Two men inside a cage grapple on the floor, one violently pounding his opponent in a no-holds-barred sport banned in many countries, but which has Russian crowds going wild for more.
“Come on, hit him hard,” screamed one of the 1,000 or so spectators packed around the ring at a mixed martial arts (MMA) championship in Moscow.
Often called “fight without rules” in Russian, the combat discipline was virtually unknown here a decade ago, but since then has become an officially recognized sport and gained thousands of fans.
New clubs are popping up all the time and not just for men. Women and children are also training in this extreme fighting style that allows almost any strikes or kicks, including from judo, boxing, taekwondo, karate and kung fu.
Dating to the 1920s, MMA was popularized in the 1990s, but did not catch on in Russia until Russian heavyweight fighter Fedor Emelianenko won a series of international tournaments in 2001 and 2002.
“MMA is now very popular in Russia, almost as popular as boxing and other disciplines that have been around for much longer,” said Ivan Ivanov, director of Rod, one of Moscow’s major clubs.
When Rod opened its doors in 2007, it had a dozen enthusiasts. Now, about 350 people train there, said Ivanov, a bearded former police officer with an imposing build.
“There are a lot of people from the security forces, but also many students and office workers,” he said.
The club admits children over the age of six, who can learn holding and striking techniques with adults. Biting, eye-gouging and strikes to the throat or spine are some of the few techniques that are banned in the ring.
“It’s the sport that most resembles a street fight,” said Vyacheslav “Ali Baba” Yurovskikh, an MMA amateur who at 41 is one of the older competitors at Russian tournaments.
“It’s cold in Russia, so we fight to keep warm,” he joked, saying that despite the sport’s violent reputation, it is not so dangerous. “In the ring, there is a judge who will stop the fight in time.”
Female fighter and Thai boxing champion Anastasiya Yankova, 22, got hooked the first time she tried MMA.
“In the ring, I have no fear. It’s more like a rush of adrenaline. It’s like a drug, a feeling that you want to repeat again and again,” she said.
Still, female fighting remains a rarity in Russia and some of the more fervent MMA participants are not happy with the idea.
The MMA subculture in Russia has become mixed with nationalism as some clubs have striven to only train ethnically Slavic Russians rather than people from the mostly Muslim North Caucasus region, where combat sports are enormously popular.
Some amateur tournaments do not allow non-Slavic Russian fighters from the turbulent southern region, home to many of the country’s successful wrestlers.
One major sponsor of MMA events is Russian clothing brand White Rex, which, according to the company’s own advertising, aims to “recreate the fighting spirit” of the “white people of Europe.”
While the sport has drawn the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a black belt in judo, this has not thrilled some MMA circles, who famously heckled him at one of Emelianenko’s last fights in Moscow in 2011.
Slavic nationalists are not natural Putin supporters and decry his policies to stabilize the North Caucasus with an injection of funding.
Putin was booed when he took the microphone in the huge Olimpiysky Stadium to congratulate Emelianenko for defeating American Jeff Monson — an incident explained away by Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said the jeers were aimed at the fallen US contender.
Yet Anton Nemov, an MMA tournament organizer who was present, said the crowd was angry “basically because it was Putin.”
However, Emelianenko is a Putin supporter and member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, last year traded his shorts for a suit and accepted Putin’s invitation to join his Council for the Development of Physical Culture and Sport.
Vaccines that protect against severe illness, death and lingering long COVID-19 symptoms from a SARS-CoV-2 infection were linked to small increases in neurological, blood and heart-related conditions in the largest global vaccine safety study to date. The rare events — identified early in the pandemic — included a higher risk of heart-related inflammation from mRNA shots made by Pfizer Inc, BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc, and an increased risk of a type of blood clot in the brain after immunization with viral-vector vaccines such as the one developed by the University of Oxford and made by AstraZeneca PLC. The viral-vector jabs were
A steam of sweat rose as hundreds of naked men tussled over a bag of wooden talismans, performing a dramatic end to a thousand-year-old ritual in Japan that took place for the last time. Their passionate chants of “jasso, joyasa” (“evil, be gone”) echoed through a ceder forest in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, where the secluded Kokuseki Temple is ending the popular annual rite. Organizing the event, which draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year, has become a heavy burden for the aging local faithful, who find it hard to keep up with the rigors of the ritual. The Sominsai festival,
Women on Thursday officially joined a so-called “naked festival” at a shrine in central Japan for the first time in the event’s 1,250-year history, donning purple robes and chanting excitedly as they bore a large bamboo trunk as an offering. Seven groups of women took part in the ritual which is said to drive away evil spirits and where participants pray for happiness. Despite its name, those taking part are not naked. Many women wore “Happi Coats” (robes that reach to the hips) and shorts that are typically worn at Japanese festivals, although men just wore loincloths similar to those worn by
DECLINE: About 27 million Argentines are poor, of which 15 percent are mired in ‘destitution,’ meaning they cannot adequately cover their food needs, a study showed Poverty levels last month skyrocketed to 57.4 percent of Argentina’s population of 46 million, the highest rate in 20 years, a study by the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) showed. The findings quickly unleashed accusations between Argentina’s former vice president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and the government of President Javier Milei, who came to power announcing a series of shock measures aimed at tackling the country’s severe crisis. About 27 million people in Argentina are poor and 15 percent of those are mired in “destitution,” meaning they cannot adequately cover their food needs, according to the study released over the weekend. The UCA’s