Abdulrashid Sadulaev is the Dagestan Dancer

The freestyle wrestling Olympic champion is a big man, but his agility comes from an unlikely training routine.

By Andrew Binner

Abdulrashid Sadulaev is a big man with nimble feet.

Nicknamed 'The Russian Tank', he is seen by many as the best freestyle wrestler in the world.

Sadulaev grabbed headlines in 2014 by winning the 86kg world championships at the tender age of 18, and shocked the world further shortly after when he revealed how he stays agile, despite the muscle mass.

Dancing. That's right, the surly-looking Russian told reporters he regularly took part in a native dance called Lezginka after practice, and all the wrestlers that did it had improved on the mat.

Two years later he clinched his own Olympic gold at Rio 2016.

Made in Dagestan

Sadulaev is the son of a farmer from Dagestan, a mountainous region in south-western Russia where combat sports, and in particular wrestling, are a way of life.

The future Olympic champion began wrestling seriously at 13 against his family's wishes, but quickly started winning district titles.

“All my relatives were against it. But once I got going and started winning, they all realized that it was my destiny,” he told Sports Illustrated.

Dagestan produced six wrestling and two taekwondo medallists at Rio 2016, as well as mixed martial arts star (and UFC lightweight champion) Khabib Nurmagomedov, who used to wrestle small bears in the region as a child.

Subsequently, wrestlers from around the world, including Italian Olympic bronze medallist Frank Chamizo, now travel to the area to train and learn from the best.

Russian domination

Wrestling also enjoys enormous popularity across the rest of Russia, and that passion has led to unprecedented success on the mat.

At the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, the nation claimed 10 gold medals out of the 30 on offer.

Japan was the next most successful nation with victories in five weight categories.

Russia also claimed the most wrestling medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics, including four golds.

Sadulaev Abdulrashid won gold in the 86kg category at Rio 2016

Fame and fortune at home

Sadulaev became an instant hit when he took home the 86kg Olympic title in Brazil, and his social media following swelled to match his bulging biceps.

A raucous crowd greeted Russia's medallists in Moscow, as well as a reception with President Vladimir Putin, and a luxury BMW for each winner.

But perhaps it is Sadulaev's humble persona that endears him most to his 740k Instagram followers.

Despite his vast athletic success and growing influence, the devout Muslim can still be seen ploughing the fields at his grandfather's house, mentoring young wrestlers and posting inspirational quotes on his Instagram feed.

A rivalry is born

Sadulaev's stock continued to rise with his victory in Rio coming during an undefeated run from November 2013 until August 2017.

During this period he regularly topped the charts as wrestling's best pound-for-pound athlete.

In 2017, Sadulaev went up several weight categories to become Russia's 97kg national champion.

He then suffered a rare defeat in the final of the World Championships in Paris, going down to Olympic 97kg champion Kyle Snyder.

But revenge was not far away.

The pair met again 12 months later in the final of the World Championships in Budapest, and Sadulaev pinned the American just over a minute into the bout to take the title.

All eyes will be on the pair ahead of this year's World Championships in Kazakhstan's capital Astana from 14-22 September where we could see Sadulaev v Snyder III.


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