Day 3 - Entry 1: War paintings and Vivaldi
A plan was devised prior to my arrival in Moscow: M-1 Global's head of digital services, Adel Faiz, judge Youri Lamoureux, and myself would set out on a trek to the downtown core, where we would tour the Red Square and the surrounding area. Following my previous excursions in St. Petersburg, which involved spending a winter night lost in the city with only a Russian language map to guide me, I was relieved Adel was willing to accompany me. Adel was also a practiced historian, which made his presence almost instrumental to our full enjoyments of what was to come. On my last trip to Russia, Adel and I focused a lot of our historical conversations on the North Caucasus region.
This time, the great city of Moscow and its millennium of history would take center stage.
I arrived at the hotel lobby at 9:30 am, half an hour before our planned departure time. Interested in a quick breakfast before hours of walking, I set off for the buffet, where I found Adel seated across from my soon-to-be commentary partner, UFC veteran Ian Freeman.
A well-built man with a shaved head and a smiley face, Ian oozed comedic charisma as only an Englishman could, and it took less than a few seconds for me to feel comfortable around him. Despite his formidable appearance, it was not difficult to take a liking to Ian. The Russians clearly enjoyed his company.
Two sausages and a glass of apple juice later, I was ready to go. We were to be accompanied by another one of the M-1 staple, photographer Evgeny Yashin, who wanted to document our entire experience (the result of which you can view below). He was also the one most familiar with the city and the subway route that we needed to head down.
With our fellowship now complete, we headed towards the metro. Menacing clouds had gathered outside and I was not eager to walk down windy paths. Luckily for us, there was an indoor path to the station, a similarity Russia shares with Canada, another cold nation.
We arrived at the station, where we were handed out metro cards -- valid for two trips -- and proceeded down the underground passage towards the train. The station where we boarded looked quite unremarkable, but the train we stepped on was anything but.
We boarded a reasonably small train and were greeted immediately by a row of paintings, each positioned at equidistant lengths and illuminated with separate lighting. The impressive sight of the display alone demanded one's respect -- no one attempted to touch the inspired work.
At a quick glance, the paintings seem to be nothing more than eye-pleasing artwork that brightened up the subway. However, as I stepped closer, the symbolism behind the paintings registered with me, as did their saddening beauty -- they were paintings dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War II. One in particular caught my attention: it was a water-painting of a Soviet soldier staring down an enemy tank as it approached him, death and destruction in its path. Behind the soldier was a dead comrade, propped up against a tree. It was a staunch and harrowing reminder of the sort of carnage that occurred across the world less than a century ago.
Russia, then the Soviet Union, lost more soldiers during WWII (known as The Great Patriotic War locally) than any other nation involved. Adel would later educate me on the impacts this war had on the entire nation -- you can hardly find a family that has not been affected by the war. It was the single greatest massacre that the country ever endured, and few wanted to forget the pain it caused. In many ways, the Victory Day national holiday in Russia, which commemorates the day that the Soviets struck the definitive blow against Nazi Germany, is more important to the Russian people than most, if not all other holidays.
Following a 20-minutes underground trip to the city, which was fully equipped with free WiFi, we arrived at the central station that would lead us to the Red Square. Unlike the station we began our journey from, this was quite a sight to behold. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, while marble seating areas added to the overall traditional decor of the station. It was almost its own heritage site.
As we approached the exit, Adel stopped me and asked whether I would mind if we stopped and listened to the drunken musician who was seated in one of the metro pathways. The drunkard was not particularly noticeable; apart from his cello, he faded into the background with his worn clothes, and remained silent and motionless unless he was tipped to play a tune. I paid no attention to him until Adel stopped me in my tracks. There was something about Adel's interest in listening to the musician that had me intrigued.
I soon found out why.
Once Adel dropped some rubles into the cellist's case, the musician sat up straight, starred straight ahead, and began playing the most incredible piece of classical music that I had ever heard in a metro station. He played a portion of Vivaldi's Four Seasons -- a musical masterpiece, particularly the portion he played - the ‘Winter' concerto.
The drunkard had gathered a substantial crowd in less than 30 seconds. As I mentioned, he blended into the background, but when he was playing the cello, his presence was immense, and his confidence inspiring. It gave us a much-needed jolt of excitement. With music in my ear, we stepped outside into Moscow.
Day 3 - Entry 2 (The Red Square - from Ivan to Putin)
It took seconds to arrive at our first touring area: Alexandrovskiy Sad, also know as Alexander Garden. Once the outer lining of the Kremlin fort in the middle ages, the location had transformed into a beautiful garden full of tourists strapped to their cameras. With spring flowers yet to blossom and trees yet to bloom, I experienced a version of the garden that is rarely captured by camera; trees appeared like skeletons, bare and menacing; the grass was pale, yet to take on the welcoming colours of summer; the clouds were separating, letting in small gaps of sunlight, which only helped illuminate and accentuate the splendour in the garden.
