The pivotal moment was a kick. Actually, two kicks.
In May 2021, Hasbulla Magomedov and Abdu Rozik, two foes separated by over a thousand miles, agreed to sit down in Dagestan for a press conference moderated by popular vlogger Ashab “Chechen Hulk” Tamaev. The purpose was to promote their upcoming fight. Months earlier, Hasbulla had issued a challenge to take on any person in his weight class—up to 18 kilograms—and Abdu Rozik accepted the call.
During the half-hour interview, the two called each other names and questioned each other’s social-media clout, commitment to Islam, and personal finances. At one point, Hasbulla pulled out a bank card and waved it at Abdu Rozik. “See this card, boy? I can buy you if I want to,” he said, according to a translation on YouTube, Abdu Rozik called Hasbulla disrespectful and made fun of him for endorsing a carpet store. Both young men jumped out of their chairs like they were ready to scrap right then and there. Tamaev repeatedly had to separate the two, often while chuckling.
In many predominantly Muslim countries, it’s considered an insult to show the bottom of your foot, as it’s the lowest part of the body. This is, in part, why Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at George W. Bush in 2008. It’s why, in this scuffle, a kick would be much more contemptuous than a punch. With Tamaev between the two, Abdu Rozik taunted his tentative opponent, saying, according to a translation, “Come here, little kid.” As they lunged at each other, Hasbulla wound up for a kick. He missed, badly.
A few minutes later, Hasbulla accomplished his goal. “If you touch me now, you will be a dead man,” Abdu Rozik vowed from his chair as his counterpart inched closer, trying to get around Tamaev. Hasbulla ignored this warning and went for it, kicking his opponent in the leg. An incensed Abdu Rozik began to shout at a much louder level. Tamaev’s video ends after a few more seconds of them arguing. Another video from the same day shows the two in a calmer state, but Abdu Rozik is no longer wearing his jacket. They compete in a push-up contest and try to fight each other again.
Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik, who are both little people, already had significant audiences before the showdown in Makhachkala. But because of this video, which to date has over 16 million views, they are now wildly popular on the internet and in the richest parts of the Middle East. If you watched Tamaev’s interview, or at least some of it, there’s a good chance you were won over by Abdu Rozik’s showmanship or swayed by Hasbulla’s puckishness. You picked a side, which is the desired result of a successful fight promotion.
No official match between Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik has ever been recorded. There was a rumor that it did take place with no released footage, but that remains unverified. Publicly, the fight continues to be postponed and rescheduled. Last summer, a representative from the Dwarf Athletic Association of Russia called the idea unethical and wrong. Even though Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik haven’t followed through on the plan, they have used the attention to their advantage. It has functioned as a useful device and allowed them to meet celebrities, get sponsorship deals, and launch NFTs. They are famous on their own because of what they did together. They don’t even need to fight at this point. They’re icons, memes, and frequent visitors to Dubai. The feud just keeps everything moving.
Hailing from Makhachkala, Dagestan, Hasbulla Magomedov started out as a teen who enjoyed making videos on Instagram and TikTok. His official Instagram account has recently been deleted or suspended, which has forced him to update @cryptohasbulla with his NFT announcements. Born in 2003, the cause of his dwarfism remains publicly unknown. “My parents think I’m handicapped and the doctors as well. I think I’m healthy,” Hasbulla told Tamaev in the translated 2021 interview. “I’m healthy, I’m just a small person.” In 2021, his breakout hit was acting as “Mini Khabib,” a reference to retired UFC fighter and fellow Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov; the two eventually met and became friends. Hasbulla’s interest in martial arts grew, and so did the spotlight.
Hasbulla tries to stay devout, but he enjoys risky behavior. Videos show him standing up in a car with no seat belt as the driver floors it. He’s brandished a fork as a weapon, messed around with an Airsoft gun, and feinted a punch at people—or actually punched them. Hasbulla often can be seen counting a fat stack of currency. Although he is a teenager, at times he gives off the energy of an older uncle, or other times a guy who simply won’t tolerate nonsense—unless it’s his nonsense.
