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October 2017: Fear and Loathing in Gdansk at UFC Fight Night



I was somewhere around Modlin, on the edge of Warsaw, when the coffee began to take hold. I almost didn’t even fully take into consideration what was happening as I sat on the train (the good kind) from Rzeszow to Gdansk. A journey that used to take sixteen hours or more for my wrestling students from the tri-city area now only took me a mere seven hours on the Pendalino. I’d been reading my third book on the topic of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for quite some time before I headed to the bar car for some scrambled eggs and bread, one of the few edible vegetarian options on the menu. It was there, in the middle of my forty-five minute wait for my breakfast, that I encountered a pair of twenty-something males swilling cheap beer. It was obvious that these guys were much more “gonzo” than I. They seemed oblivious to any sense of common decency and social norms as the alcohol had already rendered their sense of judgment completely useless. Hunter S. Thompson would have been proud.

Now, this is nothing unusual on the Polish railway system. In fact, it’s almost a tradition, a rite of passage if you will, for football hooligans, troublemakers and other such rabble rousers when travelling cross country. It wasn’t until these chaps overheard another group saying that they were on their way to the UFC event in Gdansk and joined them at their table, did I realize that these guys are actually fight fans and not just drunkards. Then it struck me, that MMA, now, for sure, has its claws deeply embedded in the flesh of Polish culture.

Feels Like the First Time

UFC Fight Night 118, a.k.a UFC Fight Night Cerrone vs. Till, a.k.a UFC Gdansk was my first experience as an accredited member of the press for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest mixed martial arts organization in the world. Although I’ve attended loads of events as a television commentator, this was my first experience covering a combat sports event strictly as a journalist and my first time working for “The Big Boys”. It was almost like I was a teenager all over again, exploring a female’s body for the first time with an allure of prepubescent timidity hanging in the air.

This is Bat Country

After arriving in Sopot a few hours before the doors opened to the media, I took the opportunity to check into my hotel and then take a quick walk to the Baltic Sea, which was only a short ten minute stroll away. It was a brisk, foggy walk towards the coast with signs of Halloween already on display. The streets were full of tourists with British accents who I’m sure were eager to pick up a few spooky souvenirs. This is bat country. Not like Rzeszów, where the locals seem to be divided into two groups on this unwanted Western holiday: those who don’t understand it, but are vaguely (dis)interested and do their best not to understand it any further and those who fit the first description, but also take it upon themselves to prevent anyone else from partaking in any celebration or spreading of this mislabeled “most Satanic holiday of the year”.

Herding the Cattle

Ergo Arena was on lock down. Approaching the building there were neatly organized lines of ticket holders streaming away from the building, awaiting approval to enter the premises. There was a man on a megaphone barking orders at everyone, herding them like animals, which is necessary, especially in Poland where the idea of standing in line doesn’t exist. Over here they live by the rule of “kto pierwszy, ten lepszy” which means “whoever’s first is the best”. If you’ve ever seen Polish people waiting for a bus or for a train, it’s the same deal. As the vehicle approaches, they all start to nervously mill around. Then, as soon as the doors open, they all pour into it at the same time - elbows flailing, bodies cutting incessantly in front of one another, all in a nonsensical attempt to be the first one to enter a train which already has assigned numerical seating. It’s sort of like watching a herd of cattle entering the barnyard as the gate goes up. So the man with the megaphone, although slightly annoying, was completely necessary.

The Media Room

Around the back of the arena was the media entrance. This too was closely guarded. One by one we filed in, emptied our pockets and passed through a metal detector. Once through I checked in and was given my press credentials. I didn’t know it at the time, but my spiffy looking red stripe on the bottom of my identification which I was so proud of, was actually the mark of the beast, an obvious sign to everyone else that I, a UFC media virgin, was not of the elite class of MMA journalists and therefore would be relegated to the media room only.

The media room itself was something to behold. Stretches of six or seven tables each about five meters in length, all with high speed internet access and work space, filled this makeshift room which was constructed of unpainted plywood walls. Upon these walls hung 3 flat screen TVs where we could watch the event. There was also an incredible buffet offering hot meat and pasta dishes as well as a mini salad bar, bottles of water, energy drinks and a first class coffee machine. The catering was attended to by a staff of three competent and attentive employees, ready at all times to collect your used cutlery, plates and cups and refill and empty food trays.

Adjacent to the media room was the press conference room, a room all UFC fans know quite well. At 4:30 pm it was already well prepared with seating, cameras, a microphone and the official-looking UFC backdrop all in place and ready to go for a conference that wasn’t to take place until many hours later.

A Kind of Media Purgatory

Having taken in all the sights, sounds and smells of the media room, it was time to get to where the real action happens - the octagon. There’s a security check point you have to pass through before you make your way down a winding corridor towards the arena floor. I confidently strutted right past the initial cluster of security with my chest out, proudly displaying my credentials. Confidence, as you know, is the key to gaining access to any restricted area at any kind of event. If you’re dressed the part and have a confident swagger about you, that’s 90% of what’s needed to get yourself somewhere you’re not supposed to be. The other 10% is the color of the stripe at the bottom of your credentials.

So I made it past the first group of cronies, down the winding corridor and past another group of muscle heads who tried to get a quick look at my ID as a continued my power walk. Then I saw it - the UFC octagon. There it was in all its splendid glory. I was there. I was really there. For years I’ve seen it on TV, on the internet, on pay-per-view, but now, actually having a firsthand experience with it, and being an esteemed member of the press to boot, it somehow made the moment even more special.

