And in This Corner, Hailing From Dagestan, Presenting Hasbulla
At an N.B.A. game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks on March 17, Hasbulla Magomedov got the full celebrity treatment. He chatted pregame with the Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who posed with him for a photo.
When Hasbulla’s face appeared on the Jumbotron, the crowd went wild. And, like everyone who’s anyone, he sat courtside at the Staples Center, with one major difference: He was perched on his friend’s lap. Hasbulla, 20, is a little over three feet tall, and it gave him a better view of the action.
An unlikely global superstar, Hasbulla (as with Madonna or Pelé, no one uses his last name) has said that doctors have never given him a definitive diagnosis for the condition that causes his short stature.
Hasbulla is famous for his videos and livestreams, which are part “Jackass” and part vlogging, and he speculated in a 2021 interview that he is so popular because he is a “small and rare” person.
Hasbulla is from Dagestan, a tiny, poor republic of Russia in the North Caucasus, and is a celebrity in the world of mixed martial arts, though he has never officially thrown a competitive elbow. He doesn’t speak English and turns down most endorsements because of his religious beliefs. (He is Muslim, like most Dagestanis.) During a time of acute geopolitical tension between the West and Russia, he has amassed an enormous Western fan base. And his inner circle is a well-meaning but ragtag group that includes a family friend from Dagestan, a Dagestani-American software developer and a fan from the Hasbulla Discord server.
“We love him,” said John Shahidi, the president of Full Send/Nelk, a lads-will-be-lads media company that has collaborated with Hasbulla and arranged his recent American trip. “We were crying at the airport when he left.”
But his fame, for some, is a reminder of the ugly ways little people have been used as entertainment for centuries.
Hasbulla is an influencer, so what he does, exactly, is a little hard to explain. On his Instagram account (8.6 million followers) Hasbulla indulges his passions for shooting guns, driving fast cars, practicing fighting moves and playing pranks. (Many people who don’t know his name may know his face as a meme signifying something like “mirth,” or “high jinks.”) Fans also follow along as he eats salad, messes around with face filters and speaks Dagestani Russian.
Through an interpreter, Hasbulla said in an interview over text message that he thought so many people loved his videos “because I make them happy and smile.”
Hasbulla’s popularity radiates out from a kind of extended Gen Z bro universe in which U.F.C., the mixed martial arts organization, is a dominant force. Its emissaries include the fresh-faced Nelk Boys (Full Send’s fratty prankster stars) and the misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate, who is currently under house arrest in Romania, where he is being investigated after being accused of human trafficking, rape and organized crime. Hasbulla’s most prominent fans reflect this culture’s very online mash-up of right wing politics and mainstream pop culture: former President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump Jr., but also Shaquille O’Neal and Drake.
Some of his biggest fans say they were first drawn to “Hasbik” — his Russian diminutive — when they realized he was not a child, and that they’re inspired that he has such a winning attitude. Critics say that framing is patronizing, and that Hasbulla’s renown demeans other little people. They argue it places him in an ignominious tradition of famous little people who are there, ultimately, for the amusement of everyone else.
“So often in these cases the only reason that someone rises to this level of fame is purely based on their size and the ableist world’s infantilization,” said Mark Povinelli, an actor with dwarfism, who is the president of the Little People of America.
Dana White, the president of U.F.C., disagreed. “This kid, because of his personality and because everybody likes him, has had opportunities that most people all over the world will never have,” he said. He added that Hasbulla “is a human being who lives his own life and makes his own choices.”
Hasbulla rarely addresses his size. According to his interpreter, he hates the Russian word for “dwarf.” And in a 2021 Russian-language interview, he gave some insight into the way he thinks about his body.
“My parents consider me as handicapped and the doctors as well,” he said. “I think I’m healthy.”
‘That’s the Magic of Hasbulla’
The son of a plumber, Hasbulla is from a gritty suburb of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea. In an interview with the Full Send podcast, he said that he spent four years in an Islamic school, which he didn’t like. According to Surkhay Sungurov, a Dagestani-American who advises Hasbulla and informally serves as his interpreter, Hasbulla convinced a friend to drive the 200 kilometers from Makhachkala to the school to help him escape.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Sungurov said, Hasbulla started making videos.
