Imagine a country where there are more weekends with mixed martial arts events than without; a country that boasts two popular amateur circuits; a country with only a dozen Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts that finishes third in the national standings at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship; a country where five million people watched a former strongman make his MMA debut on broadcast television; a country where no outlet exists to see the UFC.
Welcome to Poland.
In Poland’s vibrant-but-developing MMA environment, every moderately successful fighter is forced to play the part of ambassador and educator to the general audience. That role now belongs to Mamed Khalidov. The 29-year-old Chechen expatriate came to Poland 13 years ago to study abroad. Urged by his family to seek opportunity beyond the battle-scarred Caucasus, a teen-aged Khalidov boarded a train bound for Poland knowing next to nothing about his destination but hoping for a second start.
Officially, Khalidov was registered to study administration and marketing at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, though it remains unclear if he was even aware of that fact when he left Chechnya. However, his “real” studies started at Arrachion MMA in 2003, as he gradually grew into the preeminent fighter in Poland.
Now married with a family in his adopted second homeland, Khalidov is the great hope and the intended Trojan horse for the nation’s MMA scene. He is, for all intents and purposes, Polish.
As a result, Khalidov, the star and champion of KSW -- Poland’s biggest MMA promotion -- has been a national media darling leading up to his middleweight title rematch with Sengoku champion Jorge Santiago at the promotion’s show this Sunday in Tokyo.
It’s easy to see his appeal. Fans love his extravagant fighting style, replete with highlight-reel spinning hook kicks and rolling kneebars. The media loves his story: the international athlete who escaped war-torn Chechnya and made Poland his home. KSW’s owners were keenly aware of those factors when they first signed Khalidov back in 2007.
“We knew about his potential,” says Martin Lewandowski, who, prior to managing Khalidov and promoting KSW, was an entertainment director at a large Warsaw hotel and had grown accustomed to seeking out box office draws. “We knew he could become the fighter in Poland, and now it’s a matter of getting him worldwide recognition.”
With a success-starved audience eager to embrace new heroes, the precedent for rapid popularization of an unknown sport already exists in Poland. In 2001, the ski jumping triumphs of Adam Malysz made him an athletic hero. In 2006, Robert Kubica made his Formula 1 debut and turned on the nation to auto racing. A year later, handball caught fire as Poland’s national team reached the world championship final.
“From a discipline that never was a national sport, it has become one regularly watched by five million people,” says Pawel Wojcik, deputy sport editor of Polsat television, referring to the handball ratings bonanza. He and Polsat believe MMA can head down a similar path.
Moreover, combat sports have long galvanized the entire country. In the 1990s, millions tuned in to watch erratic and notorious heavyweight boxer Andrew Golota in the middle of the night. Despite his dramatic shortcomings in his biggest fights, Golota became a household name in Poland and remains one to this day.
MMA’s proverbial foot is already in the door of Polish consciousness thanks to KSW’s last effort. Convincing strongman champion Mariusz Pudzianowski to try his sizable hand at fighting last December turned out to be a major breakthrough moment. Pudzianowski’s 44-second stoppage of undertrained boxer Marcin Najman was hardly a showcase of skilled fighters, but interest in the sport has picked up noticeably since. Though Khalidov did not compete on that card, he was nonetheless featured prominently on the broadcast and in the arena experience.
Poland’s Tomasz Drwal is forging the path for future Polish fighters in the UFC, the world’s most prominent MMA promotion, but he garners nowhere near as much press attention as Khalidov. Despite the UFC’s growing list of international television deals, it remains without a television presence in Poland. Meanwhile, Khalidov has the strength of a major network behind him.
Polsat, one of four major nationwide networks in Poland, has traditionally been a strong backer of combat sports. It has cornered the market on boxing coverage since 2005, and, with the launch of its second dedicated sports channel, it also has broadcast the majority of the meager pool of MMA programming in the country.
It has been an uphill battle: Polsat’s primary channel broadcasted judo gold medalist and national Olympic hero Pawel Nastula’s Pride Fighting Championships fights through the early morning hours. At least one brutality-spurned complaint to the National Radio and Television Council resulted, and the network was fined. Not one to be dissuaded, the station is likely to broadcast Khalidov’s bout against Santiago.
“We’re invested in promoting Mamed Khalidov,” Wojcik says. “He deserves it. He proved it by competing in the States, or in Japan, or in KSW against Daniel Acacio.”
Those Polish fans aware of Khalidov already consider him a star and eagerly await his further exploits. They have unequivocally embraced Khalidov as one of their own. This is in stark contrast to footballers who, in order to strengthen the national team, received citizenship but not an outpouring of support. Nobody questions Khalidov’s right to represent Poland, even if it is still the Russian Federation who issues his passport.
“Random people now come up to me and wish me luck and say that they saw the last fight,” Khalidov says. “It’s really positive.”
The Chechen feels indebted for the support and the chance he received in Poland. His desire to keep fighting on home soil is the reason he shied away from the exclusive contracts that are usually standard issue for major MMA promotions, including the UFC.
“If I keep fighting abroad, I don’t want to lose the connection with the audience that supported me; I feel it is my duty,” Khalidov says. “I fight under the Polish flag, so I should fight here.”
However, Khalidov flies more than one flag. In every fight, he sees many Chechens proudly supporting him. To the more than 5,000 living in Poland, Khalidov means even more.
“He is motivating,” says Baysangur Edelbiev, a writer for ChechenFighters.com who has been living in Poland for a decade. “He shows that we, as Chechens, can achieve success over here. I’m really glad that my compatriot is representing Poland. I see it as thanks for the warm welcome here after we had to leave our country.”
The popularity the 29-year-old enjoys in Poland also began to trickle down to his homeland at the foot of the Caucasus, where some of his fights have been aired. He will be invited as a guest of honor to an upcoming MMA event themed around “Chechnya vs. the World” fights.
Before all that can happen, however, Khalidov will attempt to bring the first meaningful championship belt to Poland this Sunday. It will have been exactly five months since Khalidov shocked the highly regarded Santiago the first time.
“The first time I fought for Sengoku, it was quite hectic,” he says. “I got a chance to fight the champion, even if [it was] not for the belt. There wasn’t enough time to prepare. I wasn’t in great shape, but I gave it my all and won.”
Khalidov rarely offers rousing quotes. Even with all the praise heaved on him, he remains humble, attributing the path his life took to the workings of God while casually talking about the possibility of losing a fight. His demeanor changes once he enters the ring, where this calm man shows his high-octane, offensive style that made him a star.
He first fought Santiago in a non-title affair last November, when Khalidov stunned the Brazilian with hammerfists from his back before knocking him out inside the first round. Despite a rematch with an opponent he has already defeated, Khalidov vows that lack of motivation will not be a problem.
“[Santiago] has the belt,” he says. “It still makes sense to fight him for it. I know it won’t be that easy. I might even lose but not because I don’t hope or am not motivated to win the fight.”
Two nations of MMA fans share his hope. With the most influential people in the sport talking about lofty globalization goals, one would be hard pressed to find a fighter that embodies that idea more than Khalidov -- a Chechen trained in Poland looking to become a champion for a Japanese promotion.