This past year was a significant one for leading European promotion, KSW, as they put on the most shows they ever have during one calendar. Six events took place during 2019 and for the first time, two of those emanated from outside of Poland which demonstrates the organization’s ongoing expansion to new territories. As well as returning to familiar stomping grounds, KSW made their debut in Croatia which was another landmark moment for the company and consequently increased the number of countries to ever host their event to four. In terms of live experience and fight promotion, KSW remain the gold standard in Europe.
KSW 47: The X-Warriors kicked off the organisation’s 2019 offering with a super fight for the heavyweight title when Phil De Fries retained his belt against light heavyweight champion, Tomasz Narkun, by unanimous decision. In yet another example of the promotion using crossover stars to expand their audience and bring different viewers to the product, Olympic weightlifting champion, Szymon Kolecki, had a successful KSW debut when he picked up a victory over former World’s Strongest Man, Mariusz Pudzianowski, as a result of an injury. One month later, KSW 48 took place which was a smaller show and featured a number of developing fighters making their promotional debuts. Salahdine Parnasse put on arguably the best performance of his career in the main event when he finished Roman Szymanski to claim the interim featherweight title.
The company returned to Gdansk in May for one of their most stacked shows of the year. Roberto Soldic’s devastating punching power was on display when he dispatched of Krystian Kaszobowski shortly after one minute to retain his KSW welterweight title. In a highly anticipated rematch, Scott Askham finished promotional legend, Michal Materla, one again in the fight of the night to keep hold of his middleweight belt.
KSW 50 saw the organisation return to London, England (which now appears to be a yearly stop) for their anniversary show and showcased no less than three title fights. Phil De Fries defended his heavyweight title for the third time when he edged past fellow UFC veteran, Luis Henrique, in a lackluster split decision. Light heavyweight champion, Tomasz Narkun, continued his winning streak at 205lbs as he submitted Przemyslaw Mysiala in the first round while Norman Parke won the interim lightweight belt after earning a split decision victory against Marcin ‘The Polish Zombie’ Wrzosek.
In November, a packed crowd witnessed the promotion’s debut in Croatia for KSW 51 which had a ‘Balkans v Rest of the World’ theme. It was intended that Roberto Soldic would perform in front of his home country on this show but due to an injury, the promotion had to change those plans. The fans in Zagreb were still treated to an entertaining evening of action as Mariusz Pudzianski defeated social media star, Erko Jun, in a back and forth contest while Borys Mankowski ended his losing streak. Elsewhere on the show, Antun Racic overcame Damian Stasiak to claim the inaugural bantamweight title which marked another important moment in KSW’s history.
The biggest fight of the year took place at KSW 52: The Race when Polish MMA icon, Mamed Khalidov, ended his retirement to take on middleweight champion, Scott Askham, in a catchweight, non-title bout. Askham shut down Khalidov’s offense to pick up one of the most significant wins of his career which brought 2019 to a close for the promotion in front of a 15,000 strong crowd. Szymon Kolecki improved to 2-0 in KSW when he defeated Damian Janikowski in a clash between Olympic heroes and Salahdine Parnasse impressed once again by outclassing European veteran, Ivan Buchinger, to retain his interim featherweight title over five rounds.
One of the reasons why KSW is so successful is because of the way that every show feels unique and different to others which have come before. By having events based around a theme, such as ‘The X-Warriors’ or ‘The Race,’ shows are given a context which production can then be based around so makes them memorable. For example, before the main event of ‘The Race,’ both Askham and Khalidov made their entrance onto the arena floor in luxury vehicles in a really nice touch. Furthermore, the promo videos that KSW release in the weeks leading up to events for the important fights are always outstanding and communicate effectively why the audience should be invested in that particular contest. They give fans a reason to care and every other European promotion should be striving to match these efforts. Also, by having shows spaced nicely apart over a couple of months and with only around 8-9 fights on each card, fans are always left wanting more and look forward to upcoming events.
The expansion into a new territory this year was another reason to praise the promotion but that move signified more than would first be apparent. Whenever KSW travel to London and Ireland, the crowd is mostly made up of Polish fans but when they landed in Croatia, that wasn’t the case. It was the first time outside of Poland where the Polish fighters weren’t the fan-favourites. KSW 51 demonstrated that the promotion are beginning to appeal to more than just the Polish fans at live shows which represents an important turning point for the brand. This should be an area of development for the organisation to continue further next year.
KSW developed their roster further over the year with well-known and established talent such as Satoshi Ishii, Luis Henrique and Damian Grabowski all making their promotional debuts. These names have all fought for the best promotions in the world and once again, aim to draw in different fan-bases apart from the core audience. KSW should aim to chase after more recognisable names next year to garner more headlines and online traction. As is the case for the vast majority of their shows, attendances over 2019 were outstanding with most arenas being close to a sellout. No other European promotion can compete with KSW when it comes to ticket sales and attendance figures.
However, one event which wasn’t as successful at the gate compared to its counterparts last year was KSW 50. That show was one of the biggest disappointments for the company during 2019 after so much was expected in the build up. This was corroborated by Polish fan reaction surrounding the event too after discussions with media outlets from the country. It should have been a celebration highlighting everything which makes KSW so great in order to help the company get to where it is today but there were no major KSW legends or ‘freak fights’ in sight. This was partly due to injuries and certain stars not being available so the final lineup wasn’t anywhere near what KSW originally intended. It was hoped that a couple of Bellator fighters would appear on the show to challenge some of KSW’s finest but those plans didn’t come together. Martin Lewandowski, the promotion’s CEO, acknowledged that KSW 50 was a disappointment and admitted there were a number of issues surrounding the event.
One step that the organisation could take new year to improve further and reach out to new audiences is to develop the broadcast from an English perspective. When viewing online, a lot of time is taken up from watching conversations, analysis and interviews in Polish while a translation is provided over the top. In order for English speaking countries to feel that the broadcast is also geared towards them rather than being outsiders looking in, a desk or space outside of the cage specifically produced and intended for those audiences could be worth exploring.
Overall, there are so many positives surrounding KSW and more fans internationally are becoming aware of the product. They undeniably lead the way in Europe when it comes to event production, fight promotion and live attendances while also producing high-level talent. Many of the champions could hold their own against notable names in the major American promotions. KSW bring the word ‘fun’ back into MMA which can often be lost in the sport today where identical content is churned out week after week. If they continue doing what they are doing throughout 2020, many big and memorable future events will be in store.