Fightland Interview with russian underground mma legend Ali Baba
If the most famous nickname in Russian MMA belongs to Fedor Emelianenko—The Last Emperor—perhaps the most infamous nickname in Russian MMA belongs to a 40-year-old homeless man who goes by Ali Baba. There's no one who knows the Russian fighting scene better than Ali Baba, a veteran of the country's underground fight scene who travels the country looking for tournaments, hoping to win enough money to scrape by. Fighters both professional and amateur call him the legend and the main MMA traveler of Russia. He's fought in countless events across the ex-Soviet Union both official and very unofficial. He's fought in cages and in street fights organized by rival football firms.
Ali Baba and I met at an undisclosed location in Moscow, whose streets he lives on, to talk about life as a Russian fighter, the joys and pains of a traveling mixed martial artist, and his second life as a sports blogger.
Fightland: Many people see you as a legend. What’s popularity like for you?
Ali Baba: There’s even a photo called “Two Legends”--me and Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor being the official legend and me being the legend of the underground fighting scene. For many people who read my blog and see me fighting I symbolize the spirit of a fighter.They say that the spirit of a fighter has arisen inside of me. I have never fought before and then, just of a sudden, I went to fight and kick everyone’s ass. For tournament organizers and coaches, I’m a living legend who proves that at the age of 40 you can still fight.
I’m also like an elder brother for many. Especially for those who don’t have fathers or have fathers who are drinking and pay no attention to their kids. Kids often write to me asking for advice, sometimes they ask me about social needs. I once had a whole love affair that I was part of.
With all that, I consider myself just an ordinary man, that’s all. Maybe I’d like to feel something like [a hero] but as another Russian saying goes, “You can’t foul a mirror.” One-eyed, squint-eyed, defective, imperfect. This just kills any desire to be famous no matter how hard I’ve tried to turn my birth defect into an advantage. I’ve submitted to the fact that that’s the way I look, that’s how God created me. I won’t become more beautiful or better looking, so live the way you are.
What about your defect? Did you want to get rid of it?
When I was born, doctors were telling my mother to leave me. They were calling me an ugly creature, but I’m thankful to my parents that they haven’t left me. Whenever we were going out many people were calling me a monster and it was hard time for my family.
My mother was told that I was crazy and no high school will accept me thus I could only go to a school for mentally retarded, but my mum found an orphanage in central Russia and had to write to the USSR Ministry of Health to get me in.
Everyone have different speech defects. I know that I can get rid of my defect but then I need to cut off my nose so I could speak and breath normally. In 1989 I saw the film Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke. His character also has a speech defect and he got it fixed. When I saw how doctors helped him, I wanted to do the same and went through 10 surgeries. The unfortunate thing was that, in the USSR, we didn’t have the technologies of today; doctors were using primitive methods. Now if you have such a defect you will get a surgery as a kid and you are good to go. I also was unfortunate to go through an incorrect surgery. When they were done and I felt that the surgery was a failure, because I still couldn’t breath, I had a nervous breakdown. Then I’ve just given up on all this and decided not to do any more surgeries. I often meet people who say they don’t understand what I say. When people say this intentionally it hurts a lot, and that’s when you get the inferiority complex. But now that I have my nose broken many think that my speech defect is part of that--that I was beaten up and that’s the reason I speak like this.
To do the right surgery now I need a lot of money and two years to recover. When doctors found out that I was fighting, they told me to finish fighting first and then they will help.
Did you fight as a kid?
I haven’t been into sport at all when I was a kid. I haven’t been involved in any fights. I liked movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, that’s it. But no, I was a nice boy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who spent most of the time at home. Then I was sent to that orphanage where we didn’t have any sport clubs. There were sambo, boxing clubs in the town the orphanage was in; maybe I would have loved to box or wrestle but we weren’t allowed to go anywhere. It was like a prison zone or an army. One kid wrote about the place that it was like a Gestapo.
The best thing about my time at the orphanage, though, was that we didn’t have Internet or cell phones; we read books and it worked for the benefit of our imagination. The orphanage didn’t have a big library so when a copy of Mayne Reid arrived there was a half a year line to get it. Kids were fighting for it. Once we’ve got King Solomon’s Mines, we’ve been reading it all together, one chapter per night, and couldn’t sleep because we were anxious to know what would happen next.
When did you start doing martial arts?
It was in my last year at the university. I was 27 at that time. I decided to go to the university wrestling club but the coach there told me to **** off because of my age, and I went to do sambo instead since everyone was welcome there. I have trained there for three years. I’ve been doing it more for fun since I like to wrestle but don’t like to do weight lifting or any special exercises.
Then I haven’t been doing any martial arts for a while because I was working my ass out to pay for a room that I got. I was getting $150 as a courier but that was the price of my rent so I had to get another job as a janitor at a beer store. In less than a year I was asked to leave my job and I was once again in the streets of Moscow.
