The Absolute Championship Akhmat 92 main event between Ibragim Chuzhigaev and Piotr Strus on Feb. 16 in Warsaw, Poland, was more or less even. However, Strus was more active and it felt as if the entire crowd had thrown its support behind him, so it came as little surprise when fans reacted with anger when the split decision was announced in Chuzigaev’s favor. They hurled beer cans toward the cage, whistled and booed loudly. Then Strus took to the microphone.
“You know,” he said, “I’m happy that the judges didn’t give the victory to me. I’m glad that the judges weren’t concerned with crowd reaction or the nationality of the fighters; they based their decision solely on their notes. This kind of a loss actually means more to me than a win awarded to me, only because I am from Poland and I fight in Poland. I think I was better than my opponent, but the judges thought otherwise, so I have to respect their decision. Apart from that, I understand that only a KO win could count as undisputed, and I simply had no energy left.”
The crowd was stunned, but it was not unlike Strus to act unconventionally. The man lives a double life. He has dedicated part of himself to mixed martial arts and the rest to programming. Strus owns a small Warsaw-based IT company with eight employees that produces and sells products ranging from CRM systems to online stores.
“My parents taught me that you can get your joy from different aspects of life,” he said. “When I was a kid, my dad always used to introduce me to different sports. He used to bring me to track-and-field, table tennis, horse riding, windsurfing [and] cycling. Thanks to that, when I got older, it was not hard for me to choose what I want to do in life. Also, I was really interested in electronics ever since I was a kid. I have always loved to assemble and disassemble things.
“My dad used to run a construction firm, and for a long time, he shared the office with an owner of an IT firm, a man with whom I became good friends,” Strus added. “I often went to my dad’s job and saw the employees there disassembling computers. It was really interesting for me, so when my dad bought me a PC, it had to be serviced almost every week. I used to always disassemble it, messed something up there, I had to format my HHD, so that’s how I fell in love with two things: sports and IT.
Because Strus decided not to choose one path over the other, he has never had to depend on results in IT or MMA. He appreciates the balance his professions afford him.
“I like this mix of something that seemingly cannot be mixed,” he said. “Doing one thing, I can get some rest from the other and restore my energy. When I am preparing for a fight, I need to put aside my job as programmer and manager, and then after a fight, when I am taking rest from MMA, I fully dedicate myself to IT. It is this constant change that keeps me agile and active in both spheres.”
Many fighters feel MMA wears them out and consumes all of their time. Some think of nothing else. In order to maximize his time and energy, Strus bought a dog three months ago. He compares people to cars, only in reverse: the bigger load you give them to carry, the better they run. Since Strus has become a well-known fighter in Poland and almost always lands in main events, he risks losing tens of thousands of dollars if he fails to strike a proper balance between commitments at home, work and the gym. He has learned to combine some of the responsibilities. While preparing for a fight, he jogs 10 kilometers every morning with his dog. The 48-minute routine has proven beneficial for both.
“I knew that owning a dog gives you great responsibility,” Strus said. “You always have to talk to him; he’s like a child in this regard. Some may wonder how I would find time for a dog, but I managed to find it. I had to adjust some things, get rid of some things, do certain tasks quicker, but when I come home from a hard day’s work and say, ‘Come,’ I receive happiness in return and I’m able to get my energy back faster. This is what I would recommend to all those who don’t have enough time: Get yourselves a dog, and then you’ll be able to find time for everything.”
Strus also decided to get married last year. His fiancé, Nicole, is an athlete and enjoys spending time at the gym. In addition, she works for his IT firm.
“I have to be under constant pressure, challenge myself and restrict myself from certain things,” Strus said. “Yes, that’d be great not spending six hours a day training and go to the movies with my girlfriend instead, but I feel that if I go down that path, I won’t be satisfied. I just love that feeling of constant pressure and choice. My best friend, Lukas, can definitely affirm that every time I step in the cage, I ask him, ‘Why on Earth am I doing all of this?’ When the fight is done and I see that I was able to stand tough, I see that delighted crowd and I feel so happy.
“You can’t compare this feeling to anything else,” he added. “This is like being extra satisfied with yourself, and this feeling comes only because of you and your achievement. If someone gave me a million dollars, I still wouldn’t be as happy as after a good fight, because I realize that this happiness is deserved after three months of hard work, liters of sweat, fighting pain and your own thoughts, with the limitations of your body.”
Not everything has run smoothly for Strus. He signed a contract with KSW just three years into his career, made five appearances for the powerhouse Polish promotion and went a disappointing 2-1-2. It was a frustrating experience.
“At that time, I decided to retire. I felt deceived,” Strus said. “Maybe the [majority draw] with Abu Azaitar wasn’t my best fight, but it all went according to my plan; and straight after my [majority draw] with Jay Silva, even before the official decision, Azaitar entered the cage and told Silva, ‘We have both defeated Strus, so now we have to have a fight with you.’ It was all rigged, I suppose, and then I asked myself, ‘What am I doing in this company, if it doesn’t care for my health or my work?’ When my contract with KSW expired, I didn’t extend it.’”
