If you were in Brooklyn in 2001, and you wandered south of the Belt Parkway to the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, you might have seen the posters. Colorful posters, taped to lamp posts and hanging in the windows of shops whose awnings bore Cyrillic letters. The posters promised violence, promised heroes to cheer for, promised a slice of the kind of thrills offered by the UFC (which was at the time banned from pay-per-view, but would soon make a comeback in a big way).
The posters advertised something called “International Fight Night”.
Organized by Ukrainian expat Gene Fabrikant and held in the Atlantic Oceana Hall, International Fight Night (IFN) was like magical bauble that, when held up to the light, was something different to everyone. To Fabrikant, it was the next logical step in a career as a sambo and wrestling coach. To those who fought in the IFN ring, it was a rare chance to test martial skill and snatch a weekend’s worth of glory. To Paul Rosner of United States Kickboxing Association (USKBA), it was an event to sanction, in a time when no one was quite sure what was supposed to mean. To the athletic commission, it was something less than legal, a combative sport endeavor ignored at first, then stamped out on the eve of show number five or six (exact numbers are hard to pin down – fight databases were nebulous things back then, and when Rosner passed away in 2009 and Fabrikant in 2010, they took with them the finer details on Fabrikant’s IFN baby).
And so it was that IFN 2 came about on May 31, 2001, an event that brought together fighters from nearby neighborhoods and Queens and New Jersey and elsewhere, each of them riding the D train to a subway stop just shy of Coney Island, braving the cigar smoke and spilled vodka to be cheered by strangers.
There was Vladislav Koulikov, who’d trained at the famed Sambo-70 school in Moscow, Russia, and whose name alone was enough to give the very partisan audience someone to root for.
Rimat Myrzabekov was another such ringer, and since he’d earned a 4-0 record in BAMA Fight Night events, cutting a swath through the competition with Tae Kwon Do spinning kicks and smooth submissions, he was put in the main event as the star attraction, the surefire hero of the hour.
Since every hero needs a villain, there were the non-Russian competitors, like Nardu Debra and Christian Montes, a pair of martial artists who put no limits on the range of skills they sought to acquire – and who jumped at the opportunity to test themselves. Though they had competed in contests centered around other disciplines, IFN 2 would be their first forays into the world of limited-rules combat.
How did you hear about the event and come to fight in it?
Nardu: I was already fighting in sanshou matches. And when it was doing that, I was training at Gleason’s, a famous boxing gym in Brooklyn. A kickboxer named Vladimir Borodin used to bring his fighters over to spar there, and I’d spar with them, and I heard about the show through them.
At that time the UFC was around and I wanted to fight in a way where I’m not so limited by the rules, and there really wasn’t anything like that, so once I found out they had NHB (ed. note: for “no holds barred”) matches – they were calling it NHB then – I said sign me up.
I called up the promoter and he said to come on down. I was supposed to be the lamb going to the slaughter.
I was talking to Gene about my background and I told him I did sanshou and kickboxing and Jeet Kune Do, and he said, “So no grappling?” And I told him I trained jiu-jitsu under Rodrigo Gracie and Matt Serra and that I was a blue belt. He didn’t believe jiu-jitsu to be grappling, he only thought sambo was grappling.
Vlad: A friend of mine, a big fella who did all the grappling tournaments, told me to check out this sambo gym in New Jersey. I came and checked it out, and that’s how I wound up with Gene.
Originally I was supposed to fight one of Igor Zinoviev’s guys, but he might have gotten hurt or whatever so he pulled out. So fought I guy from New Jersey, and we were friends, and it felt it weird.
I virtually had no camp, trained by myself and relied on my sambo. I went twice to Gene Fabrikant’s place and rolled with his people. I knew my opponent was a kickboxer, and I knew I wouldn’t want to try to strike with him, I would want to use my sambo.
Rimat: I fought for Gene for a while, for many shows. After that I fought twice in his shows, won both fights.
It’s just what I did. I used to be a Tae Kwon Do fighter, and decided I want to do MMA.
