Picture by Roman Yandolin
If the most famous nickname in Russian MMA belongs to Fedor Emelianenko—The Last Emperor—perhaps the most infamous nickname in Russian MMA belongs to a 40-year-old homeless man who goes by Ali Baba. There's no one who knows the Russian fighting scene better than Ali Baba, a veteran of the country's underground fight scene who travels the country looking for tournaments, hoping to win enough money to scrape by. Fighters both professional and amateur call him the legend and the main MMA traveler of Russia. He's fought in countless events across the ex-Soviet Union both official and very unofficial. He's fought in cages and in street fights organized by rival football firms.
Ali Baba and I met at an undisclosed location in Moscow, whose streets he lives on, to talk about life as a Russian fighter, the joys and pains of a traveling mixed martial artist, and his second life as a sports blogger.
Fightland: Many people see you as a legend. What’s popularity like for you?
Ali Baba: There’s even a photo called “Two Legends”--me and Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor being the official legend and me being the legend of the underground fighting scene. For many people who read my blog and see me fighting I symbolize the spirit of a fighter.They say that the spirit of a fighter has arisen inside of me. I have never fought before and then, just of a sudden, I went to fight and kick everyone’s ass. For tournament organizers and coaches, I’m a living legend who proves that at the age of 40 you can still fight.
I’m also like an elder brother for many. Especially for those who don’t have fathers or have fathers who are drinking and pay no attention to their kids. Kids often write to me asking for advice, sometimes they ask me about social needs. I once had a whole love affair that I was part of.
With all that, I consider myself just an ordinary man, that’s all. Maybe I’d like to feel something like [a hero] but as another Russian saying goes, “You can’t foul a mirror.” One-eyed, squint-eyed, defective, imperfect. This just kills any desire to be famous no matter how hard I’ve tried to turn my birth defect into an advantage. I’ve submitted to the fact that that’s the way I look, that’s how God created me. I won’t become more beautiful or better looking, so live the way you are.
Ali Baba (r) with Fedor Emelianenko
What about your defect? Did you want to get rid of it?
When I was born, doctors were telling my mother to leave me. They were calling me an ugly creature, but I’m thankful to my parents that they haven’t left me. Whenever we were going out many people were calling me a monster and it was hard time for my family.
My mother was told that I was crazy and no high school will accept me thus I could only go to a school for mentally retarded, but my mum found an orphanage in central Russia and had to write to the USSR Ministry of Health to get me in.
Everyone have different speech defects. I know that I can get rid of my defect but then I need to cut off my nose so I could speak and breath normally. In 1989 I saw the film Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke. His character also has a speech defect and he got it fixed. When I saw how doctors helped him, I wanted to do the same and went through 10 surgeries. The unfortunate thing was that, in the USSR, we didn’t have the technologies of today; doctors were using primitive methods. Now if you have such a defect you will get a surgery as a kid and you are good to go. I also was unfortunate to go through an incorrect surgery. When they were done and I felt that the surgery was a failure, because I still couldn’t breath, I had a nervous breakdown. Then I’ve just given up on all this and decided not to do any more surgeries. I often meet people who say they don’t understand what I say. When people say this intentionally it hurts a lot, and that’s when you get the inferiority complex. But now that I have my nose broken many think that my speech defect is part of that--that I was beaten up and that’s the reason I speak like this.
To do the right surgery now I need a lot of money and two years to recover. When doctors found out that I was fighting, they told me to finish fighting first and then they will help.
Did you fight as a kid?
I haven’t been into sport at all when I was a kid. I haven’t been involved in any fights. I liked movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, that’s it. But no, I was a nice boy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who spent most of the time at home. Then I was sent to that orphanage where we didn’t have any sport clubs. There were sambo, boxing clubs in the town the orphanage was in; maybe I would have loved to box or wrestle but we weren’t allowed to go anywhere. It was like a prison zone or an army. One kid wrote about the place that it was like a Gestapo.
The best thing about my time at the orphanage, though, was that we didn’t have Internet or cell phones; we read books and it worked for the benefit of our imagination. The orphanage didn’t have a big library so when a copy of Mayne Reid arrived there was a half a year line to get it. Kids were fighting for it. Once we’ve got King Solomon’s Mines, we’ve been reading it all together, one chapter per night, and couldn’t sleep because we were anxious to know what would happen next.
