Entry 3 - A city of tragic beauty
(Alexander Pushkin - The Bronze Horseman, 43-58)
Have I mentioned that there is about five hours of daylight in St. Petersburg?
Most reading this will probably find it shocking; you are not alone. It took a while to adjust - if you call what I did adjusting.
Following an hour-long discussion with M-1 Global founder Vadim Finkelchtein, I retreated back to my hotel room - with a quick detour at the concierge to pick up a map of St. Petersburg - to plan out the remainder of my day. The nine- hour time difference between the local time and Eastern Standard Time left me with a convenient gap in my day before I needed to have any articles posted.
The map I selected was no help to me. Apart from the names of the Museums on the back, it was written entirely in Russian. I met M- 1's PR team, Daria and Valeria, in the hotel lobby, and quickly asked them to help guide my path on the seemingly indecipherable map. Daria took a pen, placed a large dot on our current location, and then highlighted the main street that that I needed to head towards: Nevsky Prospekt, about 5 km away from the hotel. Once I would find that street, I would have my pick of sights to see for a 4km radius. At 2 degrees Celsius, I was in for a fun time.
I trotted out of the hotel and immediately realized that I was in for a challenging experience. Not only did I possess a map entirely in Russian, but the streets signs were also only in the foreign tongue. I was determined to turn this into a nursery matching game of sorts and cross-reference the map with the street signs to make sure I was on the correct path. I struggled for a while, but eventually found myself on a main street and proceeded north. I could not help but ponder how much St. Petersburg reminded me of Cairo - only far cleaner and less assaulting to the senses. One could actually enjoy oneself walking the streets here, while I dreaded such an endeavour in downtown Cairo, where I grew up.
Buildings were no more than four stories high; they were slender shapes and were limited in colours - various shades of beige, yellow and white. Minimal dark shades in buildings apart from universities and the occasional governmental office. People were wandering the streets handing out business cards with some sort of advertisement on it; again, all in Russian so I tried to ignore the cards even when they were thrust into my belly. The aggressive advertising was something I was used to handling in other countries and didn't think much of it.
Eventually, I found myself at an intersection by the main street, breathed a sigh of relief, and marched onwards to take in the bright lights surrounding me. While there was minimal daylight in the city, I must admit, it looked far more appealing at night. Everything appeared wrapped in an endless arrangements of lights, all designed to accentuate the buildings. Cairo tried to do the same thing years ago; sadly, however, no amount of lights can camouflage the overgrown piles of garbage and smog-filled ambience surrounding the deteriorating European-style buildings in the Egyptian capital. Given that contrast, I could not help but take in the wondrous beauty of the cultural haven of Russia.
I saw the Kazan Cathedral, one of the city's most iconic Orthodox strongholds; I then proceeded to the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood - a dream sight if I have ever seen one. It was a multi-coloured, majestic masterpiece; a Church that looked more like the most illustrious of fairy tale palaces, rather than a place of worship. It was a true escape from reality, even though it was located right in the core of the city.
I continued on my quest to absorb as many of the city's sights as I could squeeze into few hours; next was the Winter Palace and the Alexander Column - the site of much political turmoil in Russia. It was an everlasting symbol of the country's Tsarist history, yet proudly placed on display as a reclaimed sign of modern redemption. Clearly, the Russians were proud of their heritage, and were not afraid to shine bright lights on that beautifully tragic history.
Entry 1 - A bus ride with the Chechens...and a Dutchman
I spent the majority of the following morning doing research for my first time in the commentary booth. As stated in the previous entry, the M-1 team requested my assistance for this event and I happily obliged, excited about the unique opportunity that randomly dropped into my lap.
While clearly not a prerequisite in MMA broadcasting, I was worried about the pronunciation of many of the fighter names on the card. I also wanted to have time to prepare with my partner, Stas, who was all too nonchalant about being in the booth just a few hours later with a partner he barely knows and has no experience in this sort of situation.
"Don't worry, Karim," he insisted. "I will give you the necessary notes half an hour before the fights and we will be fine. Just relax and talk about what you see in front of you."
I must admit: his confidence was relieving.
Daria and I communicated by text throughout my stay with M-1; I received a message while having breakfast (yes, cottage cheese with honey, herring and salmon) that the bus would be heading to the Ice Palace Stadium at 4:30pm, and I needed to be in the lobby ten minutes prior.
I arrived downstairs, prompt and ready to embark on this latest phase of my adventure. After watching M-1 Global events since the heyday of Fedor Emelianenko, when he headlined their shows during his unbeaten streak, I was keen to get a first-hand perspective on the intricacies of the show; I wanted to understand how they operated their machine and tamed the beast that is Russian MMA.
A group of eight fighters, head official, Ino, and myself, were all placed on the mini-bus and set off for an entertaining night of regulated violence. While I thought this would be an opportunity to sit in silence with my thoughts, or even take a short nap, I was immediately launched into a conversation with Ino - one that took us through the MMA rule set; the banning of elbows in M-1; the issues of weight cutting, and much more.
"If it were up to me," he said. "I would have banned weight cutting years ago when I started with M-1."