Christian: My coach at the time got a call from Vladimir Borodin. We had done a few smokers and Fight Night's at the Church Street Boxing gym, and met him and his fighters there. I believe he was helping set up a fight card of both Muay Thai and "grappling/NHB" fights for a show in Brooklyn. I happened to be around the right weight for the match ups that they were looking for. 160 pounds, I believe.
I had just come off of doing a few smokers, both boxing and Muay Thai, and a few submission grappling tournaments as well. I think I was still just a white belt (I would get my blue belt later that year). It felt like the right thing to do. Like here was this opportunity to fulfill the ultimate martial arts fantasy. I had great momentum on my side, coming off a strong streak of good competition victories and lots of focused training… I think this was the point where it was on the verge of being banned completely [in New York]. There was no easy access to this type of competition. No TUF, no established local circuits. It was too good to pass up. I mean why train so much and so hard if you're never going to aspire to the big payoff? There was also a lot of intrigue there. We had worked with an established boxing gym in the past, and boxing and even Muay Thai was pretty conventional... but we had absolutely no idea what we were in store for here. It was almost like not accepting a dare. The safe thing to do is to say no, but if you're really concerned about staying safe, you probably shouldn't be a fighter for any extended period of time.
They were looking for an opponent for Rimat, and I didn't know too much about him. They said that he was a Tae Kwon Do guy, a two-time champ in something or other, and "very exciting." They told my coach that his trademark move was a jumping spinning back-kick. It being 2001, I really didn't think too much of that, but considering it was for an "NHB fight" and he was Russian, I just figured that he must know some wrestling or sambo, but that wasn't information that was relayed to me, just my instinct.
How was the event run in terms of professionalism?
Vlad: It was shady. For example, I was told it was open-handed strikes, and at the venue I was told it was closed-fist, and it was too late to back out.
Two weeks before the event I sprained my ankle real bad, and wanted to pull out, but Gene said I had to fight. So I put ankle braces and wraps on both ankles.
The event was a Russian crowd. There was definitely a shady feeling to it.
There was a doctor there. He was Russian. I think I had seen him at sambo events as well.
There was a ref, and he was also either a judo or sambo player. When I came to the States I never lived in Brooklyn, so I didn’t know the people who did judo or sambo and didn’t know the people at the show.
Nardu: The USKBA at that time was doing pretty much everything. They were doing Vengeance at the Vanderbilt, Lou Neglia’s show on Long Island. The sanctioning body they had at this show was the USKBA, but how much sanctioning they really did, I don’t know.
For instance, me and my opponent got into the ring without any gloves on, and I said, “Okay, let’s do it baby! Old school, like Wanderlei Silva and Pele!” Then someone came and put gloves on us.
There were no rules – you could do elbows, you could do knees, you do kicks to the head on the ground. There was a referee, and when I ended up submitting my opponent with a triangle and he was tapping out, the referee was just staring at it like he didn’t recognize that there was a submission there. But he snapped out of it and stopped the bout.
Rimat was in the corner of my opponent, and I think Gene was telling people different things to make it happen, like different sets of rules. I think he was really trying to get this promotion thing going and trying to make some money.
At that time, I was very new to MMA and MMA was very new to here. The way it seemed – on the phone at least – was that it was going to be very professional. When you got to the venue it was a different story.
Rimat: Everything was legit. There was a doctor, there was a referee, we all had needed to get blood tested. It wasn’t even called MMA at the time, it was called “grappling” or something. (Ed. note: the USKBA labeled such bouts as “exhibition grappling”, even though striking on the ground was permitted.)
Christian: I don't really recall too much in terms of medical personnel to be honest, but I could be wrong. I do think it was sanctioned by the USKBA. I remember my coach and I having to ante up for registration to them on the spot (fighter and corner Man). I remember some of the same referee faces in future shows grappling/Muay Thai shows during that era. There was a consistent group of people involved in these shows that had started to spring up.
What was the crowd and venue like?
Vlad: The crowd was very poor Russian – it looked like the crowd was very educated. People cheered when I won, which was great.
