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KSW: The art of the spectacle

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Karim Zidan spoke to KSW co-owner Maciej Kawulski about the artistic elements to the Polish MMA shows and how it helped KSW reach mainstream recognition. 

KSW

On Monday, September 27, riot police stormed a press event in Warsaw and arrested Popek, one of the fighters involved in the KSW 37 co-main event. Dressed in black uniforms and equipped with masks, headgear and weaponry, the law enforcement officials blindsided the infamous Polish rapper during a media interview and pounced before he had a moment to react. Popek was shoved to the floor, handcuffed and was forcibly dragged out of the building in front of hundreds of fans and curious onlookers.

Apart from the screams and shouts from Popek’s entourage, the Warsaw hall had been stunned silent. It would be hours before it became clear that the entire arrest had been orchestrated by KSW, specifically artistic mastermind Maciej Kawulski.

Popek grew up in Legnica, a copper mining city in southwestern Poland, which meant a rough upbringing that led him down the road to petty crimes. After constant issues with the police, the rapper decided to move to London, where his cult following and popularity grew tremendously. With one ear to the ground, Kawulski decided to take advantage of Popek’s infamy and issues with Polish law enforcement to gain fan attention ahead of the fight.

“We know our place in show business and it’s exactly where the “truth” is,” Kawulski told BloodyElbow through translator Wojslaw Rysiewski. “When we see that someone or something is popular, we present it like it is – that’s it. If there is something that for years has been captivating followers by flirting with the law enforcement, it means this will sell. We just wrap it up and put it on the shop shelf without changing its ingredients nor flavor. The public knows best, one shouldn’t argue with that.

“Polish law enforcement gave freedom back to Popek, however by doing so, his valuable image was taken away, his criminal magnet, his mysterious inaccessibility and the thing women love the most, his secret. Our job was to bring back these emotions in the new circumstances. It worked perfectly.”

Popek is scheduled to face one of KSW’s most popular fighters, former World’s Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski, in the KSW 37 co-main event on December 3rd. The show will take place in Krakow’s Tauron Arena, where a sell-out crowd of over 17,000 fans will be in attendance. This will mark the third time that KSW managed to pack Poland’s largest arena, which, according to Kawulski, is due the promotion’s keen ability to market interesting match-ups like Pudzianowski vs. Popek.

“[Pudzianowski vs. Popek] is our big success, but not the only one. Matching fights that excite people is what we’ve been doing for years and we’re getting better at it.”

While matchmaking plays an important part legitimizing the promotion, KSW’s modus operandi also includes high quality production incorporated into vignettes and television spots. Storytelling through riveting filmography takes precedence over other forms of marketing.

“The quality comes from the details,” Kawulski explained. “If you treat something with all seriousness, you begin to look into it, you spend more time over it, and perfect it in the tiniest detail. This intention is followed by the quality. If you want people to choose your event over other options on their TV remotes, like a blockbuster, a great series or an interesting documentary, you have to be at least as good as they are, or in the best-case scenario even better.”

Yet despite Kawulski meticulous involvement in all stages of his shows, his greatest feat remains the artistic pageantry involved in the celebrated KSW opening galas. A tribute to the old PRIDE fighter introductions, the Polish promotion has developed their own much-watch grandiose spectacle.

KSW

“We are the first in the MMA world to build events from the first second to the very last. Our events are spectacles. Grand opening, order of the fights, walkout music, everything matters. Look at great events in the US, not only MMA, but also Boxing events, the audience comes for the Main Event. The first ones to enter the cage or ring, fight in front of empty seats. If you look at our events, the arena is full from the Opening Countdown. For our fans, the movie has just begun, and this is how you watch a movie, from the very beginning.

“That is magic with KSW - the distance between the event and the fan is shorter than anywhere in the world.”

According to Kawaulski, KSW’s unique blend of sports and entertainment helped create stars that benefited the promotion for years to come. Talents such as Mamed Khalidov and Michal Materla became superstars through their exploits in KSW. Even Pudzianowski, already one of the most famous Polish athletes in the country, added to his legions of fans by being a part of KSW. This perpetual cycle is mutually beneficial for all parties involved, at least until one chooses to retire.

While KSW’s first crop of stars may be nearing the end of their lifespan, the promotion believes their ongoing strategy is a sustainable method that will help them continuously create new stars to appease the Polish crowds.

“We have one constant goal – to turn fad into permanent fascination by creating true fans of the sport. Not many know, but we have built something which is unique on the MMA scene all over the world. Our best shows rival the most popular sporting events in Poland like soccer, volleyball matches or winter sports. In the span of less than fifteen years, we are at the same media level as the other popular sports in Poland, despite thousands of adversities we faced. We are more mainstream in Poland than the UFC is in the US. Therefore, we have a good understanding on how to promote MMA in Europe.”

Having conquered the Polish market and successfully ventured into international domain, KSW plans to take their spectacle even further across Europe.

“Come back to me with these questions in two years, I will tell you a story how we conquered Europe with one hand while still holding Poland in the other one.”