Day 3, Entry 1 – Escaping the parrot
Of my memories of growing up in Egypt, the brightest ones are those of the Red Sea, specifically in the beach city of Hurghada and the neighbouring town El Gouna. From cobblestone paths and wobbly streets crammed with souvenir kiosks and various other creative tourist traps, to the bustling beaches packed with eager visitors on a quest for suntans and tranquility, there was something for anyone looking for an escape from the bustle of city life.
Sochi was surreally similar to and brutally nostalgic of those memories I cherished.
As is typical of the Saturday mornings prior to events, I found myself with ample time to scope my surroundings. Since all those involved were either busy rehydrating or disassembling the stage, I wandered off alone in search of food and an afternoon swim.
I decided to take the longer pathway to the pebblestone beach beside the athletes village. Restaurants and cafes sprinkled my route, all of which served a diverse selection of handheld edibles and dine-in delicacies. For a country that was dealing with an economic recession and more than one war, Sochi kept up appearances. The city was far more expensive than I expected and left little opportunity for one to take advantage of the fantastic Canadian Dollar to Russian Ruble exchange rate.
With ominous clouds rapidly approaching from the east, I passed by lavish houses and beautiful gardens, all of which were splendidly green. As I approached the park that superseded the beach, I noticed the palm trees that occupied the surrounding soil. Some were wrapped up while others towered over the lesser birch trees.
What on earth were palm trees doing here? As if I needed another reason to compare Sochi to Egypt.
As I walked down the block admiring the beautiful park ahead of the beach, I felt something unsettlingly like a pair of claws close on my right shoulder. Whatever had found perch on my shoulder was outside of my line of vision, and I instinctively tried to shrug it off with a (slightly terrified) shoulder nudge. The weight remained, and I turned my head to find a large red parrot staring at me with beady eyes. It squawked menacingly - at least it seemed menacing at the time - and absolutely refused to get off my shoulder.
My effort to get the parrot off of me turned into an awkward dance, and I began to attract attention from unsuspecting Russian tourists. I started walking in the direction of the beach - a parrot stubbornly latched to my shoulder - in the hopes that my newfound friend would decide it had better things to do.
I recognized the Russian word for please being yelled at me from a distance, and I turned to see a local kid walking towards me. This child appeared to be the owner of the curious parrot, or at least I assumed he was due to the monkey on his arm. He approached me with a pleading face and continued to yell the same two words at me. I wasn't exactly sure if he wanted me to pay him for the parrot, or whether he wanted me to somehow hand it over. He eventually realized that my Russian was limited and slowly ushered the parrot onto his arm.
It gave me one final glare before it left with its owner, likely contemplating its next unsuspecting target.
Entry 2 - From F-1 to M-1
It had been almost six months since my last M-1 Global live experience (M-1 Challenge 56 in Moscow). I would have been lying if I said I was not excited to get back in the commentary booth - there is something rewarding about the process of calling fights, and I planned to enjoy every minute of it.
That was my attitude until I arrived at the ‘Ice Cube' Arena.
When I heard the word 'arena' attached the end of Ice Cube, I assumed (something which you should never do in Russia) that the event would be indoors, similar to the previous two shows I attended. After all, it was October and even the warm embrace of Sochi weather was not enough to mitigate the cold fronts that came in as the sun began to set.
Unfortunately for me - dressed in nothing more than a purple shirt, a black vest, and a black cotton cardigan - M-1 had designed an outdoor stage for the Sochi show. It also happened to be the chilliest of the three days I spent in the city.
The ‘Ice Cube' (fitting name considering that is exactly what I became as the night progressed) was situated between an arena and the Formula 1 track. You could hear the roar of the single-seat racing cars as they bolted around the bend of the track. You could actually see them if you climbed onto the bleachers on the left side of the outdoor arena.
I never quite understood the appeal of the F-1 race. I had attended several when I lived in Bahrain as a young teen, but it always devolved into a social gathering with adult beverages, and maybe a signed hat or two. The live experience is certainly not for race car enthusiasts, as their day will feature little more than sporadic bursts of multi-colored blurs, each one seemingly louder and higher-pitched than the one before.
