"Straight Outta Legnica"
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of "Straight Outta Compton," the N.W.A. record that is universally recognized as the first blockbuster gangsta rap album.
Much has changed since the genre's heyday from the late 80s to the mid-90s. Today the style's top stars like Jay-Z and 50 Cent are busy with their own clothing brands and movie appearances -- as far removed from the streets as fellow pop icons Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake.
In other countries, however, the gangsta lifestyle has been preserved. Germany and Russia have vivid gangsta rap scenes, as does Poland.
A prominent representative of Polish hip-hop is Legnica's Popek Rak (Pictures), a member of the five-piece group Firma. What distinguishes the heavily tattooed muscleman from other hardcore rappers around the world? Rak is also a professional fighter.
At a solid 240 pounds, his massive chest, shoulders and back present a large canvas for his countless tattoos. Most of them have a meaning, a bond with his life: 2Pac, Outlaw, Team Titan. He also has a championship belt tattooed across his stomach.
"In my life I have faced much opposition," Rak said. "For seven long years I have been devoid of the freedom. Now I teach the youth to keep their focus. In order to understand, you must have been brought up on the streets."
Growing up in Legnica, a copper mining city in southwestern Poland, was rough on a young Rak. With an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent and a number of unreported cases that was even higher, youth and young adults were either forced to leave the country or try to get by on the streets. Rak chose the second option, which led to numerous conflicts with police.
Things changed for the better when he moved to Cracow around the turn of the new millennium and joined founder Taded and deejay Kali in rap group Firma. Rak's friend Pomidor from Legnica and Roman Boski, a freestyler from Cracow, also joined the trio. In the time period following, the quintet rapped about life on the streets and gained a large underground fan base.
This was not the end of the road for Rak, however. He relocated once more, this time to London.
With a longtime affinity for martial arts -- he had trained in the Israeli military hand-to-hand combat system krav maga back in Poland -- Rak joined Team Titan in the summer of 2006. Under head coach Mickey Papas, the "best trainer in London" according to Popek, he started training MMA. His daily stint: two and a half hours per day, six days a week.
The Titans, who are based in Enfield in the north of London, have a very solid roster of fighters in all weight classes, including up-and-coming middleweight Ed Smith (Pictures), Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt Henrique Santana (Pictures), undefeated prospect Luke Smith and former Cage Rage British featherweight champion Brad Pickett (Pictures).
Rak is full of praise for his training partners.
"Everyday I'm learning something new," he said. "All of my teammates have mastered different techniques, so one will teach me Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the next one muay Thai. I'm still learning. Maybe in three or four years' time I'll be a good fighter. There are a lot of techniques that I don't know yet, so I still consider myself an incomplete fighter. My strengths so far are my raw power, my top game and my desire to succeed."
His role model as a rapper is the late Tupac Shakur, but whom does he look up to in the cage?
"I try to model myself on fighters like Tito Ortiz (Pictures), Chuck Liddell (Pictures), Ken Shamrock (Pictures) and Vitor Belfort (Pictures)," Rak said. "But there are many others. I respect each fighter who has the courage to enter the cage and go to war."
Rak made his professional debut in February, stopping fellow debutant Glen Reid (Pictures) in the second round at Cage Rage Contenders 8. In addition to decent wrestling skills and heavy hands, Popek also brought an entourage of several hundred Polish fans with him. The hot-blooded Slavs packed into a venue that was too small, which nearly led to a riot before Rak persuaded his supporters to calm down.
Promoter Cage Rage wisely moved Rak to the big stage for his next fight, a bout Saturday at Cage Rage 26 against Kevin Simms (Pictures).
"I saw one of his fights and I think he is good on the ground," Rak said of his next opponent. "I'm gonna try to win the fight standing up, but if I have to use jiu-jitsu, I'll do it. I have been training for two full months for this fight, lifting weights, doing fitness training and getting my sparring in every day except for Sundays. I am ready to fight."
With Rak taking the fight game seriously, one has to wonder how it affects his lifestyle as a rapper, which at least is said to be all about "booze, blunts" and women.
"It is hard to do both rapping and fighting at the same time," he admits. "Often I play a concert, but I can't drink because I have to wake up for training the next morning. But in the end, I put my fighting career before that little bit of fun. I'm in this for real."
On one side you have Popek the notorious rapper. On the other there is Rak the dedicated fighter. But then there is yet another dimension of the man. A Roman Catholic, Rak prays daily.
He also has an open mind that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a young man in his mid-20s who came from the school of hard knocks.
"I think it doesn't matter where you're from," Rak said. "What's important is the will to work hard. If you do that, you can be the best regardless of your profession. You can be whoever you want. Just be strong and never give up."
With that said, it is uncertain what the future holds for Rak the fighter.
"I just go out and fight," he said. "I will win some and surely I will also lose some. We will only see how good and successful I can be at this in a couple of years from now. But I am positive."
As far as Popek the rapper goes, he has the same kind of ambition that Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube had back in 1988.
"Twenty years down the road, I see myself with my wife and our two children sitting at home in front of an 87-inch plasma TV, smoking spliffs," he said, before adding with a laugh, "with a couple of million on the account."