Issue 206

June 2024

Kyle Dimond explores the rise of Oktagon MMA as it captivates audiences with its unique approach and compelling fighter backstories, transforming from a local stage to the next big name in combat sports. 

During a recent episode of The MMA Hour, Ariel Helwani referred to European MMA promotion Oktagon as the “best kept secret here in North America.” The 13-time MMA Journalist of the Year referenced how the promotion had just packed out their biggest event with 28,000 people in attendance, or in his words, “Just out here, filling up soccer stadiums, unbelievable.”

Kyle Dimond dives deeper into the promotion to look at the growth of Oktagon and how they’ve become one of the biggest success stories in the sport despite still being, as Helwani puts it, a “best-kept secret.”


Hardcore MMA fan Bryan Lacey first came across Oktagon in 2019 due to the promotion hosting a big event headlined by two fighters he was already aware of. The former stand-up comedian had seen small clips from the promotion that made it look like they were selling out these big arenas. Also, his interest was piqued by the owners, who he didn’t know at the time, Pavol Neruda and Ondrej Novotny, who appeared to be doing things differently.

“I thought, I'm going to watch it,” said Lacey. “I want to know if it's real, if the fights are good, if everything that I've seen on social media is just clips to make it look good, or if it actually is what it seems to be. My jaw was on the floor the entire time. I actually went back to being a fan and just enjoyed the show, watched it all. Then I was in. I was like, ‘I wonder if they want some English commentary with that stuff,’ and the rest is history.”


Several events later, Bryan Lacey became the English voice of Oktagon, which opened them up to a much larger audience. Lacey, like many MMA fans to follow, had his head turned and, upon closer inspection, realized that it was serious. From the very start of the promotion, there has been an emphasis on getting people invested in the fighters over anything else. Before there were ever titles made for each weight class, Oktagon started to make their name through a reality series, Oktagon Challenge. 

Having been founded in 2016, the promotion’s early path is similar to how The Ultimate Fighter was a home run for the UFC. Their reality series got them on TV, where people could tune in each week and get to know the fighters and their stories before watching them compete. The fighters that came through the series became huge names in the promotion, and while the series was a big risk, it brought them a lot of attention and a diverse fan base.

“For me, it's also a great way of widening the audience, which is what Oktagon does. If you go to our shows, it's not just 90% blocks of blokes supporting one fighter or another fighter. It's men and women. My favorite thing that I've witnessed at an Oktagon event was the grandma and grandad, mom and dad all sat in a row, kids playing on the stairs while this press conference is going on. And they each had a different favorite fighter.” Lacey recalls. “It's that John Danaher thing, ‘Why would you ignore half of the human body?’ He's talking about leg locks and how he opened up that whole range of submissions, but it's the same with audiences.”


With Oktagon's success on TV, it was time to start scaling up and capitalizing on its growth. Unfortunately, 2020 brought events that were impossible to plan for due to the cancellation of live sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UFC will quickly tell you that when live sport went away, they carried on with events at the Apex in Las Vegas and Fight Island. With very little else to contend with, this was a significant risk for the promotion that paid off massively by generating new fans and making existing fans even more devoted. Oktagon had the same plan.

The promotion continuously hosted events during the pandemic by creating their own quarantined area in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. With slight adjustments to their events to cater to other martial arts, Oktagon fulfilled the demand for live combat sports and kept fighters in the region busy while giving them a big spotlight. 

“I think they [Pavol & Ondrej] would say it was a keystone in where we are now because if they'd stopped, we would've lost momentum,” Lacey states. “But the hunger, not just for fighters to fight, but for people like me and you to wanna watch combat sports, was still there. When they came back, the ticket sales were much higher. The engagement and all the stuff that comes with it was proof that the risk was worth taking. That changed everything, but it was the biggest risk they ever took financially, reputationally.”


After the pandemic, Oktagon has become a sensation. The promotion has a consistent event schedule, a reputation for putting on these great events with incredible atmospheres, and some great talent on the roster. It can’t be underestimated how much a big part of them being a “best kept secret” is the name value of some of the roster. Not every MMA fan will be able to identify their biggest names, but through their social media channels and reality TV series, cards are often stacked from top to bottom with fighters who have big followings in their home countries. 

Both during and after the pandemic, Oktagon has fulfilled a hunger for combat sports in this region that no one else was touching. There is some overlap with the Polish promotion KSW, also known for packing out huge arenas with local fighters that most MMA fans would pass by on the street without thinking twice. Over half of Oktagon’s events have taken place in the Czech Republic, with Slovakia, Germany, and three events in England making up the rest of their live footprint. 

In many ways, MMA’s best-kept secret has a secret weapon: the fans. The demand for combat sports in these regions was amplified by the TV series that made the fighters into countrywide celebrities. Another crucial element is that fans followed these athletes because of their stories. This means that regardless of their record or position in the division, the fans show up to support them no matter what.

Lacey recalls how, on his first commentary gig for the promotion, a fighter near the top of the card came in with a 9-12 record. After assuming that maybe they were there as a late addition or to give someone a spotlight moment, he was shocked to see the entire crowd go crazy for the fighter. They cared about his story and were invested in his story, and that was just a 500-capacity venue during the pandemic. The secret to Oktagon’s success is simply taking that philosophy but increasing the scale.

“When he came out, it went nuts, and I spoke to some of the staff there afterwards, and they started telling me his story and what he'd been through and some of the twists and turns, and that was it. I was like, okay, that's the difference. When I pick my favorite fighters, they’re not all unbeaten. They're not all legends that are great technical fighters. They are the ones that have the great stories or, you know, they bring something different, and I think Oktagon recognizes that, and I think it's a special part of what they do.”


The football stadium of 28,000 that Ariel Helwani referred to on The MMA Hour was Oktagon 58. Hosted at Stadion Eden in Prague, the event was headlined by a rematch of one of the biggest fights in the history of the promotion with Karlos Vemola vs Attila Vegh 2 and a stacked undercard, resulting in their biggest attendance to date. Coincidentally, the first fight between Vemola and Vegh had been the first fight that drew Bryan Lacey into watching his first Oktagon event five years ago. Oktagon 15 in 2019 had been a real breakout moment for the promotion, and now, with the same two men at the top of the card, the same could be true for Oktagon 58.

If Stadion Eden looked impressive, the promotion is gearing up to take over a football stadium that holds at least twice the capacity. The Deutsche Bank Park, or Waldstadion, in Frankfurt, Germany, will play host to Oktagon 62 on October 12. They may still be an incredible secret for some MMA fans, but rest assured, it won’t stay this way for much longer with the noise they’re making.

“It is surreal. In some territories, it's the best kept secret because it's got everything fight fans want, you know, for Europe, we're fighting at a reasonable time. You don't have to wait up till three o'clock in the morning and stay up till 6 AM. The fights are good. The production is good. You've got TV shows. You've got crazy bits of content that go in and around. So it's got everything, the key for us now, and it's our challenge is how do we not make it a secret.”

From whispered legend to roaring mainstream, Oktagon is punching above its weight class, weaving fighters' compelling backstories into the fabric of its global conquest—one fight at a time.