A five-time ‘World’s Strongest Man’, Mariusz Pudzianowski has proven to be stronger and more masculine than a field of similarly-sized blokes – okay, the entire planet – in a number of ways. He lifted more, he pushed more, he threw further. You know how it works. The only thing he didn’t do is use one of his lunchbox-sized fists to beat the crap out of his foremost rivals.
For a while Pudzianowski seemed, on the face of it, content to walk the walk of a juggernaut who knew, if it came to it, he could probably manhandle every human being and animal he encountered. Yet, in 2009, we learned what the wide load known as Pudzian really wanted – now wanted more than anything – was to establish himself not as a strong man but a fighting man; he wanted to punch someone in the face; he wanted his muscles and his medals to count for something greater.
A strong man of many talents, Pudzianowski, all 320-pounds of him, has dabbled in a few extracurricular activities since confirming how much bigger and better he is than his fellow man. He has appeared as a guest singer in the musical group Pudzian Band, for example, a collective formed by his brother, Krystian. He also plays amateur rugby whenever he has the chance. What’s more, so famous is Pudzianowski in his homeland, the legendary lifter took part in the seventh season of Dancing with the Stars in 2008.
Big, therefore, in more ways than one, it was as a professional fighter – specifically, mixed martial artist – Pudzianowski tried to redefine himself in 2009. Signed to leading Polish promoter KSW, he quickly became a fixture of their shows, drawing good numbers at the gate and on television, and, for a while – well, two fights – led the life of an unbeaten mixed martial artist and carried the bulky, imposing swagger of a man able to instil fear in most who dared to trade punches with him.
But then Tim Sylvia came along. Yes, that Tim Sylvia. Tim Sylvia, the former UFC heavyweight champion; Tim Sylvia, the man cold-cocked in a round by Fedor Emelianenko and, erm, Ray Mercer; Tim Sylvia, the guy who’d lost four of his last six fights.
Naturally, Pudzianowski and his team felt they were getting the American at the right time. They saw it not as a calculated risk but a chance to make a statement, a chance to authenticate Pudzianowski’s MMA potential before the eyes of the world. They were convinced he would rag-doll a man who no longer fancied it.
They were wrong. Sylvia didn’t just snap a short unbeaten record and hand Pudzianowski his first MMA loss, he did so in a way that poured freezing cold water on the very idea that strength and bulk and muscles and veins were all a fighter needs to get ahead in MMA. After all, here was Sylvia, hardly an advert for strength and conditioning, stuffing Pudzianowski’s takedowns with ease, wearing him out, pushing him backwards and busting him up with his muay-thai clinch and countless knees and uppercuts. Here was Sylvia, the man they presumed was finished, looking as good as he’d ever looked, buoyed by the sight of an opponent gassed after a minute of action, dominating a fight he was expected to lose.
The fight was stopped in round two. In truth, though, it was as good as over by minute two.
Humbled by ‘The Maine-iac’, it would have been forgiven, nay, understandable if Pudzianowski had packed it in there and then, his promoters having washed their hands with him, and marked it up as an experiment gone wrong, a lesson learned. To his credit, however, and to the credit of KSW, they persevered with the experiment, lowered their expectations somewhat and proceeded to market Pudzianowski as a spectacle; a Polish cult hero and novelty fighting act who would fight other novelty fighting acts as well as the odd legitimate opponent.
It was, unapologetically, a mixed bag. For every test against Sean McCorkle or James Thompson or Oli Thompson there was a freak-show match-up against Eric ‘Butterbean’ Esch or Bob Sapp. And though he has wins over (Oli) Thompson, McCorkle and Rolles Gracie, which serve to distance Pudzianowski from the bottom end of the spectacle scale, it’s the images of Sapp turtling by the ropes, complaining he’d been hit, and Butterbean succumbing to a half-hearted single-leg takedown, only to put both forearms across his face and pray he survived, which stick.
These are snapshots of big stars and big men colliding, no thought spared for the quality of the action, nor the point of it all; if they’re big enough and bad enough, throw them in, seemed to be the modus operandi. Now, with Pudzianowski set to appear at a Polish soccer stadium in front of 55,000 fans this Saturday (May 27), these are flashbacks to halcyon days, the golden age of freak-show fights, and Pudzianowski, at forty, may not have too many performances – good, bad or ugly – left in him. He’s currently 10-5 (1 no contest) in his pro MMA career and has lost two of his last three fights.
But that’s okay. He’s still Mariusz Pudzianowski. The name alone continues to resonate, as do his achievements as a strong man and his profile as a Polish superstar. It’s partly why Martin Lewandowski, founder of KSW, had no hesitation putting on an event at the PGE Narodowy stadium in Warsaw this weekend, aware he’d need to sell over 35,000 tickets just for it to make sense; include Pudzian, he thought, and we stand a chance. It’s also why Norman Parke, another fighter set to appear at KSW 39: Colosseum, a lightweight who has nine UFC fights to his name, can’t wait to spend time in the heavyweight behemoth’s esteemed company.
“I remember me and my cousin used to watch Pudzianowski on the TV probably ten years ago,” said the Irishman, who, on Saturday, challenges for the KSW lightweight title fight against Mateusz Gamrot. “At the start of the World’s Strongest Man we’d both pick a guy from the list of boys who were competing. I’d be like, ‘I’m taking Pudzianowski’ and my cousin would say, ‘I’m taking him, too.’ I’d say, ‘No, pick someone else.’ He would then pick some other guy – Magnus Samuelsson or someone like that. If you’d have told me back then I’d one day be sharing an MMA fight card with Mariusz Pudzianowski, I would have thought you were mad. I didn’t even know I was going to end up doing MMA – I thought I’d be a footballer – let alone think Pudzianowski would do the same. That’s crazy.
“I’ve got a lot of friends in the bodybuilding industry and they’ve never met him before, whereas me, I’m like, ‘How are you doing, mate?’ He’s a huge name in his country and all over the world. He pulls up in this nice big Ferrari and and is really living the life.”
It’s true. If ever a man seemed born for a moment like this – fighting in front of 55,000 Polish people at a soccer stadium on an event titled Colosseum – it’s Mariusz Pudzianowski. A big man for a big occasion.