"First round." A cold, dystopian voice repeatedly rang out through the PGE Narodowy, or Polish National Stadium, in Warsaw for Saturday's KSW 39: Colosseum, then the violence commenced. From the nosebleed seats, it probably looked like someone dumped out a toy chest full of action figures and set their plastic limbs to thwacking against each other. The faces were familiar enough: Mariusz Pudzianowski, the overachieving strongman-turned-MMA-fighter, Polish national hero, and KSW's anchor attraction; a main event with Mamed Khalidov, arguably the best middleweight not in the UFC's hands, against promotional welterweight champion Borys Mankowski in a catchweight fight; UFC castoffs like Norman Parke and Sokoudjou; and Pawel "Popek Monster" Mikolajuw, a Polish rapper who famously tattooed his eyeballs black and looks like Gathering of the Juggalos incarnate.
The main card also featured a heavyweight title bout between Fernando Rodrigues, Jr., an avowed Christian, and Marcin Rozalski, a reputed Satanist who looks like Babalu and GG Allin had a baby. "A cross and a pentagram in the MMA cage," said KSW co-founder Maciej Kawulski ahead of the fight. "Kids shall not watch this fight without their parents." That fight was over in 16 seconds; the Satanist won by faceplant knockout. Of the eleven fights on the card, more than half finished before that dystopian voice could announce a second round.
But there was another, bigger number deserving attention: KSW's promoters estimated that 58,000 fans filled the stadium. That's behind the all-time MMA attendance record of 71,000 for Pride and K-1's 2002 Shockwave collaboration in Japan, but ahead of the UFC's all-time best, when 56,214 fans in Melbourne, Australia watched Holly Holm head kick Ronda Rousey unconscious at UFC 193 back in 2015.
KSW's founders began taking aim at the UFC's attendance benchmarks in March, and whether that attendance figure holds up to further scrutiny is an open question—both K-1 and Pride, as Sherdog's Jordan Breen pointed out, claimed a Shockwave audience of 91,000—but the packed stadium tiers during crowd shots help KSW's case.
For all the pageantry and focus on the abnormally muscled, KSW didn't do anything truly novel to explain this milestone. Mixing freak shows and no-frills competition was Pride's bread and butter, and Rizin Fighting Federation and Bellator have run with the same formula to different extents. From the sponsor logos rendered in temporary tattoos to the white-noise commentary if you don't understand the language, KSW is as strange and exotic as its Japanese counterparts.
It was as entertaining, too. Pudzianowski dominated, Norman Parke got his fingers bit, there were lots of KOs and TKOs, five title fights, a cross-divisional champions match-up that ended with a questionable decision, and a stretch of three straight gimmick bouts that all ended quickly. A halfway-decent wrestler with five minutes of cardio and good heel hook entries would rip KSW's heavyweight division apart, but that's beside the point. When Popek Monster blitzed Lithuanian bodybuilder Robert Burneika in fast, funny, and brutal fashion, it was the perfection of the freak-show form.
So what does it say that 58,000 people watched this thing? MMA fans, as broad and indistinct a group as we are, have circumstantial tastes. Depending on the occasion, we want the best fighting the best, the freakiest fighting the most insane, new blood fighting young dinosaurs, maybe even a phantom lightweight champion who trades up for thicker gloves to dig his hands into your pockets for a depressing boxing pay-per-view cash grab. We are often not given to introspection. We don't really know what we want. But if the numbers don't lie, KSW knows all too well.