Fifa World Cup: Russia football hooligans nowhere to be seen, but Strelka fight club builds respect on streets
Anyone can turn up and fight at Strelka’s events on the streets of Russia – from fat, out-of-shape lawyers to dwarves – with bouts promoting ‘mutual respect and kindness’
You may have been expecting to see television images of Russian football hooligans brawling outside stadiums at the World Cup – but the only fights on the streets of Russia right now are built on mutual respect.
A growing “fight club” named Strelka in Russia is pitting white collar workers and hard-nosed fighters against each other in mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts – but the organisation insists they operate on the spirit of sportsmanship and have nothing to do with the infamous Russian football thugs.
“What a myzhik!” the ring announcer roars approvingly, using a Russian phrase for “real man”, as a rotund lawyer gets battered by a boxer. “This is what I call fighting spirit.”
Watched by his wife and two children, the lawyer fights courageously against his muscular, shaven-headed opponent, but is ultimately battered.
Blood smeared, he kisses his young daughter tenderly on the cheek and the announcer booms: “Your daddy can do anything!”
This is a real-life Fight Club – Russian style. No less brutal than the film starring Brad Pitt, it is perfectly legal, and its makeshift rings have sprang up all over the world’s largest country. Strelka’s YouTube channel has over half a million subscribers and anyone can turn up and fight.
In Russian, Strelka can mean clock hand, from the expression “to nail down a Strelka for someone”, meaning fixing a time for an adversary to do battle.
The aim of Strelka is not to promote bloody fights, but respect.
“Our contests are not built on anger. Anger is stressful and it is short term – you get angry, then you regret it, then you apologise,” said a Strelka organiser who identified himself as Greg.
“Kindness is a long-term, sustainable emotion. Pro fights are about anger, humiliation, putting people down, dominating them psychologically. Our fights have the foundation of mutual respect and kindness. Of course, the pain is real and the fear the guys feel is real.”
The online explosion of Strelka has come at a sensitive time, with fears that Russia’s notorious football hooligans – who are disciplined, fit, and well trained in martial arts – could cause trouble and overshadow the World Cup, having caused chaos on the streets of France at the 2016 European Championship.
But the tournament is in full swing in Russia and there have been no incidents of violence.
“Nothing to do with us,” Greg said, laughing. “You must know that the hooligans that you saw in the news, are not young working-class thugs. They are older, they are professionally successful, and they have money.”
Greg said the hooligans have the time and finances to travel to Europe and pay for MMA coaches, and to afford medical care after fights.
“They think they are adventurers who go abroad and fight,” said Greg, who claims to have promoted Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko. “This is a closed, exclusive circle, we are not part of it and don’t want to be.”
The Strelka YouTube video titles include “Tattoo Artist v Uber Driver”, “Naval Recon Runs into a Geek” and “Battling Dwarf”.
Dennis the dwarf takes on a much larger opponent, pounds the opposition’s face with precise punches until the referee declares him the victor.
Dennis immediately thanks his opponent on the microphone: “I hope you continue with the sport.”
The announcer added: “You will see this man again! He is a machine!”.
His victim, a well-spoken, skinny, long-haired youngster, is also honoured: “Respect! You travelled all the way here to fight, and fought well.”
There is no trash talk, no posturing, no intimidation, just respect and even affection between opponents and their supporters.
Greg said they have almost 9,000 fighters across Russia registered on their site: “Most are ordinary, hard-working guys, with families to feed. They do not fight for money, we either pay nothing or very little. They bring their kids to the fights.
“A man wants to show his son that his dad is not a guy who just sits on the sofa drinking beer watching football, he wants to show that his dad is a brave man. These guys put their whole soul into every fight.”
Fighters accumulate experience points, climb the rankings and build up their popularity in Strelka. They are awarded badges after each fight, like “Great Victory”, or bizarrely, “Angry Pumpkin”.
Strelka’s website is slick, with schedules for fights in 50 Russian cities, advertisements and information for aspiring fights. But fighters are paid little to nothing.
So what drives ordinary Russians into an MMA ring?
“In our society, there are a lot of frustrations. The Russians have historically felt oppressed by life’s hardships, by the people in power. Ordinary people feel they do not have a voice,” Greg said.
“And so, the Russians have a tradition to vent this frustration in regulated public fights. Kulachniy boi (bare knuckle boxing) at public events has been part of Russian tradition for centuries. We just continue this tradition. We make these guys feel free in the ring.”