Then I got a gig at the university. I was asked to be a PE teacher because other teachers were heavy on drinking alcohol and missing classes. They didn’t care about students. When they saw me, they were laughing, saying that I would do the coaching today because they knew that I wouldn’t leave students.
I started to teach sambo, some simple moves that I’ve learned from before. We had only 45 minutes and you couldn’t show much in this short period of time. Since I wasn’t a professional, most of my classes were in the lecture mode. I was telling my students that maybe I won’t teach them much but I’ll teach them how to fall. If you know that, you won’t hurt yourself when falling and you won’t fall down in life.
I went there hoping to get a room at the students residence because teachers were getting rooms at the residence while teaching. I’ve been teaching for four years but didn’t get the room. I was getting $50 a month instead. I didn’t have money even to buy bread. Sometimes I wanted to crunch a table--that’s how hungry I was--so I had to borrow money from my students and sleep in basements and at railway stations.
Was it then that you decided to start traveling to fight at all these different tournaments?
I didn’t have any money so I went back to being a janitor and pull some cash first. I’ve worked there for four years. I wasn’t doing any fighting but was part of a different fight between raiders’ groups for the building I was a janitor at. They were turning off water, electricity. Corporate raiders, a usual scene for Moscow, so, at the end, I’ve left.
That’s when I got back to fighting. I went to train at one of Moscow sambo clubs and I had a sparring with one young fellow who threw me and I had my arm disjointed. I’ve jointed back myself because I couldn’t go to a doctor since I don’t have a registration in Moscow. I was blaming myself for going there in the first place after such a long break. But time has passed and I went there again. Then I’ve read on the web that there was a jiu-jitsu tournament in St. Petersburg. It turned out to be grappling, not jiu-jitsu, though, but it was one of the first big fight tournaments in Russia. I was very nervous and afraid of my fight being videotaped. I thought I would look like a dork but I won the first fight. The second fight I got my rib broken, though.
What makes you travel?
Any tournament for me is a good excuse to see another town or city and to compete. Any fight is like a Sunday attraction for me. If I win, I get a medal or a diploma. If not, good memories from the city I’ve just been to. I find watching fighting boring. One thing is to watch; the other is to fight--different emotions. I don’t have the goal to beat everyone, win every fight, and win the first place. For me the most important thing is to stay alive and not have shiners all over my face.
I’ve started with different tournaments and types of martial arts. I usually Google for tournaments and decide if I want to compete or not. Then I buy the cheapest train ticket. When on location, I always walk to the place of the tournament even if it’s far. I don’t eat much, maybe a bun and a bottle of Pepsi during the day, and I never eat anything on the day of the fight. If I know that a buddy of mine takes part in the tournament, I hope that he might land me some money for a return ticket because sometimes I might be short of just $2. I try to save money by doing random jobs but sometimes I have to beg for money at railway stations. I try to be honest and not look like a bum or a drunkard, but if I don’t have money, I don’t travel.
Have you had any problems with police when traveling?
I constantly have problems with the police. Whenever I come to a town or a city or go back to Moscow. I barely get off the train and I’m already asked for my ID. “Where are you going? Show your stuff, your veins.” They see right away that I’m not local. During the war in Chechnya I used to be stopped everyday; if they didn’t stop me, it was like a holiday. For a while I thought that the police textbook had a lead with a photo that resembled me. There are also closed cities in Russia; when I get to travel there I am stopped three times within an hour.
You became known after you started blogging on mmablog.ru. How did that come about?
A good friend of mine, black belt in jiu-jitsu, Nikolai Bukharin, who I went to a sambo club with, started the blog and invited me to write.
At first, I’ve just registered as a friend. But during my first trip to a grappling tournament, I’ve written couple comments regarding the tournament. Then I’ve posted videos of my fight where I’ve broken my ribs and described my experience after someone asked me how I’ve found out that my ribs were broken. Then I’ve just kept on writing about my impressions of the tournaments I went to and cities I’ve visited.
Some club owners and tournament organizers hate me because I write the truth. They tell me not to write anything because I’ll have problems if I keep on writing about the cities and tournaments that I will never go to because of bad organization. But look, just recently, I went to a tournament in Tula (a city 170 km outside of Moscow) for the annual Day of Youth, but instead of an MMA tournament the local city hall gave the venue away to a men strip show. But most of the time organizers put their soul in a tournament, they find accommodation for fighters to stay at, provide food and transportation.
Mmablog.ru has been awarding you "MMA Masochist" and "MMA Samurai" awards for several years. What’s this all about?
They’ve recently cancelled the nomination because they have understood these will be life nominations for me. There are two sides to the story. On the one hand I’m this fearless samurai, on the other a butthead who doesn't have any technique but continues to fight and gets his ass kicked. But as Fedor Emelianenko once said, “Who hasn’t been knocked down, hasn’t risen.”
I know that you had all your stuff, including your laptop, stolen recently. How are you going to maintain the blog now?
