Flamethrowers, epic walkouts, and cake: An MMA spectacle at a stadium in Poland
WARSAW, Poland - There was no going back when a man in an oversized artificial birthday cake rode around the stadium floor in the back of a truck, ring girls shooting flamethrowers around him.
The roughly 50,000 MMA fans in attendance at the Polish capital's national stadium for the mega KSW Colosseum 2 event must have known they were in for a heck of a ride.
KSW stands for Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki, which translates to "martial arts confrontation." For the average person walking down the street in an American city, those three words may result in confused looks. But to someone in the know, KSW, which has been around since 2004, is the biggest MMA promotion in Poland - and, frankly, one of the leading organizations in all of Europe.
KSW does things differently than the top MMA promotions in North America. It's known to have a production level that rivals the UFC and Bellator in overall quality but exceeds them in spectacle. Taking inspiration from defunct Japanese promotion Pride FC, KSW events are a show. They have opening ceremonies and grand walkouts, a kind of entertainment and excitement that goes beyond the action in the cage.
No KSW event has been more substantial and far-reaching than its most recent one.
For the first time in six years, and just the second time overall, KSW took over PGE Narodowy this past Saturday, turning it into a modern-day Colosseum of sorts and putting on a gladiator-themed, extravagant display of violence and entertainment. It took months of planning and preparation, but it surely was worth it: The event recorded the second-highest attendance in European MMA history, only falling short of KSW's first Colosseum show in 2017 (approximately 57,000 people), and it was one of the 10 most-attended MMA events of all time.
I had the privilege of being in the building. And let me tell you: From start to finish, KSW Colosseum 2 was no ordinary MMA event.
MMA stadium events are special because they rarely occur.
It's commonplace for 60,000 soccer fans to gather to watch a match somewhere in Europe, but that's not the case in MMA, a sport that's 30 years old and was fighting for its existence just two decades ago. The UFC has held just four stadium shows in its 649-event history - in Australia, Canada, and Brazil. But never once has the UFC been to a stadium on U.S. soil. In general, UFC president Dana White has been reluctant to do them because, logistically, they're difficult to pull off. For years, there's been talk about hosting an event at AT&T Stadium in Texas, and more recently, it's been the three-year-old Allegiant Stadium in the UFC's hometown of Las Vegas. But the UFC hasn't pulled the trigger.
Croke Park, an outdoor stadium in Dublin that can hold more than 80,000 people, would be a prime spot for a big Conor McGregor fight. But White says the weather is too unpredictable in Ireland.
KSW, though, is ambitious.
"For us, in the beginning, it was about the challenge, about bringing more attention to MMA (in Poland)," KSW CEO Martin Lewandowski told MMA reporter Petesy Carroll before the event.
I arrived at the upper deck of the stadium - where the media section was - about an hour before the first fight. I couldn't help but stand there in awe for a moment, taking in the views of the cage, the grandstands, and the banners on one side of the stadium showcasing some of KSW's most popular fighters before heading to my seat. The roof was open, the sky blue, and sunlight beaming onto the seats in one area.
Lewandowski told me later in the night he wanted to keep the roof open to make the event even more special.
"From a visual point of view, it makes a great picture," he said.
It did, indeed.
Though there were very few people in seats yet, the atmosphere was incredible. You could feel the magnitude of this rare and unique MMA stadium event just by standing there.
About five minutes before the preliminary card was scheduled to begin - 6:55 p.m. local time - a man, presumably the stadium DJ or KSW's hype man, appeared on the jumbotron and got on the microphone to start getting the crowd excited. I can't tell you what was said because it was in Polish, but it worked. The fans cheered and chanted, and they took part in a slow clap that gradually became a roaring applause. By this point, the stadium was probably only a quarter full at best. The noise levels were pretty good, all things considered.
Oh, there was also a man wearing a gladiator costume.
The first fight began 12 minutes past the hour. It was added to the card the day before due to a cancellation. KSW's head of communications told me they needed another bout for broadcast purposes. I expected a somewhat big opening, but there were no theatrics ... yet. The fighters walked to the cage, and that was that.
One of the highlights of the night - and perhaps the year - came in the second fight. Former world boxing champion Krzysztof Glowacki seemed to be en route to suffering a bad stoppage loss in his MMA debut. Patryk Tolkaczewski was in full mount and in the process of blasting Glowacki with ground-and-pound when Glowacki threw and landed a single punch - again, from bottom - that shut out the lights.
I mean, are you kidding me?
From my vantage point, I couldn't tell what had happened until I saw the replay on the big screen. And it was only then that you could hear a widespread gasp throughout the stadium. As experienced and talented of a referee as they come, Marc Goddard's somewhat delayed reaction in noticing that Tolkaczewski - suddenly slumped over Glowacki's body - was unconscious is all you need to know that this was one of the craziest and most unique knockouts we've ever seen.
