From hotel barroom to pan-European dominance. The phenomenal rise of Poland’s mixed martial arts and the man behind it

Former hotel manager and co-owner of KSW, Martin Lewandowski, became known as ‘King of the Barter’ in the early days as he and his business partner started promoting mixed martial arts out of their own pockets. Kalbar/TFN

Poland’s biggest Mixed Martial Arts organisations, Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW) turned 15-years-old in February this year.

From humble beginnings in the bar of the Marriott Hotel in central Warsaw with attendances in the hundreds, it has now grown into a behemoth that regularly attracts live audiences in the tens of thousands.

On 27th May 2017 they drew the 2nd biggest live crowd in MMA history, 57,776 fans packed into the National Stadium in Warsaw to witness an unforgettable night of sporting entertainment.

Today MMA has a respectable face, as pictured last month during the official weigh in between Marcin Wrzosek (L) and Krzysztof Klaczek (R) in Łodz. But Lewandowski recalls that when they first started it was associated with the criminal underworld.Grzegorz Michałowski/PAP

It wasn’t always so easy for the joint owners, Martin Lewandowski and Maciej Kawulski.

Former manager of the Marriott hotel, Lewandowski told TFN: “I had to take the money from my pocket and Maciej’s pocket of course. On one of the first shows we lost like 5,000 PLN, that was a lot of money to us then. At first it was all about the barter, I was called the ‘King of the Barter’.”

The ‘King of the Barter’ has not only grown a multinational company out of a hotel bar but has changed the image of a sport once associated with unsavoury elements: “When we started it used to be associated with the worst cases. Criminals, hooligans, dog fights. People thought you could lose your life there, so very bad PR. Now it’s more associated with celebrities, something very unique. The audience who comes is like everyday people, students to business man and the bad image of the sport has gone,” said Lewandowski.

Not only does the sport attract celebrities such as actor Jakub Wesołowski (pictured centre) but also everyone from students to businessmen.Grzegorz Michałowski/PAP

It is not just in Poland that KSW is enjoying growing popularity. The company has held events in London and Dublin over the last three years, each time drawing crowds in the thousands  and outselling local rivals by 300%. Their popularity is so strong in the UK and Ireland that their PPVs (Pay Per View) earn them so much money they have no need for a television deal.

KSW is showing their event from Lublin live for free on Polsat, tonight, the last live event broadcast for free on Polish TV attracted more viewers (1.5 million peak, 1.3 million average) than a football match between Poland’s two most popular football teams (1.2 million average).

An area which is growing fast is the amateur side of the sport and Lewandowski has been working hard to develop not only fighters but the whole infrastructure including academies, training camps, judges and cutmen: “This is where I feel my role should be also, to develop the amateurs. People will know what MMA is, what it’s all about and how you should train.”Kalbar/TFN

KSWTV is already available in over 100 countries around the world and KSW events are broadcast live in the USA on DAZN, in Canada on The Fight Network and RTL in Croatia.  Only this week the company announced a new broadcast deal with Germany’s Bild, the biggest selling newspaper in Europe, to broadcast KSW event live on Bild’s main streaming platform. This is a huge step forward for the KSW as Germany is their 3rd most important market.

Back home in Poland they are preparing to put out more content with a TV show, KSW League, that will be broadcast later in the year: “KSW League will be a smaller studio show with fighters who don’t have much experience or aren’t so well known. I will work as a talent hunter, trying to find a new Khalidov,” Lewandowski said in reference to Mamed Khalidov, a former KSW middleweight champion.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the sport is also attracting woman, not just as spectators – around 30-40 percent of the audience are women – but as contestants, with Ariane Lipski, Paulina Raszewska and Karolina Owczarz being the most popular.

Women are also beginning to get involved in the sport with these three being some of the biggest names. From L-R: Paulina Raszewska, Ariane Lipski, and Karolina Owczarz.KSW

But despite promoting the female side of the sport, Lewandowski admits it still has a long way to go. “We invested a lot in female fighters and it wasn’t as successful as I hoped,” he explained.

“The women’s MMA fights bring a lot of attention but people don’t want to pay to see only females as the main event. Even when we had Ariane Lipski, you know she was beautiful, dangerous, with Polish roots, we dedicated one of the shows to her, huge promotion around the female fighter and it didn’t pay off. People want to watch it but don’t want to pay for it. Women are good on the fightcard but not as the main event.  We need to work on that, we still have female fighters in the company but it will take time I guess. Not many organizations around the world can make a main event and get a lot of money for that from women fighters. ”

Karolina Owczarz (L) and Marta Chojnowska (R) during the official weigh-in before the KSW 47 gala last month.Grzegorz Michałowski/PAP

An area which is growing however is the amateur side of the sport. Lewandowski has been working hard to develop not only fighters but the whole infrastructure including academies, training camps, judges and  cutmen: “This is where I feel my role should be also, to develop the amateurs. People will know what MMA is, what it’s all about and how you should train. That is why this summer we will comeback with the camps.”

The camps Lewandowski was referring to, are training camps run by the company which give fans the chance to spend a week training like a professional and learning about the many facets of the sport.

Despite the phenomenal successes, however, Lewandowski is cautious about floating the company on the stock exchange.

Lewandowski said: “Fifteen years ago 300 people witnessed the birth of something and am sure everyone in attendance that night would have told you that you were crazy if you predicted where KSW would be in 2019.”Kalbar/TFN

He explained: “There was such an idea. We had talks with some people who were convincing me about doing this but I don’t think it’s a good time right now. We need something different than money from the stockholders, we need the European strong partner who brings us to the European market easier and can do things there faster. Somebody with connections who is well established and can give us faster brand awareness outside of Poland.”

There are not many people who could join Lewandowski and Kawulski on their ride atop one of Poland’s most recognizable brands. Even fewer who might be able to take them further than they have got so far.

But as Lewandowski points out: “The biggest MMA company in the World was sold for $4.2 billion in 2017, a crazy number but 15 years ago 300 people witnessed the birth of something and am sure everyone in attendance that night would have told you that you were crazy if you predicted where KSW would be in 2019.”