There's always been something so intense and appropriate about the UFC Octagon. When the cage door closed for the first time at UFC 1, it felt so final, like a beginning and an end all at once. Since then, the chain-linked cage has become synonymous with MMA, so much so that even small, unsanctioned shows use them. The problem is that legitimate cages are expensive and difficult to come by, especially if you’re a small promoter in a rural area. You either have to rent one, which can cost thousands of dollars, or build a custom cage yourself from scrap metal. Or you can be like a fight promoter in Russia and skip the cage entirely.
Whether it’s the cost of the cage or the relative absence of the UFC, without the regulations that exist in the U.S. and the UK requiring fights to take place in a specific arena, Russian MMA is showing up in the most peculiar places.
“There is a huge increase in the popularity of MMA in Russia,” says Dimitry Nazarov, a Russian born internet-marketing manager living in Brooklyn. An avid MMA fan, Dimitry provides video hosting and translation services for a St. Petersburg-based promotion called Strelka, which he came across six months ago while browsing videos online. Strelka, or “Arrows” in English, puts on cage-free MMA fights in unusual places, with no time limits.
“I just saw that they had this tournament, and I really liked it,” Nazarov says. “Their first tournament was in a deserted factory called Red Flag in St. Petersburg. It became so popular they moved it closer to the center of the city, where they found a beach volleyball court. Then, when winter came, they moved into a military hanger. And then the grand finale happened in a soccer field.
“One thing that I really loved, which is why I reached out to them, is that it’s not really about violence. It has this sense of irony. Guys are shaking hands at the end. [When you remove the cage] MMA has that Fight Club feeling. We have had accountants, sailors, ex-military, and even a school-teacher from France come out to fight.”
Meanwhile, in Moscow, MMA feels less like Fight Club than The Hunger Games.
Take the Hip Show, which puts on “team MMA fighting” matches in a small members-only club in the heart of the city. Teams buy into the tournament for $50,000 and enter fighters into three different weight classes. Contestants face off in a 1500-square foot area filled with game-show style matted obstacles. Sometimes two fighters from one team take on two fighters from the other team. Sometimes two take on one. Every once in a while, three square off with two. For those of us raised on American-style MMA, these group-fighting sessions are simultaneously terrifying, bizarre, and riveting.
The Hip Show's two-story facility features a bar, an onsite broadcasting studio, and more than 15 cameras that allow online viewers the ability to choose different angles. Online audiences can bet on their favorite team and purchase advantages for them--including extra safety gear, “weapons choice,” even a temporary increase in the number of fighters active during a round.
“The advantages of every team not only depend on their physical abilities and tactical savvy, but also on the audience affection,” the Web site explains. “The higher the audience rating, the greater the advantage and the larger the prize pool.”
Earlier this year UFC President Dana White announced his promotion’s interest in putting on a live event in Russia in the near future. It just goes to show far the sport of MMA has come that when the Octagon finally does make it to Russia--that wild, cage-less, group-fighting frontier--it will arrive as a kind of civilizing force, its chainlinks representing safety and regulation, sport and competition, law and order.
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