Nardu: I remember it being classy and tacky at the same time. Beautiful, high-level stage lighting, and everybody had plastic spoons and forks and soda cans. My changing room was in the kitchen. I didn’t have a locker room, there was a curtain in the kitchen and I changed and warmed up there.
That place was packed, and you would’ve thought you were in Russia. After I fought I eased out of there like, “See ya! Dos vedanya!”
Christian: I was rather nervous by the time we had arrived there. I was not expecting it to be that type of venue. A restaurant/banquet hall, like the type of place you'd hold a wedding in. The last few events I had participated and attended where all either boxing gyms or high school gymnasiums... this place was fancy! It was empty when we arrived, obviously. We had to check in, prep, and weigh-in, and spent most of the pre-show time outside of the dining and seating area. When show time came and the placed filled up, it was kind of overwhelming ... Everyone was dressed to the nines... very fancy. I remember thinking, “Wow... there are an awful lot very young and beautiful women here hanging on the arms and sitting on the laps of some much (much) older men with very expensive looking rings, suits, and watches.” It was definitely not your typical “fight night crowd” and for the first time that night, I thought to myself, “What... the... hell... have I gotten myself into?”
The place was definitely not made with a fight show in mind. We weren't in a room, we were just in an open area just outside the kitchen where the waiters and busboys would be running in and out navigating around the two fighters, the next fight, and the on-deck guy. All the other fighters were waiting outside the main hall, between the dining room and the theater entrance. On the other side of the ring, the other corner had a bit of a nicer set up it seemed. Which obviously isn't saying much, but they at least had a partition and a bit more privacy. I think that was the Russian corner.
It was a trip to realize how this had been set up as a Russian versus American thing... especially considering that we were in Brighton Beach, a predominantly Russian neighborhood. It was weird to be in Brooklyn, in New York, and feel like an outsider. I imagined it’s how Rocky felt when he fought Ivan Drago in “Rocky 4”. What greater experience to have for someone aspiring to fight and raised in the ‘80’s?
What do you remember about your fight?
Vlad: Right off the bat I threw a couple jabs, and I was able to have him back-step, so I took him down and armbarred him.
It was my first fight and it was bloodless.
(Ed. note: Vlad defeated Juan Berrios via submission at 1:44.)
Nardu: The fights were tough. It was really like the old-school, vale tudo-type fights. You could do anything. It was never like something was illegal.
When the match stopped, nobody realized that there was jiu-jitsu going on. The match stopped and everybody was quiet, and they were quiet all the way until I left.
I thought, “Let me just get out of here.” I know the area really well. I knew the promoter very well – for lack of a better word, he was a pretty shady.
(Ed. note: Nardu defeated Edward Yusufob via triangle choke at 1:53.)
Christian: I remember the fight happening pretty quick, but I remember it vividly. That "trademark" jumping spinning back-kick didn't happen the way I envisioned it would. I was thinking he’d be like bouncing around in the middle of the ring. It was not that at all. It happened right at the very beginning of the fight, from the moment the bell sounded. I remember him taking two big steps toward me, I saw him load his weight on the second step he took towards me and begin lift-off, and I thought to myself, "No fucking way!" and then I instinctively put up a wall (both forearms up). I didn't actually see the kick so much as I felt it land on my forearms and knock me back into the ropes. I bounced right off of ropes and he was on me like a cheap suit! Thai clinch with rapid-fire skip-knees, again, taking them all on my forearms.
At that point, my training and instincts took over. My first few years on the mat were Royce Gracie/UFC-inspired, and I just thought the armbar from the guard was the coolest move in the world and that's what those first 100 hours on the mat had been dedicated to honing, that one move. So that's instinctively what I went to, from being caught in the double-neck tie/Thai clinch, I clinched him back and jumped to closed guard.
My coach told me afterwards that Marco Santos was ringside next to our corner, Marcos was a Rigan Machado black belt, who we had worked with from time to time, he said that as soon as I jumped to guard, Marcos' reaction was, “Oh my god!” – and not in a good way. That old-school vale tudo mentality and strategy of being on top in a “real fight” with striking is something he obviously subscribed to, and even today you don't jump to closed guard in an MMA fight, right?
