Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
In the second installment of our on-scene reporting from 'UFC Sweden,' we learn more about why Alexander Gustafsson has to keep it nice and modest, and why even a few boos mean so much here. Be sure to check out the first installment of 'Postcards' here.
STOCKHOLM -- How do you get to the Ericsson Globe Arena? It’s simple, at least when you’re headed there for pre-fight UFC weigh-ins. All you have to do is get on the subway, look for the guy with the cauliflower ear, and get off where he gets off.
In the meantime, take note of the clean, efficient public transportation system. Take note of how the greatest congestion seems to be caused by people getting up to offer their seats to old women. Take note of how the train environment is apparently so safe that one mother doesn’t even freak out when her young daughter wanders a few feet away and begins literally talking to strangers during the ride. But don’t get so distracted that you forget about Mr. Puffy Ear. This is his stop, which means it’s yours, too.
Friday afternoon draws a lively weigh-in crowd to the Globe, which looms on the city horizon like a giant golf ball gone astray from some intergalactic course. Inside, the seats slope up the sides and then seem to go straight up toward the cavernous roof. Today these seats are filled with fight fans so eager to see their heroes that they can’t help but cheer every time they see Alexander Gustafsson’s face on the same looping video packages.
The foreign fighters are in for it at this event, I say to myself. Once again, I prove to have no idea what I’m talking about.
I first notice that something’s off after about the third or fourth pair of fighters has stepped on and off the stage. It’s a little like hearing a familiar song with the guitar solo removed. Something’s missing, but it takes me a moment to realize what it is: no boos. Not when Sweden’s Reza Madadi has an intense staredown with Cuban fighter Yoislandy Izquierdo. Not even when local favorite Papy Abedi -- who comes out in a newsboy cap with a cigar hanging from his mouth -- squares off against American James Head.
If they won’t boo an American who’s taking on one of their own, who will they boo? How are their fighters supposed to get the hometown advantage that the Brazilians enjoyed in Rio without a little vitriol on their part? What’s wrong with these people?
"We don’t really like to do things like that," explains one helpful Swede sitting next to me at the weigh-in. "We’re very polite."
And it’s true, they are. Guys like Madadi -- an Iranian-born immigrant to Sweden whose colorful personality makes him a fan favorite -- get a raucous welcome, but his opponent still gets polite applause rather than a hostile greeting. The same is true for German Dennis Siver and Brazilian Paulo Thiago. Even American Brian Stann, whose decorated military career seems to rub some people the wrong way, walks out to a respectable amount of cheers. Even the fighters who are clearly less popular or totally unknown here still get treated like children who have tried very hard at a school play. It’s no standing ovation, but the applause respectfully recognizes their presence. It makes me wonder: is booing just not done here at all?
"No, we will boo sometimes," says my seatmate. "Like at a hockey game or a soccer game, if there’s a dirty play. If someone is trying to cheat."
But if someone is simply the opposition? He is still a sportsman. There’s no reason to boo the man.
As one Swedish fighter and local commission member who prefers not to be named will explain to me after the weigh-ins, this is due to the very Swedish desire to avoid dålig stämning. Loosely translated, it means ‘bad vibes,’ a negative atmosphere.
"Nobody wants this," he explains. "We try to be nice, make everyone feel welcome. No dålig stämning."
It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed several times already during my brief stay in Stockholm, even if I didn’t know the terminology. A woman at a bar orders a drink and the bartender screws it up, giving her something completely different from what she asked for? That’s okay, she’ll drink it anyway. She doesn’t want to create dålig stämning. The principal clearly extends to MMA, even if the Swedes are not always as kind as they appear from the outside, according to my fighter friend.
For instance, take their feelings about their neighbors. Particularly in the martial arts community here, the nearby Finns are seen as humorless, occasionally arrogant hard-asses. They’ve been at the MMA game longer than the Swedes have, and like to think of themselves as a little tougher.
"You don’t hug another man in Finland," the fighter jokes. "They think we’re soft."
And Norway? Norway has even more laws and restrictions than Sweden. MMA will never be sanctioned there, the Swedes fear. Don’t even get them started on Denmark, where they actually dare to have MMA without a national federation. Crazy Danes. They’ll smoke a cigarette in an elevator. Drink on their lunch breaks. The Swedes just shake their heads at them.
But when it comes to what the Swedes expect of each other, there isn’t always just one set of rules. As I keep hearing over and over again here in Stockholm, Swedes don’t like to stand out. They don’t like to draw attention to themselves, or to appear as though they are trying to be better than anyone else. It’s why, people tell me, it’s relatively difficult for a Swede to become famous in Sweden. A guy like "Mad Dog" Madadi -- a lightweight fighter with a heavyweight personality -- is an exception, but then, he’s also a foreigner. He’s allowed to be loud, to whip the crowd into a frenzy when he steps on the stage for the weigh-ins. They have different expectations for a Swedish-born fighter like Gustafsson, who has so far managed his bit of fame perfectly, by Swedish standards.
With this bit of information, Gustafsson starts to make a little more sense to me. Hearing his answers at Thursday’s press conference and catching snippets of other interviews he’s done here at home this week, I admit I found him a little bit boring. When other people talk about him as an exciting young light heavyweight contender it’s as if he can’t shoot it down fast enough. He says little more than he has to, will never answer with five words when four will do. He seems uncomfortable with being looked at so much.
This, or so I’m told, is the Swedish way. You’re expected to downplay your own uniqueness rather than call attention to it. If you’re talented, you need not make a big deal out of it. If you’re rich, you don’t flaunt your money around. You don’t want to make others feel bad, do you? That might create dålig stämning.
It makes what happens at the culmination of Friday’s weigh-ins all the more interesting. When Thiago Silva is introduced, he’s the only fighter to get a smattering of boos. Even then it’s short-lived, and gives way to more polite applause, as if the crowd is a little bit embarrassed about its own outburst.
Gustafsson, as expected, gets a hero’s welcome. Just walking out on the stage and making weight earns him a standing ovation. In his interview he calls it the biggest fight of his life, but avoids making any outsized promises or statements about the outcome before switching from English (which almost every Swede seems to speak perfectly) to Swedish to ask his countrymen if they’re ready for Saturday’s fight. They are, they let him know. It’s a deft little way of making this about the community rather than the individual. Gustafsson seems to be telling them, ‘This fight is about us, not just me.’ The Swedes eat it up.
As for Silva, his boos were brief, and probably less than he was expecting.
"But you know why, right?" one Swede tells me when I ask about it later. And yes, I suppose I do. It seems the people who only boo when someone is trying to cheat have not forgotten Silva’s recent past. Their feelings about it are strong enough to, however briefly, outweigh their desire to avoid bad vibes. That ought to say something, whether Silva realizes the reasons behind the boos or not.
Simply being a foreigner is no crime here. Not even if you stand in opposition to the local boy. It’s integrity they’re concerned with. You can’t have much of a community without a sense of fairness, and there’s nothing fair about injections and fake urine. In time, maybe it will be forgotten. Not just yet, however. Not this easily. Redemption might be possible, but it isn’t free.
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