However, Strus accepted a fight with Mikhail Tsarev under the Absolute Championship Berkut banner two years later. Friend and current manager Arthur Ostashevski convinced him to pursue the opportunity, even though he had roughly 10 days’ notice. Strus thought he would make some money even if he lost, but instead, he knocked out Tsarev in the second round. When he felt the electricity from the crowd, he realized he had to come back to MMA. ACB offered him a contract.
In his next appearance, Strus faced Mikhail Kolobegov in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was met with questionable judging that resulted in Kolobegov netting a decision. He appealed, and though he did not have high hopes in the process, the decision was changed to a no-contest. Strus later submitted Andy DeVent with a second-round triangle choke at ACB 63, pocketing $5,000 from the promotion for the finish.
“MMA is not about winning; it’s all about the crowd loving you,” he said. “It’s especially important for Poland, because the Polish always envy those who can make it in life. If you want to be loved, you have to lose sometimes. It’s all the more important when you consider the fact that when you lose a fight, it’s discussed more. For instance, I received a lot more positive feedback after my loss to Chuzhigaev than after all my previous fights. There’s one more secret, though. Simply winning isn’t enough. You have got to put on great, bloody, dramatic fights. This is what I pursue in MMA.”
Strus does not view MMA as a job.
“I do it to enjoy my life more and to always feel free,” he said. “I really enjoy horse riding, running [and] windsurfing, but all these activities don’t give me enough adrenaline. When you’re inside the octagon with your opponent, you look into his eyes and you want to do nothing but crush him, and that is so much more adrenalizing. Nothing even stands close to this feeling, and that’s why I’m really afraid about retirement: What am I going to do without these emotions? I get so much joy from the fact that I share my passion with the people and that they love doing sports a lot more thanks to me. If men and women, who do 9-to-5 jobs manage to find at least 30 minutes for exercising, it would mean that I have achieved my goal. Doing sports is not great just for building up your body. It teaches you humility, respect, patience and determination.
“I think that people make a huge mistake when they spend days in and days out behind their computers, only caring about developing their mental capabilities and not really thinking about their body,” Strus added. “Or they might be moving in the wrong direction entirely by working on their body and completely ignoring developing their brain. I think this separation is one of the biggest problems of our time.”
Strus starts his typical day by getting up early and jogging with his dog. By 8 a.m., he has arrived at work to hold meetings, deal with problems and distribute tasks. He has to at the gym at 11 a.m. Strus goes home for lunch at 2 p.m., performs some tasks around the house and walks his dog. He returns to the gym for further training at night. Once he finishes work there, he becomes a programmer and manager again, replying to emails and sending to-do lists to employees and commercial offers to customers. Strus takes the weekends off to spend time with his family and does so without “losing too much on sport.” He goes horseback riding with his fiancé while supplementing his recreational time with windsurfing and cycling.
“The only disadvantage in leading this lifestyle is that you virtually have no time for yourself, but I’m used to it because I’ve been like that since I was 18,” Strus said. “The police in Warsaw know what car I drive and never give me tickets for speeding, because they know that I always have to be in a rush. Sometimes we are at a table with my fiancé and she says, ‘Look, it would be great if you found at least 15 minutes for me this week.’ Maybe I am too ambitious. I want it all, and I want it now. I want to be a good fighter, good manager, good husband and good dog owner. This is my blessing, but this is also my curse, because you cannot be the best at everything. You have to fail at something in order to be successful at something else.
“This is why I’m jumping across my life as if it’s a flight of stairs,” he added. “I get successful at one thing first, then I get successful at something else. When you are an employee, you work 8 to 5, but when you run a company, you have to work 24/7. When you wake up, you are already at work; when you go to sleep, you are still at work. Yes, it is often hard for me, but then I tell myself, ‘What really is hard is working in a coal mine, and your work is completely different. You come to a clean office, open your MacBook, train all you like. What hardships are you talking about?’”
Being a fighter-only does not interest Strus. At one stage of his life, he felt there was too much MMA, so he picked up English classes. He used to switch off his phone during class and study verbs and tenses, which are different from his native language, and he did so with a sportsman’s dedication. Strus dreams of one day becoming an Absolute Championship Akhmat titleholder. He fought for promotional gold in September but lost a five-round decision to Albert Duraev. Now, Strus waits for a rematch in Poland. Unlike many European fighters, he has no desire to pursue an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract, as it could put an end to his ability to lead a double life.
“It is important to dream, not only of your goal but also of the path that will lead you there. Otherwise, your life will be a nightmare,” Strus said. “The money that you can get from good contracts is not everything. Money can’t buy happiness, because each and every one of us wants more and more, and one will never stop. That’s why no amount of money can fully satisfy you. My happiness is not about money. It is all about winning and achieving different things: MMA, IT, my family and so much more. I get great enjoyment from this life, and I never get tired or bored because of it.”