Ino was one of the few original staff members of M-1. In fact, he was the man who structured the regulations and implemented the adjusted rule set for the Russian promotion before it was even called M-1. Present at the majority of events, international included, he has been able to run a tight ship ever since.
"Honestly, I stole a lot of the rules from PRIDE back in the day," he laughed. "This was before ZUFFA came in and bought the UFC and added the unified rules. I had to steal them from Pancrase and PRIDE and then adjust them."
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his tales about the old days in fighting. At 67 years of age, Ino had been around far longer than the name Mixed Martial Arts had been associated with the sport. As Dutch citizen, and an owner of a gym in his hometown, Ino was a rare opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of seemingly pre-historic days before the UFC rose to infamy in 1993.
While I come from an age of technological advancements in online media, where I can, for example, write an entry of ‘The MMA Diaries' on my iPad while flying on a plane, Ino came from an era where he owned a small combat sports magazine and stenciled stories in over a much longer period of time. He was even around when Bas Rutten was still doing martial arts demonstrations in local clubs in Holland and he covered that extensively at the time. He would also soon become Gegard Mousasi's main trainer during his PRIDE run.
As we sat and discussed all aspects of MMA, I could not help but ponder the juxtaposition that was posed and how different media had become over the past thirty years. Yet while the tools of the trade may have changed, the passion that ignites our journey remained very much the same.
The bus was packed. I was boxed into a single-seat on the right, with Ino right behind me. The first three rows of the bus were crammed with Chechen promotion Absolute Championship Berkut regulars - most of whom had minimal English and did not seem keen on having a chat with a journalist.
Koranic verses were playing in the form of hymns on one of their phones; I realized then that they were silent to embrace the meditation aspect of the calming verses. While I have my own struggles with religion, it was hard not to understand the cultural significance of Muslims reverting to the Holy Scripture. It appeared to serve a calming purpose, filled one with whatever they were searching for; be it fear, faith, courage, humility, happiness, or simply a sense of spiritual enlightenment; it was a reasonable tool to suggest ahead of professional sports - if you are the sort who is moved by that.
The only two who were really talking throughout the 45-minute bus ride were Ino and I; we just couldn't help ourselves. It would get us into a lot of trouble when we almost missed our flight back to Amsterdam because of our time-consuming chats.
Entry 2 -Vadim Finkelchtein...again
We entered the Crystal Palace in successive order once we arrived; I got my media bracelet and proceeded through the backstage area until I reached the curtains that separated that section from the portion of the arena visible on TV.
I was immediately greeted with the purplish hue that M-1 had selected for the arena; it occasionally transitioned to red and blue - a mood manipulator, of sorts. Oval-shaped and equipped to seat 8,000 eager fans, it appeared to be an interesting blend between intimate and spectacle. There was an entrance ramp, backed with a curvy screen that would shine fighter names as they walked out. It was the newest addition to their production setup.
Before I could make my way around the ring to get to my seat in the broadcast booth, I crossed Vadim Finkelchtein's line of vision and was surprised when he made his way over to greet me. While our previous discussion was dubbed with Stas's English translation, he was nowhere to be found and we basically had to wing it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, with the help of well-choreographed body language, we managed to get by and understand each other.
After exchanging pleasantries, Vadim was excited to show me around the building. He walked me through the idea behind the patented "rage," which is a hybrid version of the more traditional cage or ring. It was hexagonal and stood out because the bottom rope was followed with a foot of steel cage to stop fighters from falling out PRIDE-style.
"This is rage," said Vadim, proud of his apparent pun. "I patent (it) because any Russian business will just copy anything I do. This way, they don't copy."
Vadim's attire was much the same as when I had first been introduced to him. While it was a different suit, he maintained the same semi-formal appeal, with a checkered jacket, a black button up shirt, and trousers - no tie. He gestured towards his assistant, sent him off on an errand, then turned to me to explain that he is going to get me one of his books on M-1's history.
We leafed through the collage of fight photos spanning two decades worth of fights. Pictures of Fedor Emelianenko, Andrei Arlovski, Gilbert Yvel, and many more who had fought for the promotion, had been immortalized in the well-designed book. There were even photos of Russia's infamous President Vladimir Putin, sitting side by side; shoulder to shoulder with Vadim. He paused on one of those photos and talked about the times that the President attended their shows.
Alas, our conversation was interrupted midway through that interesting twist, and Vadim was redirected by several of his staff members to more pressing matters in the backstage area.
Just as well; it was time for me to take my seat and prepare for the broadcast.
Entry 3 - A commentator's perspective
There is a unnerving sense of anxiety that grows within you when you prepare for any new or pressure-filled endeavor; it is nothing abnormal, yet it can have varying effects on different people. I, for instance, get gradually consumed with dread over a 20-minute period leading up to the anticipated event. However, once it is time to start, the veil of fear and despair lifts, as if nothing had ever bothered me to begin with.
I struggled with these bouts of anxiety on a consistent basis ahead of appearances on radio shows and podcasts, as well as conducting interviews with athletes myself. Yet once I learnt to embrace the worry, it became far easier to withstand and eventually overcome.
This time was no different.
