Though it may be a lopsided rivalry, nothing excites Polish people more than the prospect of beating the Germans at something, anything.
Upstart MMA promotion Infinite Fighting Federation has taken full advantage of that sentiment, building their Oct. 8 card in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, around a five-fight showdown between Polska and Deutschland with the tagline “the Eternal Fight.”
“The rivalry with our western neighbors has always been electric. On the occasion of a football or handball match, every Pole looks to beat the Germans. It's always a bevy of emotions,” comments IFF promoter Krzysztof Malik.
The card is also a sign of the times: as immigration patterns change and borders become permeable, the concept of nationality is becoming far less rigid. Witness the card’s Sebastian Nowak, a German lightweight with a Polish surname, or welterweight Kerim Abzailov, one of the many Chechens training MMA in Poland, flying the red and white flag.
However, in this microcosm of the new global community, one name stands out in particular: light heavyweight Yoel Romero Palacio, a Cuban Olympic wrestler now based in Germany.
The 33-year-old Cuban defector has one of the finest wrestling pedigrees in MMA. As a freestyle wrestler, he won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, placed fourth four years later in Athens. Palacios has also taken home five medals at the FILA World Championships, including gold in 1999.
Romero is only 1-0 in his pro career, having stomped on journeyman Sacha Weinpolter in December of last year. His Friday opponent, KSW veteran Michal Fijalka, promises a more thorough test of his MMA aptitude in one of the more exciting match-ups. Bringing in such a fighter is indicative of the promotion’s philosophy.
“We don't want to do something where we beat the Germans 6:0 and everyone is happy.” says Krzysztof Halemba, the other half of IFF's promoter tandem. “The fighters asked us for solid rivals. They wanted to take away something from these fights and not just pad their records.”
The main event will be devoid of nationalistic rivalry, but not Polish investment.
18-year old Marcin Held, lauded as one of Poland's most promising fighters, was slated to fight German-based Franco de Leonardis until he pulled out with an injury. With the promoters unable to find a German replacement, Held will now meet Slovenian veteran Bojan Kosednar, who steps in on four days’ notice for his first fight in nearly two years.
Held isn't really concerned about the changes: “[The differences] don't concern me. I hope that for the past year and a half he didn't lie in front of the TV, but trained hard even if he didn't fight.
“The biggest challenge will be in his southpaw stance. I've never before fought someone like that,” Held adds.
While KSW is the major league show in Poland, the boom they have created for MMA by showcasing Mariusz Pudzianowski opens plenty of opportunities. KSW only has a small, finite amount of card space, so smaller promoters can get their foot in the door while still featuring top Polish talent.
It’s too early to say whether the IFF can be a successful Polish mainstay. However, the promotion clearly understands how to combine both hype and drama, even if it’s well-traveled territory like Poland vs. Germany, and real substance, whether it’s a teenage hopeful or an Olympic wrestling stalwart.