Opinion: Enter the ‘Colosseum’ of Historic Crazy

By Jordan Breen May 26, 2017
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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If you just quickly browsed the MMA headlines with just a faint notion there was an Ultimate Fighting Championship event this weekend, you'd probably be tricked into thinking it was co-headlined by Demetrious Johnson defending his flywight title against T.J. Dillashaw and some bizarre catchweight bout between Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Angela Magana. That's even before you're surprised by the fact that it's a Sunday morning start for the UFC card at Stockholm's Ericsson Globe; festivities start at 7 a.m. for you west coast folk.

It's a lame but consistent modern tradition that a non-priority UFC card's fight week will be dominated by extracurricular Ultimate Fighting Championship or MMA news drama. Worse than that, though, there's a promotion just on the other side of the Baltic Sea that could top the UFC's all-time attendance record before the Octagon door even closes in Sweden.

MMA promotion-slash-surreal carnival Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki presents KSW 39 "Colosseum” on Saturday in Warsaw, Poland -- its most ambitious production in 13 years of peddling over-the-top spectacle. To say nothing, at least not yet, of the fantastic and bizarre fight card, the event will at the very least be some sort of MMA landmark.

KSW co-owner Maciej Kawulski on May 9 said that there were 50,000 tickets sold for the event, which emanates from the PGE Narodowy Stadium. The venue plan for “Colosseum” initially offered in the neighborhood of 57,000 tickets, but it's feasible, given the stadium's concert capacity of nearly 73,000, that more tickets could be made available in the immediate run-up to the card.

The UFC's attendance record is 56,214 at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, where Holly Holm decapitated Ronda Rousey at UFC 193. There may be close to 60,000 people watching wacky, cartoonish Lithuanian bodybuilder Robert Burneika fight Pawel “Popek Rak” Mikolajuw, a Polish gangster rapper who tattooed his eyeballs black. There may be more.

Yes, the MMA high-water mark is still Pride “Shockwave,” in August 2002, which despite a claimed attendance of 90,000, put a legitimate 71,000 people in Tokyo National Stadium. However, “Shockwave” -- “Dynamite!” if you're nasty -- was a collaborative between Pride Fighting Championships and K-1 near the peak of Japan's hyper-lucrative kakutogi boom. Also, Japan has a population of 128 million and a much richer tradition of combat sports, with K-1 and MMA spending years on Japan's national broadcasters to the point of oversaturation. Poland has a population of 38 million, and while its had its share of Andrews Golotas, Tomasz Adameks and Dariusz Michalczewskis, most of its celebrated sports folk are more in the vein of ski jumping legend Adam Malysz.

There are scores of MMA fans who watch a ton of fights but have never seen a KSW event. Many, at best, know it is the wacky Polish promotion where “World's Strongest Man” legend Mariusz Pudzianowski fights and where a guy once came out to the ring in a tank. Yet the KSW brand legitimately has as much awareness and relevance to the Polish public as the UFC's, maybe even more. If you had never heard of KSW at all, you'd probably assume I was fabricating and inventing all of what I just wrote. It's not like explaining KSW's success is easy, either.

For several years now, KSW has probably been one of the five best, top-to-bottom MMA promotions in the world and at the very worst is the finest outfit in Europe, even with Absolute Championship Berkut making a name for itself with some wildly violent, talented Russian fighters. The company has done it without a revolving cast of shadowy money marks or cash influxes and by actually promoting financially successful events and developing its brand in the long-term. That makes it seem like KSW is some businessy, sports-oriented product, which may be true on some level, but it's also the most lavish modern testament to MMA's freak-show DNA.

The aforementioned Kawulski and his KSW co-founder, Martin Lewandowski, were the most casual of fight fans when they forged plans to start this project. Kawulski had trained some MMA, owned an advertising company and had worked to promote some sports expos. Lewandowski was a manager and booked entertainment at the five-star Hotel Marriott in Warsaw, where KSW would hold its first five events. They initially toyed with the idea of a style-versus-style martial arts event, but they saw the direction combat sports was headed and KSW was born.

