KSW 50: Martin Lewandowski on KSW’s rise and European MMA ambitions

KSW 50 hits London this weekend and reaching that golden anniversary milestone shows off the remarkable rise of what was once a local Polish MMA promotion to what is now an emerging force in the world of mixed martial arts.

KSW has grown from its original dwelling of a sports bar in Warsaw’s Marriott Hotel – where their first five shows were held – to attracting a crowd of almost 58,000 at the PGE Narodowy, Poland’s national stadium, in 2017. That’s the second-highest attendance for any event in mixed martial arts history, only beaten by Pride FC’s legendary Shockwave event in 2002.

The promotion achieved that exponential growth in a matter of 13 years. Today, KSW are now at 15 years of putting on shows which have helped build the Polish MMA scene from the ground up.

On the cusp of presenting its 50th MMA event to what is now a worldwide audience, KSW co-founder Martin Lewandowski believes this upcoming London showcase – their third in the U.K.’s capital city – is a monumental moment for his promotion.

In fact, Lewandowski thinks this signals the beginning of a new approach for KSW as they begin to truly commit to breaking away from what was a necessarily insular, Poland-first approach which served them so well in reaching this present precipice the promotion enjoys.

“Our 50th event was actually always planned to take place outside of Poland,” Lewandowski began. “This gives a sign to the public that we are going to be more visible in more countries around Europe.

“KSW 50 taking place outside of Poland is symbolic for us in expanding our brand outside of the country. Of course, Poland is the country KSW was born in so we will continue to hold half of our shows there, but we feel this is our time to move forward and that is why we will be back in England every year.”

Roberto Soldic will not be defending his KSW welterweight belt at KSW 50 but is fighting

And it won’t just be England. Lewandowski has KSW’s sights set across Europe, mentioning potential events being held in countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, a return to Ireland, and Croatia. With KSW’s star welterweight champion Roberto Soldic hailing from the latter country, Lewandowski was particularly excited about breaking ground in the Balkans.

Many of those countries boast large Polish communities. While Lewandowski says that is an advantage when entering uncharted waters, he believes KSW shouldn’t be solely dependent on Europe’s Polish diaspora alone.

“We need to think beyond catering to just the Polish community,” said Lewandowski. “It’s a privilege and an advantage to have loads of Polish fans from around the globe who support KSW.

“But we are not going to step forward and move from Poland just to bait the local Polish communities of other countries. Poland will always be hugely important for us, but we need to grow KSW’s brand in other markets. That’s why we are recruiting top fighters from across the world.”

In eight fights, KSW 50 boasts nine competitors who do not hail from Rzeczpospolita Polska. The international flavour of modern KSW events will be reflected at Wembley on Saturday night, with fighters coming from Croatia, South Africa, England, Northern Ireland, Brazil, Germany, and the Republic of Ireland.

As you can probably expect, KSW has not always been fortunate enough to have the financial and promotional muscle to attract top-level international fighters to sign exclusive deals with them.

Lewandowski is a man who can tell the tale of KSW’s humble beginnings with real authority. He was still employed in a managerial role at Warsaw’s Marriott Hotel when he managed to secure a space in the venue’s “Champions Sports Bar” restaurant to host the first five KSW events.

Like with other countries, there was a real battle to educate the Polish public about the sport of mixed martial arts. The late John McCain – decorated American war hero, Senator of Arizona and once an American Presidential candidate – put the nail in the hastily-built coffin of the UFC back in 1996, comparing MMA to “human cock-fighting,” which set the sport back with close to a decade of stunted growth in the USA and beyond.

In Poland, mixed martial arts also drew negative connotations early. “Back then, MMA had a really, really bad reputation,” Lewandowski admitted. “They would say gangsters were involved in the sport, or it was like watching an illegal dog fight.

“Everything told me to run away, rather than stay, build and develop the sport here in Poland.”

Norman Parke will be fighting for the interim KSW lightweight championship at KSW 50 in London

It’s naturally easier to stick than twist. While there is an innate attraction to risk – no risk, no reward, as they say – most people have an unsurmountable necessity for security and safety. Making the decision to put self-preservation first is usually the smart one to make.

By now, you will have realised that Lewandowski and fellow co-founder Maciej Kawulski stuck to their guns. It was evidently the right decision.

“We are now in more than 80 countries with broadcast deals,” said Lewandowski. “We also have our own pay-per-view platform, our own clothing line… We already have two gyms and we want to develop that on a bigger scale. Everything is still growing.”

Now, Poland is a unique country in the MMA scene – and largely in thanks to KSW. According to Lewandowski, multiple Polish sources rank mixed martial arts among the five most-popular sports in the country.

With all the talk of European expansion, Lewandowski still has big plans for the sport in his homeland. He is taking the lead on the amateur side of the sport in Poland, establishing the MMA Polska Association underneath the recognised International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) umbrella. Lewandowski says he believes amateur MMA could one day be presented as an Olympic discipline and wants to create a structure for the sport away from the professional game after years of neglect from the previous organisation in charge of the amateurs.

Tomasz Narkun will defend his KSW light heavyweight belt at KSW 50 in London

There are also plans afoot for KSW to return to the aforementioned PGE Narodowy in Warsaw for Colosseum II. Lewandowski reckons a second go of it at Poland’s national stadium will beat the attendance of 57,776 they reached in 2017.

In the meantime, all eyes are on the iconic SSE Arena in Wembley, London, as KSW 50 sees the promotion makes its intentions of European expansion abundantly clear with a packed fight card complete with three big title fights.

Hosting KSW 50 in London clearly means a lot to Lewandowski as he feels this is just the beginning of KSW’s future, as well as coming full circle at the same time.

“The first event in London made me very nervous,” Lewandowski stated. “For me, it was the change of everything – our way of thinking, of how I approach the venue, how I deal with the ticket company, the law, taxes, everything. It was a great experience. The first show, we prepared for over six months to see what the country was like if it was going to happen or if it was going to fail.

“Right now, it is much easier and London now feels like a second home. There is nothing that surprises me, there’s nothing I’m afraid of and it’s just putting on a show in a country I now know well.

“This is a great time for us to hold KSW 50 in London, a well-known place globally. I feel this is a real symbolic step forward for us and this will not only change the Polish MMA scene, but also us at KSW.”

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KSW 50 takes place on 14 September in the SSE Arena, Wembley, London.

Tickets for KSW 50 can be bought through AXS.com and Ticketmaster.co.uk and will be available to watch live around the world via online PPV on www.KSWTV.com.

Jake Hughes

Jake Hughes

Jake Hughes is an MMA writer who has covered the sport since 2013 for publications such as Vice Sports, Fightland, Sherdog and now Fighters Only, where he serves as freelance digital editor.