I continued my strut right up to cageside before I was stopped dead in my tracks by the last line of security just before the cage. This guy was not playing around. He saw the red stripe on the bottom of my credentials and pointed me back to where I had come from. I looked to my left and saw the arena floor seating for members of the media. “No”, I bellowed in Polish, in an obviously foreign-sounding accent. “That’s the media area. I’m supposed to be there”. I showed him my ID once again. It did say “press” on my press pass after all, didn’t it? Shouldn’t I be allowed to sit in the area marked “media”?

After a brief exchange, he called another one of his muscle-bound comrades over to try to intimidate me further. They pointed out that all press passes are organized by color and my color is red. This is a restricted area for red press pass holders. Only those with different colors such as orange or blue were allowed here. I needed to turn around ASAP or face the consequences.

I was crushed, but still not convinced that there wasn’t some kind of mistake. I made my way back through the winding corridor and through the initial security check point to where I had first received my credentials. I spoke with the woman who had given me my pass and asked her why the security guard was telling me I wasn’t allowed on the arena floor. She checked some official-looking documents and then confirmed, in a deadly-serious tone, that he was correct and that my red stripe did indeed mean that I only had access to the media room and nothing more. It was a kind of media purgatory, stuck forever somewhere between the back entrance of the building and the arena floor.

Glimmers of Hope

A few of my colleagues that I recognized also had been unfairly labeled with the red stripe, but had not yet figured out our debacle because they had been too sidetracked by the allure of free food and coffee to this point. I decide to break the bad news to them. One such chap was also in disbelief and decided to try his luck, only to meet the same demise as I did.

But then I remembered the other entrance! There’s another way to the arena floor besides through the security check point. There’s also a side door in the conference room. Why didn’t I think of that earlier? When you open that door, it leads out to a corridor that the fighters use from the locker rooms to the cage. Just when I opened it I took a quick look around I was confronted by two women. “You must be looking for the cage”, they said. They directed me how to get there, but then stopped in mid-sentence, noticing the color of my press pass. They then informed me I was relegated to the media room only and that I couldn’t even go down to cageside for a split second, just to get a measly selfie which you know would automatically garner me an unusually high number of Facebook likes.

Having been firmly put in my place a third time now, I accepted my status as a media refugee and my unadulterated occupancy of the media room. I got a cup of gourmet coffee from the machine and began to schmooze with the other media moguls. Then I noticed that a fellow red-striper had somehow got tickets. Tickets?? How did she get tickets? Surely the tickets would allow her access to the main floor, right? Of course. Then I thought, maybe there’s tickets for me as well … there wasn’t. I was almost embarrassed to ask, but did anyway and was promptly shut down for a fourth time.

How the Media Room Works

The goings on in the media room are simple. There’s an official-looking UFC backdrop where interviews are conducted. As the doors were opened at the back of the building and the media entered through the metal detector, they immediately made a b-line for this backdrop to be the first ones to claim their spot for their camera and microphone.

Once a fight is finished, one or both of the fighters make their way back to the media room, directed there by the same women that denied me access to the arena floor via the conference room. When the press hear the conference room door open and see a fighter coming into the media room for an interview after his fight, they all scramble to take their places like chickens with their heads cut off. In fact, it kind of resembles how Polish people all rush at the same time to be the first one to enter a bus or train. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and trying to be the first one to ask questions to the fighter. It’s really something to see.

As soon as the interview is done and the fighter goes back to his locker room, the press immediately take their memory cards out of their cameras and upload it onto their laptops and post the interview in a bid to be the first to one to get it online and therefore get the most views on their video. This goes on and on and on for the duration of the undercard fights. Once the main card fights started, we were informed there would be no more interviews until the show had completely finished, at which time the official press conference would begin in the conference room, adjacent the media room.

It Ain’t Me, Babe

As I’m sitting there in the media room, watching the events unfolding, I realize that not only am I underprepared from a technological standpoint (I only brought my cell phone to record something), but I’m also very rapidly losing interest in competing for a spot to stand and record these post fight interviews. In the words of Bob Dylan “It ain’t me, babe”.

I don’t get any real satisfaction from just reporting what other people are doing. I’ve always been a creative person. That’s what pro wrestling is, after all. It’s storytelling. That’s what I like. I like telling stories about combat sports from my own unique perspective. That’s what this blog is all about and it’s what The FightBox Podcast is all about as well. Doing commentary during a fight is also storytelling. The story is unfolding right before your eyes and you have to describe it in such a way.

And hey, it’s all good if you’re a media person. I get it. It’s a VERY necessary part of combat sports and I’m super happy there are people willing to do that job so that all the rest of us can stay up to date on what’s happening. I’m also happy that the UFC was so thoughtful as to provide all of us with a media room stocked full of hot, fresh food and beverages and free high speed internet access. The only reason why all of us didn’t have access to seating on the arena floor was because there were simply too many of us to accommodate. All I’m saying is that’s not what I find enjoyable, at all.

Every End is a New Beginning

That’s why I’ve decided to close my social media experiment “Fight News Poland”. The whole idea behind it was to report all the combat sports news from Poland, in English. I thought there might be a market for this seeing as how, MMA especially, has loads of great Polish fighters and tons of events every year, but most English speaking people will find it hard to get any information about these fighters and events because it’s all in Polish.

But I can see that even if this project had been a huge success, the path would only lead to one place - the media room, and that’s not where I want to be. I prefer to be behind the microphone or writing blogs - telling stories and using my creativity to give my opinion on what’s going on in the world of combat sports.

- Daniel Austin (blog) (podcast)





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