But Hasbulla also has a softer side. He adores cats and enjoys big meals with his crew, preferably at an expensive restaurant in Dubai. He’ll gaze lovingly upon a large platter of knafeh as it’s cut for him. This is a man who seeks out experiences, especially the ones that come with some danger. He is inherently charming, and his shyness at times makes it seem like he wants nothing to do with his internet fame, which ironically makes him more endearing to his audience. He’s quick to let out a laugh or high-pitched whistle, or have a mischievous smile on his face.
With the help of Ashab Tamaev, who has precisely one professional fight under his belt, Hasbulla put out a call to anyone who wanted to face him in the ring. There were tongue-in-cheek challenges to famous fighters, but more seriously, Hasbulla issued a challenge to anyone in his weight class. He timed it perfectly.
Summer 2021 was a fruitful season for the celebrity boxing match. Jake and Logan Paul learned years earlier that they could make a lot of money by leveraging their social-media celebrity status to publicly challenge famous but possibly washed athletes to exhibition boxing matches. After Logan shuffled around with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Jake took on former UFC welterweights Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley, their enterprise was successful enough for Jake to launch a promotion company, Most Valuable Promotions, which spurred a slew of imitators looking to cash in. Most of these fights were embarrassing nonsense, like the rapper Blueface going the distance against a TikToker named Kane Trujillo. In a way, they created the conditions for Hasbulla to throw down the gauntlet.
Abdu Rozik picked it up. The 18-year-old is a self-identified “Singer, Blogger, Boxer,” listed in the correct descending order of his skill at each. Abdu Rozik’s strength comes from his flair for performance, so he seizes the stage when given an opportunity; he stars in all sorts of little scripted skits that draw from innate physical humor that dates to the days of vaudeville, except they might take place at the Dubai Square. Like Hasbulla, he does not fixate on his height. “I don’t consider myself handicapped,” Abdu Rozik said in Tamaev’s 2021 presser. “I think I’m better than some adults because I know how to make money.”
Before his feud with Hasbulla, he was living and vlogging in Tajikistan, under the tutelage of the Tajik rapper Baron Nabiev. Abdu Rozik started to make videos with Nabiev in late 2019, and quickly gained a following of his own. He took part in hijinks like misbehaving at the grocery store, giving a lady a teddy bear bigger than him, and wrangling a goat. But he set himself apart with his voice.
Shortly after his 16th birthday in October 2019, Abdu Rozik achieved his first brush with virality when he released a music video for his cover of Tajik singer Farahmand Karimov’s “Ohi Dili zor,” a song about a fizzled romance. The video shows Abdu Rozik yearning, feeling bad (as demonstrated by the classic jacket slung over the shoulder), and singing with his whole body next to a motorbike, while a woman walks around a plaza and looks into the middle distance. The two never interact. The video has 8.9 million views.
For all his sincere effort as a traditional entertainer, the video that broke through to English-speaking audiences was a relatively tossed-off affair, without much planning or production. Abdu Rozik went viral because he ate a burger. More accurately, he ate a borgir. In an Instagram post on May 2, 2021, Abdu Rozik sits in what appears to be a gas station rest area as he tells the viewer about the snacks he’s having. One of these is a “borgir,” he says with a trill.
(Basically anything Abdu Rozik and Hasbulla do, however mundane, is susceptible to be spun off into its own meme, losing its scant context as it becomes self-sustainable. “Borgir” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. A month after Abdu Rozik’s borgir took on a life of its own, Hasbulla ate pizza, or “pitzah.” He also had cola. He politely declined another dish. This saga received millions of views on YouTube and TikTok and turned into a playful dichotomy: Borgir or Pitzah. The lines were again drawn, although you were free to enjoy both.)
Abdu Rozik’s face-off with Hasbulla pushed him into a new tier of influencer stardom. He made his first documented trip to the UAE, where he hobnobbed with minor sheikhs in the Emirati ruling class, met famous athletes like Nurmagomedov and Mohamed Salah, and kept the Borgir bit going to its logical extreme (Big Borgir). Abdu Rozik collaborated with Burak Özdemir, a.k.a. CZN Burak, and Nusret Gökçe, a.k.a Salt Bae. The two Turkish chefs had previously traveled the same path Rozik now walked: that of an internet celebrity visiting Dubai for unclear reasons.
