Halfway around the globe, far from the UFCs and Strikeforces of the world, Daniel Weichel sits in Moscow’s Hilton hotel, readying himself for the biggest fight of his career.
Weichel (27-7) challenges M-1 Global lightweight champion and American Top Team Orlando product Jose Figueroa (10-4) this Sunday, but the championship bout isn’t the main attraction.
Most fans will bus or take the train into Moscow that afternoon to watch their returning son, former world-ranked heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko, fight in person.
There are whispers around the hotel that as many as 20,000 fans will attend; the largest crowd Weichel’s ever fought in front of topped out at 8,000, he said. And with Emelianenko on the card, some U.S. fans, and who knows else, might tune in and catch his fight as well.
MMA truly is a global sport and at any given time there are a handful of Weichels who have climbed their way up to an opportunity like this in the hopes that there will be more rungs ahead afterward.
As far as fighter’s stories go, Weichel’s is a familiar one. Ten years ago, the 26-year-old from Michelstadt, Germany, watched a videotape at the gym where he practiced jiu-jitsu. It wasn’t UFC 1, but the World Combat Championship, a 1995 knockoff touting Royce Gracie’s cousin, Renzo, and a motley cast of martial arts characters squaring off in a cage. More tapes followed from Japan’s Shooto and Pride Fighting Championships promotions, the latter where Emelianenko earned his place as one of the most skilled and revered heavyweights on the planet.
“Watching those tapes, it affected me,” said the quiet and reserved Weichel. “It’s funny. Always before my fights, I think about what makes me want to do this and I go back to those tapes. They spoke to me.”
Not long after that, Weichel took his daily three-hour train-ride home and promptly announced to his parents that he would make his living as a fighter.
Weichel’s father, a health club technician, was angry; his mother worried. But seeing their son was resolute, they told him to follow his dream.
In 2002, Weichel won his pro debut, then toiled on the local scene in shows like the short-lived German promotion Martial Arts Xtreme (MAX), Shooto Holland and European Vale Tudo, fighting four to five times a year. He fought in the U.S. for the first time in 2005.
Weichel has also had his stumbles and taken his lumps.
Three years ago, his manager/coach abruptly moved to the States, leaving Weichel to guide his career on his own.
“I took some fights that weren’t good for me, some on short notice that I wasn’t prepared for,” said Weichel, who has fallen prey to qualified U.K. strikers like Dan Hardy and Paul Daley.
It’s only been in the last two years that Weichel has had access to a full-service gym and team, MMA Spirit, which houses coaches of all the disciplines needed to excel in the sport and the space to put them together cohesively.
Weichel’s weapon of choice had always been his jiu-jitsu (he’s taken 16 of his 27 career bouts by submission), but MMA Spirit, located in Frankfurt and an hour away from his parent’s home, has allowed him to concentrate on his striking. Weichel’s standup has improved so drastically, that his crisp striking was the deciding factor in his unanimous decision victory over Beau Baker at M-1 Challenge 26 last July in Costa Mesa, Calif.
MMA Spirit also handles Weichel’s management and for the first time in the nine years since he started, Weichel said he can make a living off of fighting.
Currently, the most well known German fighter abroad is Dennis Siver, a bulldog striker the UFC adopted just prior to passing through the country for two events in June 2009 and November 2010. When not at his own Kiboju gym, Siver trains at MMA Spirit a couple of times a week, said Weichel, but has had to travel elsewhere of late to keep his UFC career alive.
In March 2010, the Bavarian State Office for New Media banned mixed martial arts TV programming in Germany, including all UFC-related shows that had already been running for a year there. Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, quickly filed suit in the overseeing courts, said Weichel, and that battle continues today.
While his country debates whether the UFC and MMA are too violent for television, Weichel is in Moscow, sharing the bill with one of the icons who spoke to him through a grainy videotape years ago.
“I have part of my dream. I can make a living off the sport,” said Weichel, who shares the same aspirations of countless fighters around the world. “Now I want to be a legend and a fighter that others are inspired by.”
To catch Weichel and Emelianenko live from Moscow, M-1 Global Fedor vs. Monson will be available at 7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT via cable and satellite pay-per-view on InDemand, DIRECTV, DISH Network and Avail-TVN, for $29.95. Viewers can also purchase the show on U-stream via http://www.M-1Global.com.