KSW 31 aired live on Fight Network this past Saturday, May 23 and it brought the international expansion of the sport to the forefront of the MMA community once again. Former World’s Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski absolutely wrecked Rolles Gracie Jr. with a 27 second TKO initiated by a huge right hand, while KSW heavyweight champion Karol Bedorf won a dominant unanimous decision over former Bellator fighter and K-1 standout Peter “The Chief” Graham in a non-title affair. In the main event, Michał Materla finished Tomasz Drwal late in the third to capture the middleweight title.

If you didn’t catch it, you missed a solid night of action from Gdansk, Poland — but don’t worry, there are plenty of international shows to come.

While the UFC has long been wise to the necessity for international expansion, regional and national promotions like KSW (Poland), ONE FC (Southeast Asia), SFL (India), IGF (Japan), EFC (South Africa), and others have popped up, in many cases paying out serious cash to top fighters, especially the top local fighters. And that’s not even including the likes of DEEP, VTJ, and M-1, who have been in the game for some time.

KSW, however, serves as an excellent case study.  And shows the difficulty international expansion brings to the rankings game.

By virtue of market dominance, the UFC has been the premiere MMA organization since the demise/purchase by Zuffa of Pride (and to a lesser extent, Strikeforce). Yet in areas with little to no UFC penetration (read, outside North America, Brazil, and some parts of Western Europe), a lot of top calibre talent has gone all but ignored by the MMA fanbase (and to some extent the MMA media), especially when it comes to drawing up the ever popular fighter ranking lists. Since most of those focus on a top ten, or top fifteen, getting deeper into the rank and file may seem a little pointless — but as the sport grows, it is becoming more and more crucial.

What do rankings really mean? Well, for a fighter in the UFC, they almost meant how much sponsorship money a fighter would receive from the promotion’s exclusive deal with Reebok, though that was changed recently to tenure. Outside the promotion, however, rankings, and the issue of notability, can mean increased pay for fighters, and a shot at fighting for a larger promotion. In short, being ranked, and even having a wikipedia entry, can get a fighter to the next level, as rankings and notability should — yet as the sport has pushed into new territories (Russia, Poland, Asia), a decidedly western bias has taken root.

It goes something like this: surely the UFC (and to a lesser extent Bellator and the WSOF) have all the top fighters in the world, because they’re the big promotions, right? They’ve got big television deals in the U.S. and elsewhere after all.

Yet exposure doesn’t determine quality, and that’s something that far too many parties in the MMA game don’t seem to get. Which takes us back to the KSW example: KSW, thus far, hasn’t had a lot of exposure outside Poland. Yet the reverse is also true: until recently, the UFC, the world’s largest MMA promotion, didn’t have much exposure in Poland. In the same way that casual fans of the fight game say “I’m a UFC fan” or “I want to train UFC,” fans in Poland would say “I want to train KSW” and “I follow KSW.” The initials are just as synonymous with MMA in Poland as the UFC is in the west. That situation is changing, especially with Joanna Jjedrzejczyk as the UFC women’s strawweight champion, but that’s a more recent development.

Again, exposure and popularity don’t dictate the quality of fighters — but when you have a thriving MMA scene in a region that’s untapped by the major (western) MMA promotions, you need to start to reconsider the whole “the best fighters are in XXX promotion” argument. Especially when you have the likes of KSW’s Bedorf, Ben Askren, Satoshi Ishii, Bibiano Fernades, and others all outside of the “big three” North American MMA outfits. Bedorf doesn’t even qualify for a Wikipedia page as he hasn’t appeared in one of the major North American promotions (only the UFC and Bellator are considered reputable enough for that), despite having wins over the likes of Rolles Gracie Jr., Oli Thompson, and now Graham — all of whom actually do qualify. Of course, the same issue can sometimes befell even UFC fighters: thanks to the same asinine judgment about which fighters matter, even Rin Nakai, contracted to the UFC, is denied entry in the crowd-sourced encyclopedia, despite having held multiple titles in smaller promotions.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t an argument claiming that someone like Bedorf, or Ishii, would suddenly dethrone Cain Velasquez. Yet they’re unquestionably undervalued because, frankly, to most fans, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind. If they don’t know a fighter’s name, regardless of how many wins they have, the question is quickly “who have they beaten? I don’t know any of those guys.” As if there aren’t plenty of great fighters across the globe we all haven’t heard of.

What all this comes down to is a matter of perspective: as most fans know, any fighter can win on any given night. So how highly should we hold rankings that focus only on the North American-based promotions and maybe throw in one or two top names from elsewhere at best? And should we start pushing, as fans (and especially those of us with voices and platforms to push the idea) for more cross-promotion between fight outfits in different regions of the globe?

There’s no easy answer. The only thing that is certain is that the sport is still growing — and these issues will continue to creep up.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.