The rest of the prelims whizzed by, and then, just before 9:30 p.m., the lights dimmed. Everyone knew what that meant. The sun down, and the sky now a dark shade of blue, thousands of phone flashlights shone throughout the stadium's grandstands. It was time for the main card. But first, the real show: The opening ceremony.
The KSW ring announcer got on the mic and said a few words. And then out came a truck from the bowels of the stadium. It was on the other side from where I was seated, so I couldn't see it at first. I just could see fire.
I hoped whatever it was would warm up the stadium a bit. (Spoiler: It didn't.) It had gotten awfully chilly inside, something Lewandowski himself noted after the show when I asked him if everything had gone according to plan. Thankfully I saw a tweet from KSW earlier in the day telling fans to bring warm clothes since the roof would be open. Had I not seen that, I would've been there in a long sleeve shirt looking stupid. The forecast was 52 degrees Fahrenheit (or 11 degrees Celsius) at midnight.
The truck made its way around the stadium, and it turns out it wasn't just any truck. On the back of it was a rapper wearing a blue blazer, four ring girls with flamethrowers, and a ginormous, three-tier, probably inedible birthday cake. The truck drove around, the rapper did his thing, and the ring girls shot the flamethrowers into the air, glowing up the area around them as 50,000 people tried to make sense of the chaos. This could've been the entire event, and I'd leave satisfied.
Next came the fighter introductions. One by one, each main-card fighter - except headliners Mamed Khalidov and Scott Askham - walked out onto the stage set up on one end of the stadium, just before the walkway to the cage. Four blasts of fire repeatedly shot out from behind them. Five-time World's Strongest Man winner Mariusz Pudzianowski got the biggest pop. One fighter wore a gray gladiator mask.
Before Khalidov and Askham took to the stage, a man popped out from inside - yes, inside - the birthday cake on the truck. And as the truck continued to drive around the stadium floor, the man - dressed in a black tee, surprisingly basic for the occasion - sang happy birthday to KSW, which in 2024 will celebrate its 20th year of existence. Then we pretended like nothing happened, and the rapper rapped some more, and the ring girls shot flamethrowers into the air some more.
The crowd went wild when Khalidov, a Russian-born fighter who has called Poland home for years, finally appeared. He was front and center on the stage, rightfully so. Khalidov, the former KSW middleweight champion who somehow keeps delivering highlights at 42 years old, is a legend and arguably the face of the company.
Then it was time for action.
KSW icon Michal Materla got the party started, scoring a come-from-behind knockout. Artur Szpilka had one of the most creative walkouts, arriving in the back of an old convertible and then sporting a gladiator mask as he stepped onto the stage. In the fight, he stunned the crowd by knocking out Pudzianowski.
The main event arrived just past midnight. Askham walked out first to a hostile - but not overly hostile, like in some other fight destinations - crowd. And then it was Khalidov's turn. His walkout, on the other hand, was special. He took his time making his way to the cage, relishing the moment. It was clear how much he meant to the Polish fans - and, who knows, if things didn't go his way, perhaps this would be the last we saw of him. The stadium was lit up in an orange hue, fire once again shooting out from behind the stage. Most people were on their feet, cheering on their hero as he got ready to settle the score with Askham.
And settle the score he did. After likely winning the first two rounds, Khalidov knocked out the British fighter in the third with a spectacular flying switch kick, giving the fans one final moment to cheer about before they left and flowed out into the streets of Warsaw.
Lewandowski could finally take a breath. He did it. KSW did it. Again.
"It's a huge accomplishment," he told me with a beverage in hand.
Perhaps it was the obvious takeaway, but Lewandowski said he believes KSW Colosseum 2 trumped the first one, largely because the promotion is on a different level than where it was six years ago. Surely he hopes the third one will be even bigger and better. Yes, there will be a Colosseum 3, Lewandowski confirmed, but not for at least four years.
During an era in which the UFC regularly hosts events at its tiny Apex facility as an apparent cost-cutting strategy, the PFL struggles to sell tickets, and Bellator is status quo, this event could do wonders in putting KSW on the map internationally.
"Definitely, I think this is something every MMA fan will know (about) - if not already, they'll know within 24 hours," Lewandowski said. "And I believe those fighters who fought, they'll become more popular in different countries."
It's possible KSW will capitalize on what other promotions aren't doing. It won't be surprising if the wider MMA audience begins to take notice of the product KSW is putting out.
And if not? KSW Colosseum 2 was still an unforgettable experience.