Zenon Konopka of the Islanders accomplished something no one else in the world did: He led the NHL with 307 penalty minutes in 2010-2011.
But when it comes to developing an appreciation for mixed martial arts, the Islanders’ center is just like millions of other people. He first was introduced to the sport by watching the 175-pound Royce Gracie beat people weighing anywhere from 50-75 pounds more than him in the first handful of UFC events.
“I remember back in the day when I was a kid,” Konopka said. “My dad’s buddy had one of the those big satellite dishes, and we watched the first four UFC events.”
Gracie was 11-1 in those first four events, with 11 submissions. The skinny Brazilian’s lone loss came when dehydration forced him to pull out of the tournament at UFC 3. Back then, UFC fights were one-night tournaments where the winner could fight at least three times.
The draw of Gracie and those early UFC events from 1993-1995 was the fact that this little guy with no distinguishing physique or outlandish personality could soundly defeat much larger men. Gracie was a master in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a sport few understood, and he was beating wrestlers, boxers, kickboxers and karate guys.
Consider the Islanders’ Konopka among the group enthralled by that concept. He was 19 years old, playing junior hockey in Ottawa, when he had the opportunity to meet Royce’s cousin, Renzo Gracie, and a few other family members.
“Any interaction like that obviously gets you into the sport,” he said.
Konopka, a native of Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada, will be a guest of the UFC on Saturday in Toronto as the premier MMA promotion hosts UFC 129, its first card in the province. Inside the Rogers Centre, more than 55,000 people will join Konopka in watching Georges St-Pierre — another fighter who got hooked on Royce Gracie — defend his UFC welterweight title against Jake Shields. Also on the card, Jose Aldo defends his UFC featherweight belt against Mark Hominick and Randy Couture caps his career against Lyoto Machida.
For Konopka, though, it’s more than just a seat near the cage. Last summer, he started training at Fight Club Canada. Smart move for the Islander who was second in the league in fighting major penalties this past season. There, Konopka learned various techniques in the disciplines of boxing, Muay Thai, kickboxing and judo, among others.
It’s something, he said, that has help translate on the ice during his fights. Learning certain grips, head movements and how to block strikes will certainly help. Pulling a hockey sweater over an opponent’s head isn’t much different from working against a guy wearing a karate gi, at least grip-wise. Konopka, who is bringing teammate PA Parenteau with him to UFC 129, said he has worked some techniques with pads on the ice with fellow Islander Trevor Gillies.
“The more you do it, the more you get comfortable with it, the more you can use it on the ice,” Konopka said. “You’re learning it as you go, like anything else.”