First time that I had my stuff stolen. I also had my Bad Boy shorts in the same ruck sack that got stolen. But I have a life principle not to become attached to anything.
I am now asking my friends to let me use their computer. Anyways, I always write everything on paper first then I choose the best parts for the blog. That’s why I always carry a pen with me. Even if I don’t have paper and I have a thought I can use a napkin, or if I travel I never throw a candy wrapper because I can always use it for writing. If I don’t write down an interesting thought, I’ll forget it. By the time I go online I have up to 15 variants of the text with different beginnings and endings.
How do you prepare for fights?
Before fights I can go to a bunch of sport clubs where I can get myself in shape, stretch my muscles. And just before a fight I stretch my knees, ears, eyebrows, nose so I get less injuries when kicked. I don’t train specifically for a fight so I just go out and fight. If I’m in a good mood, I win. If not, I try to get less punched in the face and kicks in the head.
You need to study your competitor but I never do. First, because I don’t like to watch fights. I’ll burn out before the fight and lose so much needed energy. Secondly, it’s more interesting to fight without knowing who you are fighting beforehand. It’s like passing a level in a computer game, one after another, when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
What happened to your nose?
It’s broken. It was one of my first fights and I went to take part in this cannibal version of fighting tournaments with no rules called T1. At that time I was like Pinocchio trying myself in different tournaments because of pure interest. I would have continued the fight with the broken nose but the organizers got too scared and shut down the whole tournament because of me.
Tell me about T1 tournaments.
T1 is like an online movie where they kill people live. Alexander Shlemenko, the Bellator champion, started with such fights. There is no time restrictions either; you kick your opponent with whatever you like until he’s knockdown or faints. And all the time they are fighting, there is huge money bet on one fighter or the other. It’s a tournament that usually takes place, say, at a farm, a secret place, or a hangar at a military base. With a secret password that only people involved know, three levels of checkpoint that you have to pass to get in. $100 entrance fee but you end up paying 10 times more for medical treatment. Fighters go there to try and earn some cash. Usually there are three winners, with $2000 for the winner. The losers have to walk to the nearest hospital.
There’s going to be another similar fight tournament soon. I was asked to provide fighters, or rather “human flesh,” and promote the tournament. It’s supposed to be for so-called Russian golden youth (rich kids) that come to bet. It’s bread and circuses. Even without my experience, it’s easy to find fighters for such tournaments: Just go to the North Caucasus, where half of the region is ready to kill each other.
I know that you were also taking part in football firms’ fights. Tell me a little bit about that.
They set a time and place then fight. They coordinate movements via cell phones, meeting in groups of five to 10 people and walk to a certain location. Everyone uses an extra sim card that’s thrown away afterwards. It happens more or less spontaneously. No social networking because it could all be figured out by the police. Also you can’t film fights because if it gets on YouTube, it’ll be spotted by FSB (ex-KGB) because it’s a very strong and influential group of young people that the government is following closely. Remember how they fought police just meters away from the Kremlin.
Usually they only fight with their hands but sometimes they use clubs. Everyone’s wearing masks. Usually there are fights 10 versus 10 or 30 versus 30 or 50 versus 50. There are even MMA tournaments between firms; authorities and football clubs know about this but tend not to get involved. Usually they have 10 fights in 10 different disciplines.
There are many firm fighters who are masters of sambo or jiu-jitsu. There are also closed clubs where fans train specifically for fights. It’s free; three days they box, three days they do wrestling, Muay Thai and then use all the techniques in fights. They don’t care about football; it’s all about fighting. There are even plans to do legal eight-versus-eight fights with no rules, simple kickass.
How often do you get to see your family?
From time to time, when I have money. But I hate the town my parents live in with all my heart. Half of the people of my age there died from cancer, the other half was killed either in the 1990s, since it was a criminal city, or are now in prison.
I go there only because of my parents. I would have taken them somewhere else if I had an opportunity. It’s a constant Groundhog Day. You can stay for a day or a month but it’ll look like one day to you as though nothing has changed. When you are there, you are pressed with a constant feeling of not wanting to do anything. All the time I’m there, I can’t read a single book, watch a single movie. If you need to go to a bakery, that’s round the corner, you could be dressing for five hours. And when you get to the bakery, you get a feeling as though you were walking for a week through the mountains.
There is also an ecological catastrophe with oil refinery, chemical factories, and now they are planning to build a mercury factory. You can’t even open a window because the smell is unbearable. Same with water: You can’t drink it even if you boil it you get an oil film. I drink only coffee when I am there; at least it kills the smell coming from the factories.
What’s your dream?
I want to get a house or at least a flat so my parents could live in normal conditions because they had more sufferings on their part than myself. I don’t know how many years they are given by God. I hope it’s going to happen. I once had an opportunity to take them to Egypt because it’s cheap. The sea is cleaner. I’ve saved money to take them there. They came back and have been talking for weeks, telling everyone about the trip.