But I had so much faith in that one move I knew I could pull off… I tied up his arms, climbed up my legs, locked his shoulder, but he shrugged them off the first time. Then there was a moment when the referee intervened and he and Rimat exchanged some words in Russian. I had no idea what they said to each other but right afterwards, I think he tried to land an elbow, so immediately, my disapproval of the situation began to grow exponentially, and I decided to really go after the arm hard this time. I locked it up and started to apply pressure, and then there was the only moment of absolute fear that I had that night. Rimat defended by trying to stand up and the second I felt my head come off the mat I immediately had a vision of getting power-bombed and KO'd. I panicked. I wasn't ready to feel terror right at the moment where I thought I should be feeling triumph. So as I was in the air, I cranked the arm as hard as I could. My body ended up inverting and I collapsed belly-down on his arm. He tapped on the way down. It was particularly brutal. That's the first time I popped an elbow. I heard three loud pops followed by some crunching. The whole fight had only lasted about a minute and half.
I don't remember the crowd so much as my coach saying, "Awesome! Now let's get the hell out of here!" It was definitely a partisan crowd, and the way things were set up on the program and fight card,it was Russian vs. American in most of the match-ups. But I only remember cheering.
Then I thought to myself as I took my gloves off, "Let's get the hell out of here... Yeah, sounds like a good plan."
Here's something I almost forgot to mention. After Marcos Santos "Oh my god" moment, he sent his friend, a young Brazilian black belt named Rodolfo Amaro, into our corner to try to help us while I was on the ground. That should give you an idea of how "loose" things were. A random dude could just come out from the seats and jump into the corner to yell instructions.
(Ed. note: Christian defeated Rimat via armbar at 1:38.)
Did you get paid for fighting?
Vlad: I was paid two or three or maybe four hundred bucks. I did not get paid from Gene – Gene found some guy who looked like mafia or something, and that guy took it out of his pocket and paid me.
Nardu: Gene said he was going to give me something, but it never happened. I just got a trophy.
Christian: Nope, not even a little caviar.
Vlad: Regrets? Yes and no. No, because I’d hate to be one of those guys who teaches grappling but have never done MMA. But in retrospect I wish had more preparation. I never cut weight, I was 170 without cutting weight. So that’s my regret. But it was an experience to be remembered.
Nardu: No regrets. Not at all, not at all. I was thankful for that show. I knew from training that I was ready for whatever the rules for, whatever they said, I was ready to adapt. If it was more regulated of course, it would’ve been a much better thing.
Rimat: I don’t have any regrets participating. Like I said, that show didn’t have MMA rules, it was more like a grappling show. I don’t think they allowed strikes on the ground.
Christian: No way! Absolutely not. It truly was a one-of-a-kind, pioneering experience. For me it was priceless. I was in the right place at the right time as far as I'm concerned.
Fabrikant's International Fight Night events were something of a success - or at least enough of a success for him to organize a few more, and at one installment, actor Robert DeNiro and UFC pioneer Oleg Taktarov were in attendance. But in 2002, at an IFN that would've featured a pro kickboxing tournament, the police showed up and shut the event down - a turn of events that would signal the end of both the IFN and most combative sporting events in the state for the next ten years.
Vlad went on to fight at Vengeance at the Vanderbilt and Brian Cimins' short-lived Sportfighting promotion before becoming an established sambo instructor in New York.
Rimat saw success at later IFNs, and was signed to fight on the WEC's Mohegan Sun show before a paperwork snafu forced him off the card.
Nardu went on to compete in Ring of Combat, and has since earned a black belt under Renzo Gracie. He's now a trainer and coach, and at the recent UFC in Newark, was in the corner of one of his top students, Randy Brown.
Christian continued fighting for a while, traveling north to face Joe Lauzon at Mass Destruction and trekking across the Hudson for Reality Fighting and Ring of Combat before eventually hanging up the gloves. Like Nardu, he has his own school, too, and still keeps himself sharp by competing in grappling tournaments.