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Dagestan's Tenacity Seen in Its Gyms

The dzhigit, in the tradition of the Caucasus Mountains, is a warrior something like the American Indian brave. Slim, wiry, and stoic, he is an acrobatic horseman and a tireless runner who trains himself not to pant by holding a bullet in his teeth. He eats little, fights ferociously, and is never without his kinzhal, a short, curved dagger.

The scourge of Russian troops for centuries, young dzhigits carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers forced the Russian Army out of Chechnya as recently as last summer.

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The dzhigit tradition is alive and well, and fills countless stifling, broken-down gyms in this city - which produces a highly disproportionate share of world champions in the combat sports - with lean and eager young men.

Two Dagestanis, for example, won gold medals for Russia in the Atlanta Olympics last summer in freestyle wrestling. The third Russian gold in wrestling was also won by a fellow Caucasian, but one from outside Dagestan. Of the eight lead wrestlers on the Russian national team, four are from tiny Dagestan - which represents only a little more than 1 percent of the Russian population.

A quarter of Russia's leading Greco-Roman wrestlers are Dagestani; 5 of the 8 are from the Caucasus. About a third of the national karate team is Dagestani.

In these hills, if you have some athletic talent, your first choice is not the soccer field or basketball court. It is the combat arena. Nailed to a tree in a mountain village is not the familiar basketball hoop, but speedbags for boxers to work on their timing.

They box. They wrestle. They wrestle Greco-Roman. They kickbox. They kickbox Thai-style. They take up oriental martial-art forms too obscure to mention.

They have the heart for it. "We've wrestled for a long time," says Magomed Khadzhiev, deputy director of the wrestling gym where Atlanta gold medalist Khadjimurad Magomedov still trains. "Our fathers used to tell us about strong people who fought anacondas and tigers, so kids grow up with these things."

They also grow up in a competitive culture set against severe mountains, with millennia of history of throwing off outside domination. Combat sports, says karate coach Omar Murtazaliev, "are more prestigious in terms of the mountain spirit."

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Coaches here say there are no special Dagestani strategies that set them apart, only their fighting spirit. Many in these gyms grew up in poor conditions, eating bad food, says Mr. Khadzhiev. And some of the puritanical dzhigit traditions endure. "No drinking. No smoking. Our kids are not that spoiled."

The windows are broken at the steamy Atlant gym here, and the room is so packed with whirring feet and snapping fists that squeezing through it is an act of trust. At 20 years old, Shamil Magomedov claims two world kickboxing championships after seven years in his sport. "Dagestanis are fighters from birth," he says. "I found myself here."

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