Among his early hits was a clip of him driving a motorized scooter, sternly instructing a young person on a bicycle to go home in accordance with pandemic restrictions. Another popular video showed him eating and praising strawberries.
But Hasbulla’s real viral breakthrough came in 2021, when he and a Turkmen man with dwarfism participated in an interview meant to resemble a pre-fight news conference for an M.M.A. match. In the half-hour clip, the two men trade boasts and insults (Hasbulla calls his opponent a bad Muslim for endorsing online sports betting, and Hasbulla’s opponent calls him a bad Muslim for swearing). Eventually they have to be separated in the classic stagy, weigh-in style.
“Who is this Russian kid who I can’t even understand who is always messing with people and being a savage?” Kyle Forgeard, one of the Nelk Boys, remembered thinking at the time. “That’s the magic of Hasbulla.”
The clip drew eyeballs — it has been viewed 19 million times on YouTube — but also concern. It carried a whiff of the seedy burlesque of dwarf wrestling acts that were popular at large events like WrestleMania in the United States until the 1990s, but now more often take place in barrooms and county fairgrounds.
Shortly after the clip went viral, Uliana Podpalnaya, the head of the Dwarf Athletic Association of Russia, raised her objections. “This is a show to make people laugh,” she told Gazeta.Ru, a Russian newspaper.
The fight between Hasbulla and the Turkmen man never happened, but Hasbulla acquired a nickname, “Mini Khabib,” a reference to Khabib Nurmagomedov, the retired M.M.A. champion who is something like the Michael Jordan of Dagestan. Soon, athletes from the republic, which is wildly overrepresented in mixed martial arts, embraced him. At U.F.C. 267, in Abu Dhabi, the Dagestani fighter Islam Makhachev hoisted Hasbulla in the air immediately after a victory.
Hasbulla quickly developed a shtick as a kind of slapstick pugilist — one of his trademarks is sucker punching people much larger than him — who is sometimes scooped up and held like a child by his friends.
This made some observers uncomfortable.
“The comments on his videos are always, ‘he’s so cute,’” said Erin Pritchard, a lecturer in disability and education at Liverpool Hope University. (Dr. Pritchard has dwarfism.) “Well, but he’s a man. They treat him like a child, they pick him up and sit him on their knee.”
Dr. Pritchard said that Hasbulla reminded her of Charles Stratton, the American with dwarfism who became an international star in the 19th century performing under the circus impresario P.T. Barnum as “General Tom Thumb.” Mr. Stratton — an actor, singer, dancer and impersonator of mighty historical figures — was so famous that his wedding received a 5,000-word write-up in The New York Times. President Lincoln hosted a wedding party for him.
Western society dehumanizes little people, Dr. Pritchard said. “They don’t see a disabled person,” she said, “they see a novelty.”
A ‘Traveling Carnival’
If there is a P.T. Barnum figure in Hasbulla’s rise, it may be Mr. White, U.F.C.’s boundary-pushing president. In October 2022, Mr. White signed Hasbulla to a multiyear contract, the terms of which have not been disclosed; the company sells Hasbulla merchandise, and he will appear as a playable character in a forthcoming U.F.C. video game.
“People are in awe of him. People love him,” Mr. White said. “He’s a rock star.”
But Mr. White and Hasbulla’s team agree that he will never fight in a U.F.C. match.
“He’ll fight in the video game,” Mr. White said. “That’s about as close as he’ll come to fighting.”
Ben Fowlkes, a longtime M.M.A. writer and podcaster, said he saw the U.F.C.’s embrace of Hasbulla in the context of its other attempts to draw new fans through sideshows, such as Mr. White’s “Power Slap” competition, an innovation in which competitors, well, slap each other in the face. Hasbulla attended a March Power Slap event in Las Vegas, where the actor Mark Wahlberg asked Hasbulla to slap him; he declined.
“The fight business is at its core a traveling carnival,” Mr. Fowlkes said. “They have to show up in a new city every week, put the tent out and make a pitch. They don’t do a lot of deep thinking about why people are looking.”
And a lot of people are looking. Hasbulla’s first sit-down interview with a U.S. outlet, Barstool Sports in April 2022, has been watched 13 million times on YouTube. A recent video in which the Nelk Boys visit Hasbulla in Dagestan has 11 million views; a similar video about his American tour also has 11 million views.
