(“Pudzian” hurls Sylvia to the floor. Courtesy of Peter Lockley / Sherdog)
Mariusz Pudzianowski lost the fight but won the crowd.
Lying on his back underneath the 305-pound former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia, “Pudzian” tapped out to a series of modest right hands, but for all except those final few moments, the five-time “World’s Strongest Man” had the partisan crowd in his hands.
Before the event, Moosin’s Corey Fischer said he expected the region’s Polish population to be a hefty presence at the first televised pay-per-view MMA card held since Massachusetts began regulating the sport earlier this year. According to the 2000 US Census, the state counted 323,210 Poles and Polish-Americans among its residents. And on the strength of his five strongman titles, Pudzianowski has become a national icon in his homeland.
It’s difficult to say with certainty how many of the roughly 6,000 Moosin attendees were of Polish ancestry, but the colors of the Polish flag were a ceaseless motif of the evening. Before the event, crowds of red-and-white adorned ticket holders huddled together conducting conversations in Polish. Polish soccer jerseys were the uniform of choice inside the arena.
Thankfully trimmed of the match-up that would have pitted former Toughman and Moosin co-promoter Eric “Butterbean” Esch against former Boston Bruins enforcer Lyndon Byers by the state’s athletic commission, the card had its share of compelling fights. Mike Campbell edged out UFC veteran Yves Edwards in a back-and-forth fight, his biggest win to date. Roxanne Modafferi avenged a loss to Tara LaRosa with a split-decision win. And there were the bludgeonings: When Lukasz Jurkowski—a Pole—elbowed his way to a TKO over Ho Jin Kim in the evening’s fifth bout, the noisy “Pol-ska! Pol-ska!” chants that accompanied his performance gave a glimpse of things to come.
That was the sound of crickets compared to the reception for Pudzianowski.
As the 273-pound fighter entered the arena through the same bizarre, scaffolding-based MOMA sculpture flanked by the flashy pyrotechnics every other fighter had to deal with, the adoration became deafening. Pudzianowski’s brother, Krystian, gripped a wireless microphone and crooned a Polish-language arena-rock song all the way to the cage. The sizable Polish contingent of the audience was on its feet, brandishing “Polska” banners and screaming itself hoarse. A member of Pudzianowski’s entourage, who accompanied the fighter into the cage, carried a giant Polish flag into the arena.
After Sylvia entered to the expected boos and repeatedly yawned his mouth while pacing back and forth, dueling brands of nationalism took the form of the Poland’s national anthem sung back-to-back with the United States’. (It was the first time I can recall at a sporting event—or otherwise—hearing the audience sing along.) All traces of irony or shock value at the prospect of watching Pudzianowski fight Sylvia evaporated in the face of its reality.
The fight went off as many expected; Pudzianowski fought strong early, bruising Sylvia’s leg with a kick and manhandling him to the mat, a feat which put his supporters in a frenzy. But within a few minutes, Pudzianowski was noticeably tired, repeatedly grabbing the fence to regain his composure, and seeing his clinch attempts dashed once Sylvia established underhooks and began throwing knees to the Pole’s midsection. Sylvia tossed him to the mat off a headlock and ended the first round with ground and pound. In the second, Sylvia stalked Pudzianowski, Pudzianowski wilted, and he tapped out, his MMA record now 2-1.
The boisterous Pudzianowski supporters turned taciturn. The “Polska” banners stopped waving. Afterwards, Pudzianowski blamed poor conditioning for his submission. He also vowed to be back in the cage. “This is just a stepping stone to try to learn new stuff,” he said of the loss.
The strongman had the will necessary to become the best in the world in one arena. If he puts that will towards becoming a well-rounded, well-conditioned fighter, his athletic career could have a nice second act. If Saturday night was any indication, his countrymen are willing to pay to see him try.