It was raining in London, naturally.
As I looked out of the plane from my window seat, I could hardly make out the shape of the airport, or the maintenance cars peppered across the vast runways that made up Heathrow Airport. The captain announced that the weather would remain wet for the rest of the evening, confirming my suspicion that my first night in the United Kingdom would be spent indoors.
After hearing nightmare stories about hellish Heathrow and the bustling swarms of travellers that constantly occupied it to the brim, I was surprised to find myself walking down an endless- fine, 2.5km long - pathway that was empty aside from my fellow passengers from flight AC868. We formed a line at passport control, which looked far less intimidating than the one I had grown accustomed to in Moscow. This time, no one took a microscope to my passport.
The control officer seemed friendly enough, if not utterly bored with herself. She questioned me about my stay in England, but it seemed to be more out of curiosity than standard procedure. Once I explained that I would stay in Wembley and not London, she asked me whether I was there to see the NFL, or the "crazy cage fighting." I responded with the latter.
"That's the one with the big guy, right?" she said inquisitively. "The guy who can lift giant logs and stuff? I like him."
Day 1 - Rainy, Polish London
The Hotel Ibis was conveniently situated between Wembley Stadium, where the Kansas City Chiefs were about to take on the Detroit Lions, and Wembley Arena, site of KSW 32. It was a dark, lanky building with a bright, charming interior. The walls were grey and bumpy - the metallic sort of artistic appeal found in contemporary museums - while the ground was soft and carpeted with brightly coloured designs. Red and blue chairs with curved edges surrounded coffee tables spread elegantly across the room.
Polish nationals occupied the majority of the seats.
Had I not known any better, I would have assumed that I had just landed in Krakow and was about to attend a local sports event. Some chatted loudly and drank visibly by the bar at the far wall in the lobby - harmless, yet inevitably intoxicated. Others were part of the KSW team, fighters, and crew. They were huddled in little cliques or busy with their various jobs. PR handler Wojslaw Rysiewski came over and introduced himself as I checked into the hotel. We had interacted numerous times over the past few months via email or twitter and it was finally good to put a face to the name.
I relayed my surprise that the hotel was full of Polish people instead of locals. He rightly corrected me by saying that around one million Polish nationals reside in the London area and that it could arguably be considered the biggest Polish city outside of Poland itself.
I quickly realized why KSW selected London as their first international venture. If anything, it was an extension of their territory.
Indeed, it took me a whole day to finally experience something English. As far as I was concerned, I was in Polish London.
Day 2, Entry 1 - A not so friendly encounter
Friday morning brought with it new tidings, mainly sunshine and a baby blue sky - a far more welcoming environment than the previous evening's rainfall. Energized by the bright view outside my window, I showered quickly and headed downstairs to catch the breakfast buffet.
You can always tell you are surrounded by fighters before a weigh-in when you arrive at the breakfast hall ready to devour succulent meats and all sorts of fried add-ons, only to find grouchy combatants parked at various tables, picking at pieces of sliced fruit and nursing miniscule amounts of water.
To suggest that they were hungry would have been a gross understatement.
I tried to remain out of sight as I ate my own breakfast. My plate was piled with baked beans, bangers, hash browns, and a bowl of cereal. Unsure of when my next meal would be, I was not going to waste this opportunity to load up on carbohydrates.
Following the exceptionally English meal, I decided that a walk was in order to work off some of the heavy food. I had a few hours to kill before the weigh-ins and I had already stayed up the night before to prepare my articles for the day. I stepped outside the Hotel Ibis and turned right up to the main road and away from Wembley Stadium.
During my leisurely walk, I stopped at a local convenience store because I noticed several items straight out of my childhood: Walker's cheese and onion chips and Lion chocolate bars. It may sound ridiculous to some, but I stocked up on enough to take back to Toronto, where we lack these scrumptious morsels. However, as I stepped outside, a thin man bumped into me as he scurried past, occasionally glancing back as though he were being chased.
I looked up the street and found another man, dressed in a white vest and baggy pants, being pulled forwards by a mixed breed dog of some sort. He seemed irate, and yelled out to the man ahead of him: "Oy, oy say sorry you c***. Say sorry."
By then, the other gentleman had already hurried down the street and pretended he could not hear the booming voice. The angry dog-walker turned back and continued to yell: "That's the thing with these Polish f***s. They never say sorry. Go f*** your dead granny. I'ma stab you up!"
That seemed a little harsh, but I was not going to be the one to tell him so.
Day 2, Entry 2 - Story time with Oli Thompson at Nando's
While my trips rarely involve extended sit-downs with other media members - foreign media rarely ventured across to Russia to cover MMA - but I was surprised to find two in London. The WHOATV crew, made up of England's Michael Morgan and Ireland's Alan Murphy, kept me thoroughly entertained throughout the duration of my stay.