The Emirati ruling family has made a concerted effort to establish Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a world center of tourism. The incredibly well-funded project has included convincing the UFC to host huge cards on Yas Island, hosting the final race of the Formula 1 season, and courting scores of charismatic, photogenic influencers. Imagine you’re a guy who becomes famous for, say, sprinkling salt on raw meat in a flamboyant way. You can monetize that by increasing attention to your restaurant empire and attracting people around the world to travel to the UAE, so that they can watch in awe as you manhandle a barely cooked steak in a way non-compliant with both HR and food-safety laws.
Abdu Rozik is a canny operator, and he’s willing to play the game and keep the feud humming, so that he can hang out with French Montana, cut promos for La Liga, and sing at the World Boxing Championships. Abdu Rozik often posts “training videos” and photos with various fight-world figures, such as Anthony Joshua and Roy Jones Jr. It makes sense, because fighting Hasbulla is a central part of Abdu Rozik’s narrative, and the UFC is a big part of the UAE’s marketing plan. Everything came to a head at an event the UFC held in Dubai in October 2021.
A few days before UFC 267, Dana White announced that Hasbulla would be in attendance. After Islam Makhachev submitted Dan Hooker in a lightweight fight, Hasbulla celebrated in the octagon with Nurmagomedov (who served as the corner man), then punched Daniel Cormier as the former UFC light heavyweight champ took a video with him. Abdu Rozik was in attendance too, and the proximity was used to re-energize the feud: He and Hasbulla were caught on video scuffling next to the octagon while Cormier conducted an interview with Corey Sandhagen.
Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik reunited in late January, facing off at an event in an Uzbek restaurant, along with a new face: Erali Boyqobilov, who lists himself as a blogger from Uzbekistan. Abdu Rozik is more willing to collaborate with Erali in a playful way, whereas Hasbulla seems to want nothing to do with him.
If nothing else the new addition makes clear that the conflict between Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik can’t be replicated; it feels more organic than any dispute involving Erali, who serves as proof that just being a little person isn’t nearly enough. Hasbullah and Abdu Rozik have “it.”
Everyone involved in this protracted beef is clearly taking their cues from the world of MMA, the purest marriage of fighting and bluster. In Tamaev’s video, Abdu Rozik criticized Hasbulla for being nasty like Conor McGregor, when he should be respectful of his opponent, like Nurmagomedov. Hasbulla vs. Abdu Rozik can be understood as the typical fight process turned upside-down: the lead-up without the actual fight, the feud shorn of any actual combat in favor of pure showmanship.
With that in mind, how real is the resentment between Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik? On that day in May 2021, Tamaev recorded another video with the pair, in which he said the fighting was scripted to show that Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik were humans just like everyone else. As if it were a curtain call, the two smiled and hugged and said how much they respected each other. They held a pigeon on a beach. But much has happened since then.
Nurmagomedov’s coach Javier Mendez, in an interview last November, said he thought the feud was all for show until Nurmagomedov supposedly told him that Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik actually have bad blood. Nurmagomedov, a UFC figure who distinguished himself by trying to sidestep the task of selling the match, said in a December interview that he hoped that the two would collaborate instead of fight. “They can create some good things if they become friends,” he said.
The UFC has eagerly accepted the beef. It comes at an interesting time, when fewer and fewer of the promotion’s elite fighters are skilled showmen. As MMA has grown from a semi-legal sideshow into a mainstream company with a lucrative ESPN deal, the sport has professionalized, and shed many of its first- and second-wave weirdos. Dana White can bring back recognizable but washed names for only so long. He doesn’t even have to open his wallet to get in on this international feud.
But there’s no reason for Hasbulla and Abdu Rozik to fight. They’ve accomplished much more than just one big payday. They’re apparently pulling in money and can pursue whatever dreams they have. This lucrative hype train doesn’t need the last stop of an actual bout. In that sense, they’ve both already won by understanding the real rules of this game. As the two argued back in May about finances, Hasbulla inadvertently revealed the way he wanted to play this game with Abdu Rozik. “Money rules the world,” he said, according to a YouTube translation. “But we need to earn money in a fair way.”