The walls of the Kremlin towered above us, red and majestic. We would not get time to see the inside of it, or even the front, but one could imagine how the height of the walls must have intimidated attacking forces many centuries ago. Muscova was once a powerful stronghold within a vast nation, and the Kremlin was the center of its might.
Ivan the Great, grandfather of the infamous Ivan Grozny (aka Ivan the Terrible in Western literature), transformed Moscow into a cultural and religious metropolitan following the fall of Constantinople. The Kremlin was fortified, and within it lay the Red Square - a marketplace for individual trade and exchange of goods. It was a work in progress at first, one that survived great fires, war and revolution, but the latest incarnation that I laid my eyes on was simply magnificent - a heritage site with cultural landmarks at all points within sight. It was an awe-inspiring view as we walked through the red gates.
What immediately caught my attention was the magnificent architectural masterpiece known as St. Basil's Cathedral. It was a wondrous monument that looked as though it belonged in a fairytale rather than the heart of an urban city. The brilliantly brave usage of colour, the splendour of the design, and the structural grandeur made it arguably the single most recognizable symbol for Russia. It was once a sign of Russia's great might and growing strength in the Christian world during the dark ages. Its continued care and renovations emphasizes that Russians are proud of their past and are keen to display it resplendently in the center of the capital.
Out next visit was the mausoleum of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known by his party name, Lenin. For those unaware, Lenin's embalmed body is visible on display within the mausoleum - the ‘Father of the Revolution' perfectly preserved.
While I was curious to see the renowned theorist and first leader of the Soviet Union in person, we were told that the mausoleum was closed for the day. No reason was given, although we knew that our visit to the Red Square was not exactly during peak season. Still, a shame that I was not able to stand face to face with the man who forever changed the course of modern Russian history.
(The first few minutes of this video captures portions of our trip on the subway and at the Red Square)
After excavating the majestic architecture within the square, we turned back at midday to return to the hotel, where we were to prepare ourselves for the night ahead.
Day 3 - Entry 3 (A medieval affair)
The setup at the M-1 Challenge 56 event was certainly smaller than the last event I had attended at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, but it was also far more intimate. Located within the Crocus Expo, the venue was on the fourth floor of the building and took up the entire level at the exhibition center.
With only commentary duties to my name for the evening, I arrived at the show ten minutes before kickoff, at which time the staff had already completed the setup and were anxious to begin. As the fans filtered into the arena, entrance music played through the speakers, and the first prelim fighters walked towards the ring.
I took my seat next to Ian, who was dressed in a sharp, navy blue shirt that was later coupled with a smoking jacket once the main card came around. Since it was our first time working together, we quickly went over our approach - Ian was to focus on play-by-play (his specialty), while I was to add colour to the broadcast. Given that fight analysis was never my strong suit, I thought that was the perfect delegation of our duties and it worked well for us throughout the night.
After returning to Canada, I would efelct on my time spent commentating alongside Ian, and would come to realize just how surreal the situation was. What an opportunity I had been given, to call MMA action in Russia alongside a former UFC fighter who held a victory over multiple time heavyweight champion Frank Mir.
After verbally maneuvering through a humdrum opening bout, Ian and I sped through the remainder of the preliminary card, highlighted by head kick KOs, triangle chokes, and more knockouts.
At some point in the night, I noticed the production staff change the mat on the canvas. The logo on the replaced mat read M-1 Medieval. The first ever knight fight under that banner was about to begin.
Adel, seated next to me to keep an eye on the live stream of the broadcast, leaned over and suggested that I call the action for the fight. It caught me off guard, as I honestly had no idea where to begin. Then he reminded me that I had spoken to the founder of the medieval project, as well as several of the competing knights, and should apply that knowledge sparsely instead of attempting play-by-play. Tempted by the unique opportunity, I agreed.
There was something quite remarkable about sitting cageside while two well-trained, armored knights attack each other with blunt swords and deceptively heavy shields. It was no easy feat, yet the two fighters looked nimble under the terrible weight. They exchanged blows with technical precision, and blocked so consistently that it looked as though they choreographed a fight scene. Far from the brutal onslaught I had expected, the two accomplished swordsmen looked reserved, patient, and calculating.
Following the adrenaline rush that came along with the armoured melee, the remainder of the card, including the feature fights, flew by like a breeze. The middleweight title switched hands during the highly anticipated main event rematch and it definitely felt as though I had been a part of something special overall. I would go on to hear the clanging of metal armour in my head for the remainder of the night.
Game of Thrones has nothing on Russia.