10/04/2008 - 16.48

IN THE TOWN OF WINDS

baku3

 

THE CITY OF WINDS

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, offers among other things, its candidacy for the 2016 Olympic Games.

 

By Ennio Falsoni

 

Making connections when travelling between countries is sometimes complex and time consuming. I was in Burgas on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria for the WMF Muay Thai World Championships during which Italy fared well, taking home 3 silvers and one bronze. I left at midday of March 28 and arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, at 3.30 a.m. of the following day. Please note that Burgas and Baku are only 700 km apart as the crow flies! Unfortunately, neither Burgas nor Sophia’s airport is directly connected to Azerbaijan, so I could only reach it via Istanbul or Vienna.

I opted for the latter solution, but even though it is closer, you cannot get to the destination any sooner. What a delight for travellers! I took solace in the fact that I had never been to Azerbaijan before and I would be seeing a new country.

The trip was fine although the skies from Vienna to Budapest were full of black clouds brimming with rain. Then the weather improved, but at 20 km from Baku the Austrian Airliner was tossed around by very strong winds. I was dozing off at the time and I guarantee you I woke up in a hurry.

“Don’t worry,” a fellow passenger from Azerbaijan seated nearby told me, “it is a typical landing here in Baku. It’s always windy and this is nothing. In fact Baku means city of the winds.”

The name couldn’t be more appropriate…a perfect name indeed.

I was travelling to Azerbaijan, a Caucasian country with ancient ties to Turkey with which it shares centuries of history, traditions and language, to see an important Pro Kickboxing event in the Baku sports hall and to meet with local federation officials who want to host either a WAKO European or World Championship.

Upon arrival, customs was fast and smooth and I was treated like a VIP. After a 20-minute drive I reached the hotel without any traffic at all, thanks to the helpful information given me by the diligent and efficient Sadikh Bagirov, the Azerbaijan Federation general secretary. He filled me in about this city of 3 million people, out of a total 8 million in the country. Baku is an endless construction site where old buildings are being refurbished, others are demolished and rebuilt from scratch and bridges, turnpikes, elevated highways, shopping centres and great sports complexes are being created around the clock. The city centre is well lighted and I must admit that all big cities are better at night than during daytime. Lights actually enhance the beauty of some buildings or monuments, rendering them more attractive. However, fatigue had finally taken hold of me and couldn’t wait to drop onto a bed.

The following day the entire hierarchy of Azerbaijan’s Kickboxing and Muay Thai Federation came to pick me up at my hotel, led by Mr Adil Aliyev, the Federation president who has been running it since 2001. He is a good judoka and kickboxer himself, aside from being one the Republic’s young senators and an excellent businessman. Surrounding him were all the other directors, all his friends and successful businessmen. They had already set a schedule, which I at once agreed to. In a Range Rover we all went to pay tribute to their founding father’s grave, former president Heydar Aliyev. Then we made a stop at the war cemetery honouring those who fell in the war against Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan is still in conflict for the restitution of the Garabagh territory. Frankly, I started to feel like a head of state and this was the first time that has happened. Between one visit and another I talked to my new friends and was informed about the problems of this dynamic country along with bits and pieces of its history.  Their troubles started in 1920, in the aftermath of WW1, when Russia invaded and annexed them into the USSR. Needless to say, their proximity to “Big Brother” was unwanted and uncomfortable all the way up to 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fragmentation of the Soviet Empire, when Azerbaijan reverted to being an independent Republic under the leadership of their beloved Heydar Aliyev, the father of the country. It was a great achievement for them because they could now manage their considerable ener-y resources again. High-quality oil had already been extracted from the Caspian Sea since the 1930s, but for many years the country kept on importing gas from Russia. Then, two years ago, came a sudden turn of events: since Azerbaijan could finally rely on its own vast energy resources, it abruptly cut off supply from Russia and started building its own pipeline network through Georgia and Turkey to reach Greece and Italy. The latter two countries can’t wait to have an alternative to Russian gas, which has become a deadly blackmail weapon in Putin’s hands. The enormous profits stemming from the sales of its major resources immediately brought about positive results. Billions and billions of dollars flooded into the country, which thanks to its huge wealth, is resurrecting its art treasures and removing the soviet “barnacles” from old buildings. The whole country is abuzz with great cultural initiatives, which in a very short time will surely change the very face of Baku.

During my afternoon meeting with the Minister of Sports, Azad Rahimov, a tall and stout man totally in love with Italy, which he knows very well, I discovered that 2 billion dollars have already been invested in sports venues alone, since Baku is in the running for the 2016 Olympic Games. I think you can safely bet that all this, combined with the infrastructure improvements, will change the appearance of the city in a short time.

I was taken somewhat aback, however, by the widespread, overt and visceral hatred for neighbouring Armenia on the part of all the people I met. Azerbaijan demands the restitution of Nagorno Garabagh (or Karabakh as it was renamed by the Armenians), vast territories that the Armenians occupied with the approval of the Czar in the 19th century. It was a bloody war with thousands of victims and displaced persons. It reminds me of the situations in Kosovo and Palestine, which we don’t hear that much about anymore in the West.

After the official visits and tasting Beluga caviar, of which Azerbaijan is the world’s largest producer, it was time to concentrate on our sport.

In one of the local sports complexes, the Azerbaijani Federation was organizing a gala, under the auspices of WAKO-PRO, in which Eduard Mammedov, an ex-WAKO World and European championship gold medal winner who became WAKO-PRO Intercontinental champion, defended his title against Oscar Rueda from Malaga, Spain. The main event came after 5 national championship “pro” finals in which the local fighters displayed excellent skills and competitive spirit as well as fair play and respect for the opponent.

For the record, the winners of the five national “pro” title were: in low-kick –62 kg Elnur Daryagir, –72 kg Tural Bayramov, –82 kg Rail Rajabov, –92 kg Sarkhan Jabbarov; in K1 rules –91 kg Zaur Alakbarov.

The evening’s featured event between titleholder Mammedov and Rueda was a fine bout. It started out very well with Mammedov, fast and quick as lightning, managing to land a beautiful right cross to his opponent’s chin after a fiery exchange of kicks in the first round. The Spaniard went to the mat and was slow getting to his feet. After 8 seconds he raised his arms signalling he wanted to continue. Everyone thought the match was over, but Rueda, using clinches and finesse, managed to finish the round. In the second round Mammedov went on the attack to finish the match, but Rueda would have none of that and, surprisingly, he fended off his opponent’s blows and finished the round fully recovered from the knockdown. In the remaining rounds the script didn’t change. They continued fighting, but with frequent grabbing and clinching they employed defensive tactics to prevent any serious attacks from developing, thus the bout ended with no further surprises. Obviously, the victory went to the defending champion who was applauded by the 3000 fans in attendance. Among them were numerous MPs and Senators, friends and colleagues of the president of the Azerbaijani Federation, Adil Aliyev.

The final match of the gala saw another victory by a local fighter, Hafiz Bahshaliyev, who won by decision over Russia’s Alexandr Vikulov to win the European WAKO-PRO super heavyweight title.

In truth, from a technical and entertainment point of view, the bout between the super heavyweights was less enjoyable than the one preceding it, but for those present the only thing that mattered was a hometown victory. Mission accomplished. We were all satisfied, even if for different reasons.