The world of mixed martial arts offered contrasts stretched across two continents on Saturday night. In Las Vegas, the pound-for-pound best MMA fighter defended his title for the ninth time, inching within one fight of tying the all-time title defense record set by G.O.A.T. Anderson Silva. And many time zones away in Krakow, Poland, a former five-time World's Strongest Man knocked out a Polish rapper famous for getting his own eyeballs tattooed.
In addition to being the best-named event held anywhere in 2016, KSW 37: Circus of Pain provided another fight card of eastern European unknowns rounded out by the freak show of the week: in the co-main event Mariusz Pudzianowski, the mammoth strongman turned MMA fighter, fought Pawel Mikolajuw, a fellow Pole (by way of London) who also goes by Popek or Popek Monster as a rapper who makes songs like this one. (Side note: watching the tropes of American hip-hop filtered through other cultures is always amazing.) At a September press conference announcing the bout, gun-toting "police" stormed the proceedings and hauled off Popek.
That spectacle probably occurred because Popek is given to gimmicks that are shocking, even ones that will stare back from the mirror every day until he's dead. He paid a wad of cash for the privilege of having a tattoo artist stick needles in his eyeballs, and he paid another guy to strategically scar up his face and evoke bad memories of Sam Neill in Event Horizon. "Popek Monster declared that his golden teeth would be pulled out with a pair of pliers and given to homeless people," wrote Culture.pl. Popek makes Rick Ta Life look restrained and responsible.
But before those adventures in defiling the flesh on his face and questionable approaches to wealth redistribution, Popek compiled a 2-1 MMA record in 2008, winning or losing every bout by KO or TKO. During that eight-year hiatus from fighting, Pudzianowski transitioned from the world of yanking passenger jets down a runway with his own body to beating up other giants for money, ultimately compiling a 9-5 record while not looking too shabby, all things considered. But with two straight losses and a 40th birthday coming up, that career and the great strongman-turned-MMA-fighter experiment are reaching their conclusion. So there they were on Saturday at the Tauron Arena, Pudzianowski wearing a temporary tattoo for a sponsor across his back and Popek adorned with the real thing from the neck down, no interpreters offering a lifeline to us ugly Americans who don't speak the commentators' native language.
The fight itself was nothing special, fought entirely on the feet with Pudzianowski stalking forward and Popek backpedaling on heavily taped legs. At one point Pudzianowski shoved and front-kicked Popek into the fence. Seconds later, a moment of drama: Popek dropped Pudzianowski to his knee with a hard right hand. Pudzianowski recovered, and Popek shelled up as the strongman threw wide, looping, lumbering hooks through his guard. Something eventually dropped Popek, but what it was is a mystery—it could have been a right hand, a glancing blow from a follow-up left, a gust from an open window somewhere. Pudzianowski followed Popek to the mat and dropped hammerfists on Popek's supine girth until the ref stopped the fight at 1:20 of the first round.
This was not the unexpectedly spirited and expertly executed five-round battle between Demetrious Johnson and Tim Elliott in Vegas. Pudzianowski-Popek was kind of awful. And yet it was further evidence that Pudzianowski is one of the true overachievers of MMA's novelty fighter class. He's already exceeded every low expectation set for a 30-something with a ballooned-up body trying to enter one of the most grueling sports in the world and with no chance of ever getting on the UFC's radar. Besides beating the likes of Bob Sapp and Butterbean, he knocked out a Gracie in less than 30 seconds. He didn't pack up after his first consecutive losses. Instead, he came back as the Polish hero to beat a Polish villain who, through the dubious miracles of modern cosmetics, looked the part to an unnatural degree.
Now there's only the future. A suggestion: find a way to book leg breaker Rousimar Palhares against Pudzianowski. Or Popek. Or both. Or all three at once.