With Jean-Claude Van Damme
When did you start doing martial arts?
It was in my last year at the university. I was 27 at that time. I decided to go to the university wrestling club but the coach there told me to fuck off because of my age, and I went to do sambo instead since everyone was welcome there. I have trained there for three years. I’ve been doing it more for fun since I like to wrestle but don’t like to do weight lifting or any special exercises.
Then I haven’t been doing any martial arts for a while because I was working my ass out to pay for a room that I got. I was getting $150 as a courier but that was the price of my rent so I had to get another job as a janitor at a beer store. In less than a year I was asked to leave my job and I was once again in the streets of Moscow.
Then I got a gig at the university. I was asked to be a PE teacher because other teachers were heavy on drinking alcohol and missing classes. They didn’t care about students. When they saw me, they were laughing, saying that I would do the coaching today because they knew that I wouldn’t leave students.
I started to teach sambo, some simple moves that I’ve learned from before. We had only 45 minutes and you couldn’t show much in this short period of time. Since I wasn’t a professional, most of my classes were in the lecture mode. I was telling my students that maybe I won’t teach them much but I’ll teach them how to fall. If you know that, you won’t hurt yourself when falling and you won’t fall down in life.
I went there hoping to get a room at the students residence because teachers were getting rooms at the residence while teaching. I’ve been teaching for four years but didn’t get the room. I was getting $50 a month instead. I didn’t have money even to buy bread. Sometimes I wanted to crunch a table--that’s how hungry I was--so I had to borrow money from my students and sleep in basements and at railway stations.
Was it then that you decided to start traveling to fight at all these different tournaments?
I didn’t have any money so I went back to being a janitor and pull some cash first. I’ve worked there for four years. I wasn’t doing any fighting but was part of a different fight between raiders’ groups for the building I was a janitor at. They were turning off water, electricity. Corporate raiders, a usual scene for Moscow, so, at the end, I’ve left.
That’s when I got back to fighting. I went to train at one of Moscow sambo clubs and I had a sparring with one young fellow who threw me and I had my arm disjointed. I’ve jointed back myself because I couldn’t go to a doctor since I don’t have a registration in Moscow. I was blaming myself for going there in the first place after such a long break. But time has passed and I went there again. Then I’ve read on the web that there was a jiu-jitsu tournament in St. Petersburg. It turned out to be grappling, not jiu-jitsu, though, but it was one of the first big fight tournaments in Russia. I was very nervous and afraid of my fight being videotaped. I thought I would look like a dork but I won the first fight. The second fight I got my rib broken, though.
What makes you travel?
Any tournament for me is a good excuse to see another town or city and to compete. Any fight is like a Sunday attraction for me. If I win, I get a medal or a diploma. If not, good memories from the city I’ve just been to. I find watching fighting boring. One thing is to watch; the other is to fight--different emotions. I don’t have the goal to beat everyone, win every fight, and win the first place. For me the most important thing is to stay alive and not have shiners all over my face.
I’ve started with different tournaments and types of martial arts. I usually Google for tournaments and decide if I want to compete or not. Then I buy the cheapest train ticket. When on location, I always walk to the place of the tournament even if it’s far. I don’t eat much, maybe a bun and a bottle of Pepsi during the day, and I never eat anything on the day of the fight. If I know that a buddy of mine takes part in the tournament, I hope that he might land me some money for a return ticket because sometimes I might be short of just $2. I try to save money by doing random jobs but sometimes I have to beg for money at railway stations. I try to be honest and not look like a bum or a drunkard, but if I don’t have money, I don’t travel.
Have you had any problems with police when traveling?
I constantly have problems with the police. Whenever I come to a town or a city or go back to Moscow. I barely get off the train and I’m already asked for my ID. “Where are you going? Show your stuff, your veins.” They see right away that I’m not local. During the war in Chechnya I used to be stopped everyday; if they didn’t stop me, it was like a holiday. For a while I thought that the police textbook had a lead with a photo that resembled me. There are also closed cities in Russia; when I get to travel there I am stopped three times within an hour.