KSW's product in many cases feels like two people watched old Pride events while high, then took a bunch of money and tried to recreate what they had seen for an audience. It has fighter parades and event introductions with female contortionists in white plumage, and my God, its ring announcer Waldemar Kasta, has to be heard to be believed.

However, Kawulski and Lewandowski have arguably done MMA freak shows better than they were ever done in their safe haven in Japan. When KSW has chosen to sign and promote questionable athletes off the beaten path, it's generally turned out to be a successful play.

You can laugh all you want about Pudzianowski, who faces 3-0 fellow strongman Tyberiusz Kowalczyk on the card, but he is truly one of the biggest, most consistent draws in this entire sport for his promoter, whether or not he is a 40-year-old on an extreme amount of steroids. In his allegedly mockable MMA career, “Pudzian” has beaten three UFC veterans and an Olympic gold medalist. Plus he's beaten Eric “Butterbean” Esch,” which is charming, and Bob Sapp, which should be considered a service to the sport. You could do a lot worse. Even Popek Rak, who Pudzianowski dusted in 80 seconds, could successfully swing Dhafir “DaDa 5000” Harris.

Pudzianowski may represent the more exotic and sensational side of KSW's identity, but “Colosseum” is headlined by its more legitimate fighting star, middleweight champion Mamed Khalidov, who takes on KSW welterweight champ Borys Mankowski in a 181-pound catchweight bout.

Khalidov is one of the 10 most skilled middleweights in the world, and you're likely not ever going to see him in the UFC since he already makes more in purse and sponsors than 95 percent of the UFC roster. Mankowski has improved dramatically over the last three years and would be a solid roster addition for the UFC or Bellator MMA. If Khalidov and Mankowski weren't squaring off with each other, the card would likely have seven titles on the line at “Colosseum.” Because of the main event, we're stuck with a measly five championship bouts.

The title fights vary in quality but are still largely constituted by serious talent. KSW light heavyweight champion Tomasz Narkun, who defends against Marcin Wojcik, is a top-20 fighter at 205 pounds and would be a keen signing for any promotion; undefeated Mateusz Gamrot putting his lightweight belt and 12-0 record on the line against Norman Parke is a legitimate UFC-quality contest; and with the sudden spotlight on 125-pound women, KSW crowning its inaugural flyweight queen brilliantly captures this moment in the sport, and prospects Ariane Lipski and Diana Belbita are excellent selections to contest that throne. The same promotion that pulls off the big-ticket freak show better than anybody, is the same one with resourceful, clever matchmaking that seems like the work of an MMA Twitter nerd. KSW has found a perfect equilibrium for its product, a brilliant articulation of MMA's yin and yang, sport and spectacle.

On the undercard, coach and broadcast commentator Lukasz Jurkowski returns after six years of retirement to face, of course, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou. Meanwhile, Olympic bronze medal-winning Greco-Roman wrestler Damian Janikowski makes his MMA debut against American Julio Gallegos. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. KSW is well-regarded and actually financially viable, and it's not because an ironic cadre of MMA fans see it as throwback Japanese MMA on Euro club drugs. The promotion consistently and successfully uses established, well-known veterans as enhancement talent, like Sokoudjou, but can also pivot and promote them if they surprisingly succeed, like Jay Silva. KSW has an eye for crossover talent, whether they're combat-sports athletes or just super famous for lifting up heavy things, but it never stops cultivating real, quality prospects for its in-house stable. KSW can sign stars, but it can also make stars, which is exceedingly difficult and rare for any MMA promotion.

“Colosseum,” on paper, is a card deeply emblematic of what KSW is all about, and that's before we get to whatever mind-rending theatrics go with the actual presentation and production of the show. It won't be the best MMA event this year, but unless the UFC takes Conor McGregor to a football stadium -- American football or soccer football -- it's going to be the most attended event of the year. Even if it falls short of hitting 57,000 or the UFC's 56,214, it will surely produce one of the very biggest attendance numbers in MMA history and be a major milestone. Then again, there's Pudzianowski, a rapper with tattooed eyeballs and Sokoudjou.

It's a hell of an achievement, but it still seems crazy as hell. Then again, this is KSW. It probably should seem crazy as hell.
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