Meeting Fedor Emelianenko in Moscow

In Search of the Elusive and Legendary Fedor Emelianenko

It was recently announced that Fedor Emelianenko, perhaps the greatest mixed martial artist in history, will be making a return to the sport of MMA after a brief retirement.  While it’s still not known which promotion Fedor will sign with or who his return match will be against, it’s certain that his comeback fight will be the biggest happening in the sport whenever it goes down.  Over his career, Fedor has been infamously shy about the press and is the hardest interview to nail down in MMA. A few years ago I got a chance speak with him and  the following is an article, which first appeared in FIGHT! magazine in 2011, describing what it was like to travel to Russia in search of the elusive fighting legend.


Lenin Luzhniki


A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, stands in the court­yard of the mas­sive Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow. The statue gazes out across the black Moscova River and onto the city it names. The sta­dium, which was orig­i­nally dubbed the Cen­tral Lenin Sta­dium when it was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is in the old Soviet tra­di­tion: util­i­tar­ian, colos­sal, unin­spired. The name was changed in the Nineties when the Com­mu­nists fell out of power after their 80 year chokehold on the nation and today the city is still in tran­si­tion between the chaotic ener­gies of the Russ­ian brand of “any­thing goes”capitalism and the bag­gage left to it from so many years strug­gling under the failed Com­mu­nist system.

On bill­boards all over the city, famil­iar west­ern brands stand out amidst the strange Cyril­lic writ­ing and ubiq­ui­tous Madi­son Avenue-inspired images of impos­si­bly rich and beau­ti­ful peo­ple liv­ing the good life. The bill­boards are every­where, punc­tu­at­ing the oth­er­wise drab indus­trial build­ings that com­prise most of the city. Years ago, there might have been pro­pa­ganda posters espous­ing the dream of a worker’s par­adise, but today there are skate­board parks with posters tout­ing the lat­est NBA stars and Adi­das shoes.

Old Soviet era junkers pop­u­late the streets along­side expen­sive sports cars and the chauf­feured sedans of the country’s new elite. Oli­garchs made rich by gov­ern­ment con­nec­tions and the country’s min­eral wealth, have made Moscow, a city where the aver­age per­son makes about $8,000 dol­lars a year, more expen­sive than New York, Lon­don or Paris to live in. As a cau­tious ges­ture of healthy respect to the pow­er­ful Russ­ian Mafia in the city, the real big­wigs cruise around in armored Mer­cedes flanked by SUVs filled with secu­rity teams of heav­ily armed men.

One of the few instances of archi­tec­tural beauty in the city is the old Red Square in the city’s cen­ter where for­eign tourists and the young peo­ple of the new Rus­sia, many of whom were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, enjoy one of Moscow’s few enjoy­able pub­lic places. Beau­ti­ful Russ­ian girls in biki­nis rollerskate past grim-faced cit­i­zens from the ear­lier generation—who seem a bit puz­zled by it all—and cou­ples lazily while away the time strolling between foun­tains, park benches and hot dog stands as the stoic sol­diers with their wide-brimmed caps and assault rifles guard the gov­ern­ment build­ings in the square. One of the attrac­tions in Red Square is the mau­soleum con­tain­ing the body of Lenin, who died in 1924. Atten­dance is down since it is no longer an offi­cial state pol­icy to revere the man, but the crowds are still healthy. Four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., curi­ous spec­ta­tors somberly file past the body. Respect for the dead man is still insisted on. Pho­tog­ra­phy is pro­hib­ited, as is talk­ing, smok­ing, keep­ing one’s hands in pock­ets, the wear­ing of hats or any other dis­play deemed insub­or­di­nate in the pres­ence of the body of the man who pre­dicted the end of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. Lenin’s body appears today exactly as it did on the day of his death 86 years ago and has been per­fectly pre­served by secret embalm­ing tech­niques and has already sur­vived the Com­mu­nist Rev­o­lu­tion by a generation.

What is M-1?

