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MMA Diaries: Discovering Russian pancakes and the German Terminator in Moscow

In the latest edition of The MMA Diaries, Karim Zidan travels to Moscow. The first entry sets the scene in Krasnogorsk, a suburb near the M-1 Challenge 56 venue, where he experiments with Russian fast food cuisine and learns about the nation's developments over the past decade.

Anton Tabuena

Day 1 -- Entry 1 (Welcome to Moscow)

"Cabin crew, prepare for landing."

Those words were music to my ears; 15 hours of travel were finally coming to an end. Nearly free of the crippling anxiety that gripped me throughout my air travel, I eagerly pulled my seat into the upright position, fastened myself into position and watched from my window as the aircraft bobbed and weaved over miles of forest until we found the runway.

Thankful for the opportunity to live another day, I popped out of my seat, collected my belongings and proceeded to the exit -- nothing could alter my mood, not even the dreaded passport control check point that I knew, from prior experience, was moments away and a complete hassle to endure.

I arrived at the airport armed with my Egyptian passport, visa support documents and my Canadian residency card, better known as my insurance policy. After being encased by suspicious officers upon my arrival to St. Petersburg just a few months ago, I planned on avoiding the hassle entirely by explaining myself clearly: Yes, I am Egyptian; yes, I am aware my return flight is to Toronto, and no it was not sly manipulation on my part.

To my surprise, I was greeted warmly at the airport, particularly when I approached the control officer with the Russian equivalent of a formal hello (Zdrast Voytre). I would later find that my willingness to apply what few words I knew in Russian would go a long way to break the barriers of communication in a foreign land. Potentially awkward situations were avoided and those who may have initially appeared less than friendly -- I would later find out that was common practice in Moscow -- extended a sign of warmth, whether it be a polite response, or even a cordial smile.

Having been in constant contact with M-1 Global's Head of PR, Daria, I was aware that a driver was awaiting me with a sign to escort me to the hotel. The process was nothing new to me; the only difference was that, this time, I knew that I would be a part of the English commentary team ahead of my arrival in Russia.

Sadly, however, I did not have the colourful company of Cody McKenzie this time around.

Day 1 - Entry 2 (Puetz, Blini and finding Vegas)

The differences between Moscow and St. Petersburg were made evidently clear to me during the ride to the hotel. Negative features that were characteristic of capital cities, such as everlasting traffic, pollution and grey housing complexes peppered the highway from the airport right until we arrived at our hotel in Krasnogorsk, a suburb less than 20 minutes (without traffic, of course) outside the heart of the city. Since the M-1 Challenge 56 event was scheduled to take place in that suburb, it was a logical decision to maintain close proximity to the venue. Once I arrived at the hotel, I realized it was actually attached to the venue - the Crocus Hall - meaning the distance between my room and my seat at cageside were just a few stories and several hundred meters apart.

After dazzling the driver with my expanding Russian vocabulary, which at that point included goodbye (paka) and thank you (spiceiba), I gathered my belongings and proceeded into the hotel.

Outskirts of Moscow

A photo posted by Karim Zidan (@karim__zidan) on

Upon entry, the towering frame of M-1 Global light-heavyweight champion Stephan Puetz immediately greeted me. Nicknamed 'T800' due to his love for all things Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Puetz certainly had the frame to suit his name. As someone who stands 6'4 and 180-pounds, I rarely feel smaller than those around me. However, Puetz was one of the three men on this trip who forced me to stretch my neck at an angle it was not used to looking up in. Yet it was difficult to consider Puetz an intimidating figure, as he would warmly greet you with a big smile, bright eyes and a firm handshake that made him quite endearing.

I had the pleasure of calling Puetz's most recent title defence last December, so we immediately picked up from where we left off in St. Petersburg. After exchanging pleasantries, we discussed his upcoming Champion vs. Champion fight between himself and heavyweight Marcin Tybura. Puetz seemed overjoyed with the match-up and was excited about the prospect of bulking up for the fight.

"I usually weigh around 108-109 kg so heavyweight is no problem for me," the German explained. He genuinely seemed happy to talk, which is more than I can say for several other fighters I tried to approach over the next couple of days.


A quick shower and change of clothes later, I was back downstairs, fresh and eager to begin exploring. It was 7pm local time at this point, and I didn't expect to get much done on my first night in the city. A meal would have been a fitting end to my day, and lucky for me, that is exactly what I got less than an hour later.

The head of the M-1 Global digital platform and streaming service, Adel Faiz, found me wandering the lobby searching for a familiar face. Although I may not have mentioned him previously, Adel is instrumental to my wellbeing during my stays in Russia. While entrenched in mounds of work during Fight Week, he always found the time to talk to me about the country, whether it is sports, history, or culture. We struck a friendship prior to my commentary debut in December, and I have grown fond of him since. He was a wealth of knowledge, and those are the sorts of minds I enjoy feasting on for valuable information. He was also the second of the three men who towered over me during my stay.

With many of the M-1 fighters and staff resting for the evening, Adel suggested that we go for a walk down to the mall, where we could get a local meal called Blini: a savory pancake that was stuffed and rolled into sandwich form. Always eager to experiment with new cuisine, I accepted.

The walk was pleasant, and fruitful, as is always the case with Adel. The evening's discussion focused on history, mainly the heyday of the Russian Empire, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great. I would interject every so often to ask questions like an eager school child raising his hand, and occasionally added a cross comparison point with Egypt, which, as I stated before, bears some stark similarities to the country I was walking in at the time.

It was one of the reasons I felt so comfortable in Russia - their people, troubles and concerns were not so different to those of the people I grew up around.


The food court that we were looking for was in the final building in the plaza that our hotel was a part of. However, it was easily a 15-minute distance to the destination, so we set off on foot. On the way, I encountered Moscow's Vegas, which was set in the building prior to our journey's end. It was, in fact, named Vegas Crocus City, and encompassed 285,000 square meters, most of which was filled with thematic designs, retail stores and glamorous seating areas and concert halls. To my surprise, there was no casino anywhere in sight.

Well, looks like I found Vegas #Moscow #Russia

A photo posted by Karim Zidan (@karim__zidan) on

Minutes later, we arrived at the final building, which appeared to be an enormous supermarket riddled with every possible product one could imagine, both local and imported. We proceeded up the escalators to the main food court, which had a Sbarro pizzeria, a MacDonald's, and a traditional looking fast food store - it's banner had the word Teremok squeezed between two Russian nesting dolls. That was where we got our delightful meal.

As I type these words, I long for another one of the blinis I was served. After reading over the menu (yes, the ingredients in each one were listed in English as well), we selected our dinners. Russian hospitality, much like Arab hospitality, required the host to treat the guest to such a meal, so I was immediately told to take my hand away from my pocket and not to reach for my wallet.

We sat down and consumed our meals while glossing over the various topics I mentioned earlier. While I sat and consumed my delicious blini fro a fast-food chain that was now 16 years old, I marveled at the various changes that Russia had undergone during the post-soviet era. Western products and chain stores riddled each corner, while consumerism rose at a staggering rate. It was inevitable, but few were bothered by the changes. In my opinion, most welcomed the expansion of their food selection, as well as their ability to choose from a variety of different products.

A simple, yet staunch reminder that Russia was far different than what most of us had learned in the history books.

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