After a quick glimpse of the race next door, I walked around the venue while everyone got ready for the 5pm start. The promotion had built a large stage and pathway for the fighters to walk down to the cage, and the screen being used was a larger one than at previous shows. I even had a clear view of it from the other side of the arena at the commentary booth.
With over an hour to spare before the first preliminary fight took place, I stood next to former UFC fighter Ian Freeman, one of my favorite people to interact with on these trips. For those who haven't had the opportunity to get to know Ian, he happens to be one of the friendliest and most entertaining people to be around in a foreign land. He is unapologetically English and stands out like a fabulously sore thumb next to the unflappable Russians.
While these diary entries have not traditionally been about the fights that took place inside the cage, there was a couple that had to be noted this time around. In fact, one in particular was like nothing I had ever watched before.
There was little on the preliminary card that is worthy of discussion. Four out of the fight fights ended by submissions, which was surprising since there was usually a few KOs sprinkled across those prelims to help get the blood flowing and the crowd hollering. The Sochi natives would only have their thirst for knockouts quenched at the start of the main card, when touted prospect Alexey Kunchenko blasted Brazil's Alexandre Ramos late in the opening round.
Immediately following Kunchenko's victory, another notable prospect made his way to the ‘rage', but only following a surreal promo video which was more action movie than promotional sequence.
That fighter was Adam Yandiev, son of one of the richest men in his native Ingushetia. He had spent the better part of the last year building up his undefeated record (8-0 heading into the Sochi fight), but it was his branding that helped him collect more fans than other notable prospects. With his nickname ‘Boroda' (beard in English) plastered on his Lamborghini and fight gear, he managed to go from being just another inexperienced fighter to a charismatic brand. He is even friends with one of the country's biggest musical sensations -- rapper Timati (also in the video).
When Adam finally made his way to the stage [don't use the colloquial twice], I turned to Ian and let him know that this was the fighter I had my eye on tonight. I was intrigued by the story to Adam Yandiev's rise through the Russian ranks and I wanted to follow it closely.
He was scheduled to fight Dmitry Voitov, who had only made a brief appearance at the end of the vignette. It was a contest that many expected Adam to plow through with relative ease. Boroda had that aura about him - he walked around as though he was already a UFC champion - and he was not shy to let me know that he planned to challenge Jon Jones one day. The light-heavyweight even had an appropriately sized entourage for a champion and kept them close by at all times.
Dressed in army camouflage with a bluish hue, Yandiev came out to a song by his rapper friend (Тимати & L'One - Еще до старта далеко) and even had one of the M-1 ring card girls carry the Ingushetian flag during his walkout. That same flag was also plastered on his shorts alongside the Russian one - a sign of his dual allegiance. Abukar, his older brother and fellow M-1 fighter, proudly stood behind his younger sibling.
His entire entrance to the cage lasted over five minutes, the longest I had ever seen leading up to a fight.
For anyone reading this diary entry: if you have access to M1global.tv, I advise you to rewatch the contest while you follow along with this entry.
The bell for Round 1 sounded, and Adam rushed forward excitedly and unloaded a barrage of sloppy punches on his Bulgarian opponent. They exchanged wildly for a few seconds and got a loud reaction on the broadcast from both Ian and myself.
Ian: Wow, they swung for the fences there. Both tagged each other.
Adam, a lifelong judoka, dragged the fight to the canvas and flipped himself around to try and lock in a North-South choke. When he was unable to complete the submission, he looked exhausted and momentum began to shift in his opponent's favour.
Me: He's got to be careful not to tire himself out too quickly.
Voitov weathered the early storm, waited patiently, and eventually found the opening to get Yandiev's back. Adam struggled until he was able to flip himself onto his own back, and thus allowed Voitov to advance to mount position. There were three minutes left in the opening round.
Ian: It is as if Yandiev has run out of ideas now.
Me: And you could sense the crowd went silent after that.
Yandiev was able to eventually reverse Voitov and steal top position. He tried for a Achilles lock and followed by reverse heel hook but was unable to lock in either. Voitov escaped and opted to stand.
