MMA is obviously a combat collective, and there are still sectors on the globe where combining disciplines into one violent bouillabaisse can be a little much on the eye.
Poland, a market that the UFC is intent on visiting in 2014, is just now emerging from that place. Taken piecemeal, Poland loves boxing, and has a proud tradition of Olympic medal winners that span a century. Singlets are used in Poland, too -- the country has produced many strong wrestlers. But put together -- particularly with a nuanced ground game element where guys are up to mysterious things -- it’s been a curious union for Poles.
Curiosity, if handled correctly, builds a market.
Martin Lewandowski began the Poland-based KSW while working as a promotion manager for the Warsaw Marriott Hotel. KSW stands for Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki, which translates into English as Martial Arts Confrontation. Lewandowski, a sports fan who had a background in kung fu and kickboxing, began putting on chandelier shows at the Marriott ten years ago.
In other words, Poland’s first MMA began with fists flying in a Warsaw banquet room meant to house civility. Just like the early UFCs, it was an eight-man tournament based around the concept of the last man standing.
Even if, at the time, KSW was more modeled after Japan’s Pride FC.
"A few years ago Pride was the big deal, and it was a big show in here Poland," he told MMA Fighting, days ahead of KSW 24 on Saturday night. "We were focused and fascinated regarding the production, and the quality of production. It was sport combined with entertainment. We started doing MMA.
And in a roundabout way, because they did put on those early luxurious bloodfests, the UFC is planning its first ever visit to Poland next year at some point. It’s been a decade in the making, but the groundwork is now in place to bring the Octagon to Polska. KSW has been selling out venues in the 12,000-seat range regularly for years. The Poles are hip to mixing up their martial arts now.
"We are celebrating 10 years from the first event, which was in 2003," Lewandowski says. "I came up with the idea of bringing some new disciplines to the country. It’s been ten years of hard work, changing the perspective for Polish fans, for Polish publicity to believe in such sport.
"Where it grew was with the soccer fans, and they trained MMA just to be better on the field. We started MMA in the ring. We started the show to be a live event, then it was live on the sports channel. This next show [KSW 24] is a pay-per-view. We are on open public TV. Our highest rating was 6.7 million Polish people watching. So it seems like nearly every Polish guy has watched KSW."
Lewandowski’s challenge in Poland is reminiscent of what Dana White and the Fertitta brothers faced back in 2001 when Zuffa purchased the UFC. KSW no longer uses the one-night tournament format (no sane promotion does), but it started as the Wild West. People were squeamish to violence and blood spatter and arms being torqued out of their usual configurations. Skittish people were all but hiding their children and making crucifixes with their fingers.
That’s all changed. For the most part, anyway.
Lewandowski says it’s still a process of education even today, but KSW’s live gates speak volumes to the Polish vox populi. Perceptions have improved. And over the years, stars have come and gone to help bridge the gap between spectacle and sport. Today’s KSW stars -- such as strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, who lost to Sean McCorkle at KSW 23 thus setting up the rematch Saturday night -- transcend the niche demographic and reach into the more casual corners.
That’s been one of MMA’s primary covets for years. To resonate with casuals.
"Our big star is Mamed Khalidov," Lewandowski says. "I think he’s one of the best in the world, even in the UFC. I was talking to [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva about his transfer to the UFC. Mamed, he’s a big name here. He’s like Chuck Liddell used to be -- or right now Jon Jones. He’s Jon Jones in Poland, but he’s a really spectacular fighter. He’s my first MMA star that is recognized by the mainstream public. Not only by the sports fans, but he’s known by old women and everyone. They really adore him.
"We also have Pudzianowski, and he’s the guy who is kind of our freak fight star. He’s really concentrating now on MMA. He’s not doing bull---- like other fighters who just put on shows. Pudzianowski is not desperate for money. He is wealthy. But he’s also a star in that sense, in that everybody knows who Pudzianowski is here in Poland, and he’s getting better and better. I believe in him."
Over the years, KSW has been a platform for Polish fighters to make a name, and for wayward fighters to reignite their careers. The heavyweight McCorkle was at one time in the UFC. In the past, Francis Carmont, Igor Pokrajac and Alexander Gustafsson -- who just gave the UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones the scare of his life at UFC 165 -- have all spent time in the KSW ring. Gustafsson lit up Krzysztof Kulak in Dabrowa Gornicza in the south of Poland back in 2008.
"In the beginning we were focused only on Polish fighters mostly, but even on our first show there were some guys form Eastern Bloc," says Lewandowski. "Now I want anyone who is a great athlete and is free agent, and it does not matter the country."
Lewandowski has helped grow the sport exponentially in Poland, He has camps and hosts amateur fights as well, to help foster talent and spread awareness. He says there are several hundred gyms in Poland that offer variations into MMA, but "only ten or so that are very good."
But KSW as a promotion is rolling. Even on shows when it doesn’t have a "star" headlining in the main event, he says they can fetch 8,000 people through the gate, but -- for most shows -- usually more in the neighborhood of 12,000-15,000. There are six more sizeable venues in Poland, including stadiums that hold upwards of 60,000 people. Lewandowski says that KSW, with the right combination of stars, has grown to the point where it’s not out of the question to host an event at one of those stadiums in the near future.
"Of course, the market will grow as we grow," he says. "I need to listen to my intuition and my feelings on how to build it. Of course, many bad things can happen and things can fall down, but so far after ten years we are growing. Every year is different. Sometimes it’s small progress, sometimes it’s a huge step forward, but I think, yeah, the whole discipline environment is growing."
As for the UFC making its way to Poland, Lewandowski says he’s not territorial at all. Though, like most regionally specific promoters, he doesn’t view KSW necessarily as a feeder league in the broader sense, he understands who the colossus in the industry is.
"That was a question of time," he says. "I knew that eventually [the UFC] would come to Poland and occupy the position, and I can be proud of me and my team who did this. Because, I helped grow the crowd here, and helped interest people into watching MMA. If we can somehow be helpful for them, good. I am not going to feel hunted by them, or be an opposed party.
"From my point of view, the Poles will get to see the big U.S. company that’s coming to Poland. It will be a good investment for the discipline which I’ve been creating with my business partner since the beginning here in Poland. I don’t feel they’re enemies. I am happy. I’ll be in the first one to buy a ticket and be the one sitting in the front row watching the UFC in Poland."
Saturday’s PPV will cost forty zloty in Poland, which is the equivalent of $13 American (and can be streamed live at KSWTV.com in America). It will pit McCorkle against Pudzianowski in a rematch as the main event. The first time through McCorkle took the five-time world’s strongest man via a first-round Kimura.
A Pudz/McCorkle rematch not registering on the North American scale? Poland cares what you think. The event, which will be held in Lodz -- a city that Pudzianowski is strong enough to carry on his own -- is sold out.
In its tenth year, KSW knows enough to put on the fights people want to see. The more important thing? The Polish people have gotten to the point where they want to see it. And that, whether you’re the UFC or KSW, is the hurdle that matters.