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Waiting for the Excitement to Kick In

A Russian couple imports the sport of draka. Now, to get the public to notice.

September 10, 1997|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Saturday night, and we're headed to a real-life rumble in Inglewood. Jackie Chan, watch out.

"Top athletes from around the world are training for the 1997 world championship of professional draka fighting," is what the announcement said.

Draka?

Nobody we've talked to knows for sure what it is. Except the promoters, of course. They're Igor Ejov and his wife, Marina Radionova, both in their 30s and citizens of Russia. Igor presides over the World Wide Draka Federation, which was created by him, as was the sport itself. He bills it as the world's newest sport, a full-body-contact discipline that melds boxing, wrestling, kick-boxing, judo, karate, jiujitsu and other martial arts. In other words, you can take down your opponent with kicks, punches, body throws, headlocks or maybe just a ferocious face and a menacing "yeaaaahhhhh" while assuming a killer karate stance.

The Ejovs are so draka-happy that they have spent the past five years traveling between here and Mother Russia with their 10-year-old daughter, exhausting their energies (and perhaps their funds) to popularize this thing they love. For them, it is a profession, a passion, a future.

Igor, who does not speak English, graduated from sports college in Russia at 18 with a zest for martial arts. He began teaching and moved to Vladivostok, the city closest to China, to be near the place where martial arts began. Very soon, he began to create a form of free sparring that combined elements never before brought together in a sporting ring.

Marina, the glamorous, dark-haired daughter of a Russian military officer, was a language and dance student in Vladivostok when Igor recruited her to translate an article from Chinese to Russian for him. The rest is romantic history. Together, they've been perfecting, teaching and promoting draka ever since.

In 1987, Igor created a company in Russia to market the sport, with all that entails. "By then he had organized it into a formal discipline and was developing it on the professional level," Marina says. "It is his baby, his brainchild. He figured out all the elements of the sport and all the forms and the rules."

When government regulations eased and the Ejovs were allowed to travel, they made a quick trip to the United States to demonstrate draka (which means contest). The next year, 1992, they arranged the first draka competition ever held in the U.S.--in Irvine, of all places.

In March, when the California State Athletic Commission granted them a promoter's license, their draka dreams really took flight. They envision draka schools all over the U.S., huge televised draka contests, draka as an Olympic sport.

*

Tonight is a test for the entrepreneurial pair, who expect 8,000 draka fans to show up, paying as much as $90 per ticket.

But wait. We're here at the Forum. And something's wrong.

The parking lot looks like an air strip cleared for landing. A Forum employee says only a few hundred seats have been sold. A security guard says this is the smallest crowd for an event he's seen in years.

We seek out the Ejovs, but they are in no mood to chat.

Let the fights begin.

Draka-ists from Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Estonia, Chechnya, Australia, Simi Valley and Van Nuys are on a printed list, which does not seem to coincide with the names of fighters announced from the ring. Commentators for the event are Don "the Dragon" Wilson, Benny "the Jet" Urquidez and Blinky Rodriguez.

The gladiators come and go, arms and legs darting like serpents' tongues, feet gouging into faces and bodies flying into the ropes. Blood and sweat spray onto the royal blue carpet of the ring and even through the ropes, spattering judge Cecil Peoples' pale blue shirt with a Jackson Pollock pattern of red.

The judge, next to whom we are seated, calls for a copy of the rules. (You can win either by knocking out your opponent, or by points.) He says he never heard of draka until he got this gig. Likewise timekeeper Debbie Garcia, who says she too had to study up hastily.

Igor and Marina watch the contests, stone-faced.

One fighter, Jimmy Mullen of Simi Valley, climbs into the ring and proceeds to have what he later informs us was "the time of his life."

At 27 and 205 pounds, he is kick-boxing champion of North America, a title he won in Puerto Rico this year. "I never heard of draka until a month ago," he says. That's when Igor phoned and asked him to participate in the fun fest at the Forum.

The difference between kick-boxing and draka, Mullen says, is "when you're in a close clinch in draka, you can throw the person to the ground with a judo throw, or wrestle him to the floor with a double or single-leg takedown. You can use a judo headlock or hip throw."

What Mullen did to beat his opponent from New Zealand on Saturday night was "truly a wonderful thing. I devastated him by getting him in a bearhug from behind, then I picked him up" and threw him down. "It's called a souffle, and it had a tremendous impact on his neck and head."

Mullen says the Ejovs paid him the highest purse he's ever won, and that draka definitely has the potential to be a big sport in the USA. "It's the most exciting thing I've done, the best time I've ever had."

*

In between the bouts, scantily clad ring girls try to rev up the crowd, which is heavily sprinkled with friends of the combatants, who yell the equivalent of "Kill 'em!" in Russian, Armenian, French and other tongues. It is a pretty wholesome crowd, all things considered, with plenty of little kids.

There may be thousands of empty seats, but Marina and Igor are "more than satisfied" with their second draka extravaganza in the U.S.

"By the final fight, 2,000 people had bought tickets and walked in," she says after the fights. "That is good for something so new. The Forum people say normal boxing attendance is only 1,500. So we are going forward with our plans for an Oct. 18 fight."

Draka, anyone?

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