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From the grassroots to global ambitions, Poland’s KSW is one of the world’s hottest MMA properties

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Martin Lewandowski allowed himself a moment of reflection five months ago. He was standing inside the cavernous PGE Narodowy Stadium in Warsaw, the largest soccer stadium in Poland.

More than 57,000 fans had filled the massive venue. They were not there to see the Polish national soccer (football in Poland) team. The record crowd was on hand to watch a night of MMA fights — KSW 39: Colosseum on May 27.

“I came to a point where I decided I need to take one step behind to see how big it is,” Lewandowski, KSW’s co-owner, told MMA Fighting. “I need to just stop for a while and look around.”

Martin Lewandowski (left) and Maciej Kawulski

Thirteen years ago, Lewandowski was working as the promotions manager at the Warsaw Marriott. As part of his job, he would screen big international sporting events at the hotel, like the Super Bowl and Formula 1 races. A fan and practitioner of martial arts, Lewandowski began airing PRIDE FC events.

Having caught the MMA bug and seeing the PRIDE viewing parties’ popularity, Lewandowski and his now longtime business partner Maciej Kawulski thought: Why not promote MMA events ourselves right here in Poland?

That’s how Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki, translated into English as “martial arts confrontation,” began. Lewandowski and Kawulski ran the first four KSW shows at the Warsaw Marriott, using Lewandowski’s budget as promotions manager.

The scene from KSW 39: Colosseum at PGE Narodowy Stadium in Warsaw.

In 2006, Lewandowski quit his job — losing the benefits that came with it — and decided to take a risk, going full bore into MMA with Kawulski. KSW 5 was the first event outside the Marriott. It was headlined by Francis Carmont, who went on to fight for the UFC and Bellator, against Warsaw native Robert Jocz.

“Then we started investing our own money,” Lewandowski said. “We felt it’s going to be good and a huge thing. I realized if I spent that time [working at the hotel], multiplied by a couple times, I might get much more money than working at the Marriott.”

KSW has been a gradual success, not necessarily an overnight hit. Lewandowski and Kawulski have taken things step by step, never wanting to overreach or overestimate the market. They’re not billionaires or hedge-fund guys. They’re just two martial arts fans, who fell in love with PRIDE in the mid-aughts like many others their age.

“Nothing is behind us,” Lewandowski said. “No rich barons. No support from the government. It’s a bit different when you compare it to boxing or volleyball or football. They have associations with a lot of people working, they have the government.”

On Sunday, KSW ventures out of Poland for only the second time. KSW 40, headlined by legendary Polish strongman-turned-fighter Mariusz Pudzianowski against ex-UFC fighter Jay Silva, takes place in Dublin, Ireland at the 3Arena. The card is chock full of well-known UFC and Bellator veterans and up-and-coming Polish fighters.

KSW 41 has been announced for Dec. 23 in Katowice, Poland. That will make four events per year, which has been KSW’s blueprint since 2010. KSW has been conservative in its expansion. Lewandowski says he would rather do four massive shows — in big venues like Stadion PGE Narodowy — per year then oversaturate the Polish market.

A big part of KSW’s appeal, locally and abroad, is its production values. There is a commitment to pageantry and spectacle, like the PRIDE shows that Lewandowski and Kawulski drew inspiration from more than a decade ago. That kind of planning takes time. KSW only has six regular employees, Lewandowski said, although they hire 300 or more for fight nights.

Pageantry is a big part of KSW’s product.

“We sell every single seat,” Lewandowski said. “We beat all the possible records. We really concentrate on the production. The UFC is kind of simple in that way.”

Lewandowski said KSW has exploded in Poland. Like the UFC in the United States, young people in Poland want to “train KSW,” not realizing that KSW is a promotion, not a discipline, he said. KSW airs on pay-per-view and on Polsat, a major Polish TV station. The biggest rating the organization has done, Lewandowski says, is 7.1 million — which is a big one for a country of less than 40 million people.

There is no doubt Poland has taken to MMA, more than many other countries in Europe. Lewandowski joked that maybe it’s because they are geographically in between Russia and Germany and have always had to fight. There have also been other popular combat sports in Poland, historically.

“Maybe it was much easier for us to build MMA in Poland, because of boxing,” Lewandowski said. “We have martial arts. We’re good in judo.

“There is wrestling. We had and we still are good in martial arts. Not many sports, but martial arts is something we always did good in. We did good in judo and karate and boxing. It was years ago, but this is the culture we understand.”

Mariusz Pudzianowski is KSW’s biggest star and a Polish national hero.

The goal now is to expand, just a bit at first. Ideally, Lewandowski would like to continue to do four events per year in Poland and another four internationally. KSW has already been to England and now Ireland this weekend. The United States, he said, is a possibility in the future, along with Scandinavia. KSW already airs in 40 countries, he said.

“Extend the brand and get more international fighters, who are worldwide known,” Lewandowski said. “Sometimes that’s what’s missing, because some people just watch because of the fighters.”

KSW’s rise has been slow and steady, though it might not feel like that for Lewandowski and Kawulski, because it’s constant work. Back in May, Lewandowski just had to catch his break for a minute and take it all in.

“I always compare it to a kid,” Lewandowski said. “When you have a kid, you don’t see and realize how it grows. You see it every day. But people are talking about it. Sometimes it takes a while to see it for yourself.”