Adam was clearly not interested in a stand-up war so he took Voitov down again and attacked for an armbar, When that failed, Voitov once again found himself in mount position. This time, however, he decided to step off and let Yandiev back to his feet.
I was shocked...
Ian: He stepped off the mount!?
Me: What is going on here?
Imagine our surprise when Voitov immediately shot for yet another takedown. This time, he failed and was quickly reversed onto his back. Yandiev got mount position, stepped into side control, and locked in a neck crank that yielded an eventual tap from Voitov.
Karim: I'm very confused here, Ian.
It was certainly the most bizarre fight I had ever seen in front of my own eyes. Yandiev looked exhausted following the affair. When his entourage engulfed him after the fight, he used two of them as crutches to support his own weight.
I, on the other hand, was left to contemplate what I had just witnessed that night.
Entry 3 - Celebrations & Farewells
It is common for fighters, staff and all those involved with the event to hang around by the arena until we are taken to the afterparty location. On this particular night, we skipped that entirely and scurried over to the locker rooms stationed a few hundred meters away from the arena. It was the only warm location around and after six hours frozen to a seat at the commentary booth, I was desperate for the warm embrace of the radiator.
It was at that moment that I made a mental note never to leave my hotel room in Russia without a coat again, even if it had been warm enough to swim in the sea just a few hours earlier.
I followed Ian to the locker room and we made it our priority to find out where our bus was located and how long it would take us to get inside it. We walked into the building, showed the scowling security our wristbands, and proceeded down the narrow hallway that separated the opposing rooms. As two of the only English-speaking members of the team, we passed the time by poking fun at ourselves and Youri, a French-Canadian fight judge who works with M-1. Incidentally, Youri and I ended up on the same flight back to Moscow, which was extremely fortunate for me. I'm an anxious traveler, and the air-terrors are always more manageable when seated next to a friend.
We were also about an hour away from Ian's 49th birthday, and we quickly realized that drinks were in order. It would not be a birthday (and especially not a birthday in Russia) without libations.
After successfully gathering up the crew, we boarded our (warm) bus and ventured back to the hotel. The party was in the main restaurant in the village, which meant I could rush back to my room to pick up a coat. Somehow, that news comforted me more than the idea of food and alcohol.
We arrived in the main hall to a buffet of battered fish, pasta, vegetables, soup, and copious amounts of mayonnaise. There was also a drink there made of raisins and apricots that reminded me of a similar drink commonly consumed in the Arab world during the month of Ramadan - yet another random dose of nostalgia in a foreign land.
I poured myself a glass of wine, served a bowl of soup doused in croutons and took my seat at a four-person table alongside Ian and Youri. M-1's public relations director, Daria, joined us moments later with her own dinner. We consumed our food - the soup was exceptionally satisfying and helped me defrost - and laughed about random topics, all of which had nothing to do with MMA. After several days with nothing but the event to focus on, it can be a relief for many on the team to put the event behind them and discuss other aspects of their lives. Indeed, these post-event interactions pose the best opportunities to actually get to know those individuals that make up the M-1 team.
Unbeknownst to me, the clock struck 12 while we passed the night away. Youri was the first to notice and raised his wine glass to toast Ian's birthday. We all joined in and drank to his health.
"Твоё здоровье (to your health)"
While Ian had to leave for the Sochi airport less than ten minutes into the start of his birthday, Youri and I had until 3am before the M-1 driver had to take us to the airport for our 5am flight to Moscow. This meant that we were far less concerned about the quantity of alcohol consumed before the flight. After all, we had a few hours to kill.
How must damage could we do?
The wine continued to flow and time escaped us. Conversations moved from fights to personal relationships, and even to an exchange of food recipes. When it was finally time to head to the airport, Youri and I were far too smiley and giggly for that ungodly hour and far too woozy for the numerous flights ahead.
I blame Youri for that, as well as for our highly questionable decision to climb the Olympic Rings following our arrival at the airport.
What can I say? We simply couldn't resist.