I took my seat in front of a mixer labeled 'ENGLISH' and awaited Stas to join me in the commentary booth. We each had a snazzy pair of headphones and kept them on for the vast majority of the following five hours. I was worried that I would get disoriented trying to speak into a microphone during noisy entrances and with so much commotion around me in general. However, once the headphones were on and we adjusted the input volume, it turned out to be far more straightforward and fluid than I had expected. I could hear the muffled background noise in the distance and my partner's voice loud and clear.
We were told that our audio would only be transmitted during the five-fight main card but we decided to practice during the prior seven fights. I wanted to get as much time as possible to prepare myself for what was to come.
With five minutes to go before the scheduled start time for the broadcast, there was little sign that the show was about to begin. Staff and production crew members walked around casually and fans were yet to come in through the main door. Nevertheless, once the clock struck 7:30pm local time, the lights dimmed down, the announcer took to the ring and fans began to trickle into the stands in a steady stream.
The headphones were placed on my head; I was ready.
The fights went by in a blur. As a journalist, I was used to being alone with my thoughts during a fight; I have never had to write out play-by-play blogs, so I would focus my attention on the fight itself, or the surrounding atmosphere. This time, however, I was verbally active for the majority of the time - oh, the water consumption - and had to keep my attention on the small screen in front of me rather than my surrounding environment; difficult when your table is attached the end of the cage.
I remember constantly having to switch off the 'on air' button and ask Stas to help me with the pronunciation of the names of most of the Russian fighters on the undercard. I was also baffled at times with the Caucasian names, which appeared to be a definite mixture between traditional Russian names like 'Ivanov' and standard Arabic names like 'Omar.' In fact, one of the fighters on the card actually had the surname 'Omarov' and took AKA's Daniel Swain to a draw on thirty-hours notice.
Another fighter that I found fascinating - albeit for reasons outside of his fighting ability - was Grigoriy Kichigin, who hailed from the Caucasus region of Stavropol Krai. I first took notice of him at the weigh-ins, when I noticed him accompanied by an older female, clad in traditional blue garments from the region. She held the water and clothes while he weighed in, and even held up a flag of Stavropol while he posed. I would later find out that that was his mother, and that she served as his trainer, coach, and corner during fight week. It appears that her husband died serving in the war against the Caucasus and she was left to raise all four of her children (three sons and a daughter) alone. They all became MMA fighters; trained exclusively by their stone-faced mother.
She even provided us with entertainment in the form of a traditional dance during one of the TV breaks.
I was particularly impressed with the Chechen fighters from Fight Club Berkut. While many of them were clearly raw and untested talents, it was their pre-fight and in-cage demeanour that grabbed my attention. Yusup Raisov, 18, looked calmer ahead of his fight than I did sitting comfortably in a booth without the slightest risk of brain damage unless I tripped over my own feet and fell. I appreciated his inner strength for someone so young.
"These fighters, man. They have to fight from when they are children in school. They have no choice; if you don't fight, you don't survive. This (professional combat) is nothing to them."
Raisov ended his fight via first round knockout.
Another compelling aspect of the Chechen fighters was their walkout music selection; most of it was either Koranic verses or religious hymns. One even approached the cage to one of the most famous Arabic songs ever, 'Abdel-Kader.' I took off my journalist cap, switched off the 'on air' button, and informed Stas that that fighter had just won me over for life, as I never thought I would see the day that that classic song get played at an international MMA event.
During a 30-minute break ahead of the main card, I turned to Stas and asked if we would get to see some knight fighting. While he enthusiastically confirmed that they would return in 2015, I was heartbroken to find out I would not get to see them in the flesh.
Entry 4 - Final thoughts
My interactions and experiences with the fighters from the North Caucasus were certainly the most impactful on my curiosity as a writer. While I couldn't help but sympathize with Cody McKenzie when he delved into his financial status and how life had passed him by in many ways, I found the Caucasus region inherently fascinating; the bountiful cultures and identities make for an captivating pool of knowledge and it was something I could see myself researching further in the coming year.
The remainder of the trip had several memorable interactions with fighters and promoters from this region. On the bus ride back to the hotel, some took a liking to me and began a detailed comparison between Arabic and Chechen people in the hopes that I would understand how similar the two truly were. While I could see various common denominators, it seemed to me that all the shared interests between the groups were of a religious nature. Even their countless mountaineer traditions were now laced with Wahhabi principles.
"We don't like to be called Russian," said one of the fighters. "We are not like them. We were never like them. We spent years in war and never had the same religion. Why should we be Russian? We are Chechnyans from the Caucasus."
These are the Russians who weren't: a people pierced with the insufferable torments of war, and morphed into a segregated segment of a region destined to hate their former foe-turned-ally. If this were a Shakespearean tragedy, then the Caucasians would play the tragic hero, St. Petersburg the setting; perfectly chosen to contrast architectural beauty with the harrowing history it represents. Peter the Great, the founder of Imperial Russia and the modern city on which I stand, envisioned a united country protected from its enemies. Instead, one finds the fragmented remains of devastated freedoms and broken dreams.
(Alexander Pushkin - The Bronze Horseman)