We anticipated the arrival of Yana Kunitskaya’s flight at Pulkovo airport. 20 hours with connections from Las Vegas. No one paid attention to her reuniting with husband and son. No one approached for an autograph. Which is weird – since the whole country was watching the Kunitskaya – Lansberg UFC fight on October 6th. Three rounds, first victory to our athlete over the Swede and rise to the top-10 fighters of her weight category.
Yana Kunitskaya, MMA fighter: “Got positive emotions. A win is always a win. I couldn’t finish the fight early though, as I wanted. So I still got a lot to work on. But overall – it feels great”.
What are you feeling having come to St. Petersburg? Your home town is, after all, Murmansk?
I certainly love my city, I was born there, but my heart is here in St. Petersburg.
Of course it is in St. Petersburg – the undisputed capital of MMA in Russia. The country where this sport is peaking in popularity at the moment. And it’s irrelevant that Kunitskaya’s fight was not in the spotlight on that night. The main thing happened on the next day – while some where fighting on social media about who was better, Connor or Khabib, others took their children to sports schools and asked to turn their little ones into champions.
What was merely a show in the 1990s – attempts to find out who was stronger, a karate specialist or a boxer – has now turned into a sport of several federations with multi-million paychecks and global live broadcasts. Fights have become totally legitimate and regulated. In St. Petersburg alone, there are 30 MMA schools today.
Mikhail Almaz, founder of MMA school: “The trend is such nowadays that boxing, the Olympic sport with big money, has now been caught up with – and sometimes even overtaken – by the MMA. It has become more entertaining than boxing. When Fyodor Emelyanenko emerged, many were saying – yes, we have a good tradition of fighting”.
And the city is adjusting to the new sporting realities. Lakhta. The financial district is still under construction – yet a new sports arena is already here, amid residential complexes and hotels. And the Lakhta-Tower seems to almost grow out of it. 3.5 thousand seats, telescopic stands, VIP lounges and unique design. People got used to football St. Petersburg and ice-hockey St. Petersburg – now meet the fighting St. Petersburg.
Elena Krasnikova, head of marketing at M-1 Global: “I want to draw your attention to our wooden dome, which provides for great acoustics. You can hear every hit, every snap, every breath of athletes”.
Tickets to these shows start at 1 thousand rubles. But in St. Petersburg you can catch real fights in the most unexpected places. Telmana village, beachside, September.
This project, which has a million followers today, was also born in St. Petersburg – at the spit of Vasilievskiy Island. Anyone can come here for a fight – having agreed on the time and place in advance, according to Vyacheslav Kiselev. He’s also known as Slava Bolshoi – the only Russian UFC referee and the main official of street fights.
Vyacheslav Kiselev, MMA tournament referee: “It’s like a social project, which allows the people to try something new and find a new meaning in life. People need a shake-up occasionally. Here, they come into senses. We’ve had more than 10 thousand applications in 6 years”.
It’s almost a direct replica of Chuck Palanik’s Fight Club. Accountants, doctors, office workers, former armymen and students fight inside the ring – without any commercial interest. Nicknames are befitting – sushi-man, boxer, nerd, evil box man. The project’s franchise exists in all major cities – there are fights in Thailand, Kazakhstan, Belarus. And another version of mixed fighting also comes from the city at Neva.
Maxim Oblender, reporter: “Here’s another MMA reality – the virtual one. You cant imagine a single anti-café without this popular simulator. Everything is just as real – the same fighters, Khabib or Connor, and venues. And even real tournaments with real cash prizes.
And if you have cyberfighting skills, you can get rich in these virtual tournaments – prizes can go up to 15 thousand rubles. And it’s also quite entertaining. And just like inside the real octagon, the only thing which matters here is whether you can fight or not. That’s why athletes and experts alike say that this sport will remain popular for a long time. And just like 20 years ago we would still be arguing who is stronger – a wrestler or a boxer? A puncher or a karate specialist? And St. Petersburg will probably see new heroes.