Welcome to the deadly world of Ukrainian pillow-fighting

When was the last time you had a pillow fight? I’m guessing it wasn’t recently. You probably didn’t do it for money either. And, I’m sure as hell it wasn’t a fight to the death. Well, that’s because you’re not part of the deadly Ukranian pillow fighting scene where down-and-out Ukranian men pit their feathers against each other for cash, betting with their lives.  

The closest association most people have with Ukraine is sometimes they eat chicken kievs and the capital of Ukraine is called Kiev. Unless your home nation shares a land border with it, it is unlikely anyone you know follows a Ukrainian guy on Twitter. It’s a fascinating but undeniably intimidating place. 

Ukraine is not a sexy, exotic place your friends want to visit, not least because last year a passenger jet was felled in its airspace by separatists who – apparently, because it’s Ukraine, right? – are armed with accurate anti-aircraft weapons (which is why we elected to enter by car). I don’t know any cool people with that kind of hardware: people with anti-aircraft weaponry tend to be a little too serious for my liking – I wouldn’t go for a beer with them.

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Ukraine is bleak, uninviting and blemished with wounds of conflicts passed, Soviet oppression and the ensuing poverty. It’s one of those shit places which gets bullied by Russia and the rest of the world lets it happen because of its irrelevance. A cold, grey state speckled with blood, toughened by hard times and hard luck.

In Ukraine desperate men bid themselves against each other for money in deadly pillow-fights where only one adrenaline-jacked contender emerges triumphant – the loser finds himself retired to pre-dug ditch. Before you’re allowed to fight, you must make sure you dig a grave outside to make it easier for the organisers to dispose of you should you not succeed. Not everyone wants to dig their own grave though. One of the fighters told us its not just a physically draining task which makes it harder to pillow fight, but it also puts you in a negative mindset – something you can’t afford if you don’t want to end up in the ditch.

Naturally, this has introduced a market for bookies to bring along excavation diggers to quickly dig a hole for the equivalent of 100 euros. One of the spectators told me it’s half price if you operate the digger yourself. I laughed because I thought he was joking but he assured me it wasn’t a joke, he told me that a lot of the fighters have worked on farms since they were young so are experienced with diggers. 

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These fights are regular, clandestine – although incredibly busy – death matches organised by underground bookkeepers and gangsters alike. The victor could win tens of thousands of euros (the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia is rarely used) per match for beating another man. Apparently the people who organise the fights are never in attendance, they have their representatives there instead to keep an eye on proceedings like scary, thuggish maître d’s. 

The organisers arrange for quadcopters to hover in the air above the fighting locations to watch for approaching vehicles – beit government or gangsters. I thought this was rather strange because it effectively gives away the approximate location of the fight, but I didn’t say that to anyone – I’m sure they have their reasons. It did seem rather novel and futuristic that something so raw, dangerous and illegal as it deathmatches are guarded by a tech gadget you can get from Amazon for $350.

Upon entrance, everyone is asked their name and how much money they have on them. You are made to turn off and surrender your mobile phone, for which you receive a ticket for when you want to leave. We were patted down by security and had to hand over our cameras, audio recorders and phones. I was fully expecting to not receive them back but one of the fellow punters said they do everything by the book and everything would be returned – he was correct, after the fight we received everything back.

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When we were initially invited to attend a pillow fighting deathmatch I had one question: what do you wear to this kind of event? I’ve been to boxing matches before, I’ve been to underground boxing matches before but I’ve never been to an underground bloodsport of this calibre. In my head I was going through potential outfits and critiquing them. A suit? Too mob boss, too formal. Shorts and t-shirt? Not serious enough, too casual. Trainers? Hmmm.

The most embarrassing phone I have ever made is ringing a Ukranian gangster to ask him what he was wearing that night. Luckily he found it quite funny and he laughed when I explained I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. He told me the best thing to do was wear a brand new tracksuit and sunglasses. Apparently it’s quite commonplace for everyone to wear Adidas tracksuits to these events, so much so it looked like some kind of Adidas promo event.

I wore the grey Adidas tracksuit of the Mexico’s national football team with matching kicks. My friend Timmy sported a rose covered number which I figured might have been a bit too camp – actually it wasn’t too camp, at one point several intimidating guys walked up to us and told Timmy he had a “super nice” jacket. They seemed sad that it was a limited edition and they could no longer by it from the Adidas website. I remember thinking about how surreal it was at the time.

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The fights were unpleasant to watch. Foolishly I assumed that the pillows would just be feather pillows — they aren’t. They contain anything from bricks and sand to glass and nails. The danger, I’m told, is that if your bag splits open in the middle of a fight then you’re fucked because it’s not a bare-knuckle fight unless both of you lose your bags. You just have to block the blows and hope their bag breaks before your skull does.

Because we weren’t allowed to film, I’m afraid to admit I will never be able to explain the brutality with words alone. Bodies hitting the floor so hard their teeth crack and fractured bloody chunks fall out of their mouths and rattle on the floor. Glass making contact with a cheek through a linen sack, staining it red, drawing ribbons in the air as the cheek flesh flops over exposing jaw bone.

The dumb look and fear in their eyes as a brick-filled-pillow makes contact with the side of someone’s head and you know that you are experiencing their few last seconds as they are cheered and roared out by a baying crowd of 200 or so eastern European men in garish, loud tracksuits. The blood trail left behind as they drag the body from the fighting area to a hole outside they dug for themselves.

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After the fights we approached one of the fighters to ask him some questions. His name was Mykalo, he told us he was in his mid 30s – he couldn’t remember his exact birthdate. He wore Nike tracksuit bottoms, which I imagine upset most of the pro-Adidas crowd. He fought three people, he was victorious and was taking home approximately the equivalent of $20,000.

Mykalo is quite well known in the pillow-fighting scene in Ukraine as “Mad Dog Myaklo” – before his pillow fighting career he fought packs of dogs for money. Apparently, just after the millennium organised dog fights were beginning to become less popular. This meant that the organisers were losing substantial amounts of money, so they recruited impoverished ex-soldiers to fight dogs with nothing but a small dagger or heavy metal chain as a weapon.

He showed us the bite marks across his legs, arms and back from where dogs had got the better of him. The were serious, deep lacerations which made my stomach go cold. Big distorted impressions of dark scar tissue. He laughed about them saying fighting 5 or 6 dogs a night is nothing compared to three rounds of pillow fighting. I asked him when he was going to stop fighting for a living after 3 years of regular pillow fights, he pointed over by the back where the blood trails of the bodies ended and said “that’s when”.

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We left and went back three days later to take pictures of the building. The graves must have been neatly covered over because we could not find them anywhere. Even the blood trails had been washed away into light orange discolourations on the concrete floor. If you had just walked into the abandoned building, you would never guess that only 72 hours before men were taking each others lives in the name of sport.