Hasbulla’s team is trying to turn the frenzy of attention into a bankable brand. There is, of course, an official Hasbulla NFT, and there are mobile games in the works.
“He doesn’t always like to wake and go to meetings,” said Justin Ozuna, who works in health care communications in San Antonio and is a member of the Hasbulla Discord who has joined Hasbulla’s management. “But I didn’t either when I was that age.”
Mr. Sungurov was more blunt: “He is not an easy person.”
Hasbulla, according to Mr. Sungurov, exerts an iron control over his Instagram account, frequently turning down the suggestions of his advisers about what to post. Mr. Forgeard said that Hasbulla spent much of the Lakers game looking at his Instagram analytics.
Another area where Hasbulla won’t budge is his religion. According to Mr. Ozuna, the team turned down a 21st birthday party for Hasbulla that the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas wanted to sponsor because Hasbulla doesn’t drink, or take photos with female fans. And he declined an invitation to appear at this month’s WrestleMania because he had plans to travel to Saudi Arabia for Ramadan.
“I have my own principles that I will not break for any money and fame,” Hasbulla said, adding that he thought that was a core part of his appeal.
Like other M.M.A. stars from Dagestan, Hasbulla has had to contend with the politics of his region. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya (which borders Dagestan), is an outspoken supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine, who has been penalized by the U.S. Treasury for his role in the invasion.
He has cultivated extensive ties to M.M.A. fighters in the Caucasus, and he and Hasbulla posed together for pictures in 2021. On Feb. 24, 2022, the first day of the Russian invasion, Hasbulla posted a picture on Twitter of himself atop a tank with a cryptic caption: “The peacemaker has arrived.”
Another political admirer of Hasbulla’s is Mr. Bolsonaro, to whom Hasbulla wished “good luck” in Brazil’s 2022 election. (“Thank you, my big little buddy,” Mr. Bolsonaro responded.)
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the Hasbulla team spoke with the star about keeping politics out of his videos; his “good luck” tweet has since been deleted.
“We talked about, hey, let’s focus on what people love about you, the entertainment,” Mr. Ozuna said. “Let’s focus on the things you love: religion, cars, cats, friends and family.”
There have been other hiccups. In December 2021, the Russian newspaper Lenta.ru reported that Hasbulla had been suspended from Instagram for threatening a woman he said had posted a clip of his sister online. And last month, Hasbulla aroused the ire of some social media commenters after sharing a video in which he slaps his cat. (The internet loves Hasbulla, but it will always love cats more.)
Mr. Sungurov said it was a misunderstanding, and that Hasbulla was trying to teach the animal not to wander the streets of Makhachkala, where it could be menaced by feral cats.
The ‘Successful Dagestani Bro’ Trope
It’s clear that Hasbulla doesn’t always like the way he is treated by the public. While greeting fans at a U.F.C. event in Abu Dhabi, Hasbulla scolded a young man who pinched his cheek — an interaction that yielded a viral TikTok.
“People forget that he’s an actual adult,” a commenter wrote.
And in the Barstool Sports interview, Hasbulla seemed to take exception when the host asked him if he was too big to watch cartoons.
“I’m an adult,” Hasbulla said. The host responded that he was also an adult and that he liked certain cartoons.
“Probably because your brain isn’t fully developed,” Hasbulla replied.
It’s possible Hasbulla is telling a joke that much of his audience isn’t able to understand. According to Michael A. Reynolds, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University who has written about the culture of combat sports in the Caucasus, Hasbulla’s act may be a kind of affectionate sendup of the local stereotype of a “successful Dagestani bro” — posing with stacks of cash and lounging on private planes.
Hasbulla’s fame has certainly allowed him to live like a successful Dagestani bro. In a news conference, Mr. White, the U.F.C. boss, said that a recent merchandise collaboration between Nelk and Hasbulla netted the star $250,000.
While Hasbulla said that many of his new toys — a Rolex, sports cars — are gifts, according to Mr. Sungurov, Hasbulla has used his own money to remodel his house, buy his father a car and pay for his brother’s large wedding.
As for Hasbulla’s fans, whatever the level of irony their idol is working with, their reaction is simple. Kevin Lujano, an architectural designer in Arkansas who posts frequently about Hasbulla to Twitter, counts as one of his prized possession a hand-knit Hasbulla doll.
“His videos can brighten my day, even if it’s a really bad day,” he said.