai boxers stop fighting in their early 30s.

A devout Muslim, Gadzhiyev said he feels comfortable in Dubai because it is easy to observe the rules of Islam in a Muslim-majority country. "I didn't feel as comfortable among Buddhists," he said. "In Thailand, it's hard to stay away from pork. Sometimes even if you ask for meals without pork, they give you pork anyway."

Burdun is full of praise for Dubai as well, even though he is an ethnic Russian with a fondness for pork sausage. "I feel like a guest in Russia," he said. "When my plane lands in Dubai, I feel like I've come home."