I met Alan ahead of the weigh-ins and sparked a near-immediate friendship. He was a smiley individual who seemed to be quite relieved that I didn't stop him every couple of minutes to ask him to repeat his sentence. While his Irish accent was thick, I didn't seem to have any trouble following along. He, on the other hand, was taken aback by my own accent. I noticed him try and work it out until he eventually gave up and asked me: "Why's your English so good? I can't make out your accent." I explained that British schooling for the majority of my life, followed up by six years in Canada would do that to one's accent: I have an Arab voice, a Canadian accent, and British intonation and wit.
Once we were back at the hotel following the circus that was the KSW 32 weigh-ins, we dispersed to hunt down the fighters we wanted to interview. We took a table in the lobby, ordered pints - they almost never let me stop drinking -- and we kept playing musical chairs until we were satisfied with the content we had acquired. All I was missing was Mariusz Pudzianowski - I had seen him numerous times over the past 24 hours, but was yet to interview him. However, his permanent scowl hung menacingly on his face that evening, so I opted to focus on a Saturday morning session in the hopes of catching him in a better mood.
When the clock struck 8pm local time, the beers had settled into our stomachs and made us strikingly hungry. Without warning, both Michael and Alan turned to me and asked the timeless question: "Have you ever eaten at Nando's?"
In hindsight, I should have said yes. But I was honest: no, I hadn't been.
My companions grinned broadly, and we set off. There was a Nando's around the corner, they informed me, and we were about to invade it for some Piri-Piri chicken. Apparently, it was a tradition on UFC weigh-in days in Europe for fighters, coaches, and media to have pre-event Nando's chicken. I was skeptical from the get-go, but wanted to appear polite and ready to embrace the new experience.
We took our seat at the far end of the room, at a table that leaned up against the back wall. Alan and Michael spent the next ten minutes deciphering the menu for me, as everything seemed to come with several side orders that you had to be strategic about. In the end, I selected a half chicken with extra spicy sauce, some coleslaw, and piri-piri fries.
As I returned to my seat after placing my order at the counter, I noticed that a large individual seated exactly two feet to my left. His head tilted forward into the menu and he appeared focused on making the perfect selection. On closer inspection, I realized it was UFC veteran Oli Thompson, who was also set to fight on Saturday's show.
While Alan and I had never been acquainted with Oli before, Michael - who somehow knew everybody - looked up and immediately shouted Oli's name to get his attention. All I heard was "Oy, Oli!" and suddenly the big man was upon us. He introduced himself to us with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to have company for dinner.
"I've got to be honest guys," he said once introductions were out of the way. "This is the second time I've come here today."
"Did you come here for lunch?" I asked.
"No, just an hour ago. Had a half chicken and two sides but I'm still hungry. Think I'm going to eat another one."
He went on to explain that he is actually sponsored by a butcher who sends him 300 chicken breasts and thighs per training camp. While that may appear as plenty for the average consumer, Oli - formerly Britain's Strongest Man - was no average man. He said those breasts would barely last the duration of the fight camp and that lean meat was basically his heftiest expense during fight week. He explained it in terms of his fight purse: "If I win a fight and get my show money and win bonus, that means I'll have more chicken during my next training camp. If I lose, well, I'll go a little hungrier. A win, less hungry."
While Oli maintained a happy expression throughout our conversation, his remark struck me I couldn't help but contemplate the precariousness of fighters' lives. However, as he filled his belly once more, poignant stories turned into shocking revelations and interesting observations from his time as an MMA fighter. Oli is your typical English journeyman - he has fought in most local shows and in several regional ones nearby. He even fought for renowned promotions such as the UFC and KSW, and had also spent some time in Japan.
As I tried to maneuver around my half-chicken with a fork and knife, I asked Oli to elaborate on his experiences in Japan. His face lit up as he delved into his numerous trips to Tokyo in between forkfuls of beans and chicken. He explained that when he first arrived in Japan as a replacement fighter in the Inoki Genome Federation 2015 Heavyweight Grand Prix, he never expected to end up in the final. He beat Ikuhisa Minowa (Minowaman) and then followed up with a win against ‘Huggy Bear' Chris Barnett in the semi-final. The final will take place on Dec. 31st, 2015.
Thompson went into detail about the perils of weight cutting, including his own experience in Japan, where he had one episode where he had gone looking for his couch and had stumbled, feint, half-blind and mostly naked, into a disabled bathroom. He eventually made it out of the room without causing much of a scene...but it was yet another reminder of the things fighters go through to simply get cut a pay cheque.
Oli, as it turns out, was a fountain of incredible and interesting MMA stories and experiences—so much so that he is actually planning to write a book that covers all of his experiences in detail. Many of them involve a fair amount of corruption and shady characters - typical for the non-international realms of MMA. He didn't seem concerned with sharing the stories with us while he had dinner, though, and we enjoyed an undisturbed 90-minute session with an interesting fighter.
Sometimes, it is those that fly under the radar that have the most to say.