The day I arrive, Moscow is in the mid­dle of the worst heat wave in its his­tory. The tem­per­a­ture hits me like a ham­mer as soon as I get of the plane. Some­one from M-1 Global is sup­posed to be wait­ing for me, but thanks to huge crowds in the cus­toms depart­ment, skep­ti­cal agents and a cri­sis involv­ing my photographer’s lug­gage, it takes us almost two hours to make it out to the pick up area. I half expect to have been left as I scan the crowd but then I see a fierce-looking man with no neck and a head shaped like the top of a .38 cal­iber round hold­ing up a sign that says “FIGHTING.” We catch eyes and he gives me polite but per­turbed look as he taps his wrist­watch with his index fin­ger three times. I guess I’ve found our dri­ver. He speaks no Eng­lish but takes my bag from me and I fol­low him out to the car. As we drive, the thought occurs to me that here I am dri­ving through a coun­try with ten­u­ous diplo­matic rela­tions to my own, the lan­guage of which I don’t speak and in the car of a man who could have just come out of cen­tral cast­ing for evil villain’s hench­man num­ber three in a James Bond movie. But I put my faith in the old adage that God pro­tects chil­dren and fools and wait to see what hap­pens next.

Rec­og­niz­ing the ever-growing global nature of the sport, I’m here to cover M-1 Global’s east­ern Euro­pean tour­na­ment. M-1 is known mostly to fans in the US through its asso­ci­a­tion with its star attrac­tion Fedor Emelia­nenko, the man many peo­ple believe to be the great­est mixed mar­tial artist that has ever lived. Recently M-1 has been linked to the seri­ally failed nego­ti­a­tions between Fedor and the UFC, which had aimed to have the Russ­ian super­star fight for the world’s biggest pro­mo­tion. UFC pres­i­dent Dana White, with typ­i­cal con­fi­dence, had guar­an­teed that he would even­tu­ally sign Fedor, but then the nego­ti­a­tion broke down at the last minute with each side point­ing fin­gers at the other for being unrea­son­able. The UFC was only the lat­est US Com­pany to have tur­bu­lent busi­ness deal­ings with M-1. First it was Calvin Ayers in Bodog and then Afflic­tion and their short-lived pro­mo­tion and finally White and the UFC. Today, Fedor—for the time being at least—has found a home in Scott Coker’s Strike­force, based in large part due to Coker’s acqui­es­cence to M-1’s demand to co-promote the events Fedor appears on. It was this con­di­tion and the inabil­ity of either side to give way on it that report­edly was a main rea­son the Zuffa talks col­lapsed. Unless he fights in the UFC, Fedor will likely not face the biggest names in the sport, the Brock Lesnars and Randy Cou­tures of the world. Because of this M-1 has been decried in the west­ern press as being hard to deal with and dam­ag­ing to Fedor’s career prospects. The image that is often played out, whether accu­rate or not, is that Fedor is an unwit­ting pawn in the whole affair and that he’s being used and his career and ulti­mate earn­ings power threat­ened by M-1, who seek only to use Fedor to pro­mote their brand and pur­sue their own impen­e­tra­ble busi­ness designs. Another of the big rea­sons I came over was to meet Fedor and ask the man him­self about it. I have been promised over the phone a sit down inter­view with Fedor which, given the Russ­ian superstar’s pen­chant for pri­vacy and uncon­cern with the press, is the MMA equiv­a­lent of a inter­view with the Pope, Pres­i­dent and Heis­man tro­phy win­ner all at once.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrive at the Luzh­niki hotel which is built into the sta­dium. Once I arrive and meet the peo­ple run­ning M-1, instead of a shad­owy cabal of Russ­ian supervil­lians, I find the com­pany is staffed by a young group of peo­ple from all over East­ern Europe and Rus­sia; a good look­ing group. The women are all sleek and beau­ti­ful and the guys seem sophis­ti­cated and wear posh Euro­pean fash­ions. Imag­ine Dolce and Gabanna tak­ing over King of the Cage.

Wadim Finklestein

The com­pany is headed by a man named Vadim Finkel­stein who also func­tions as Fedor’s man­ager. Wadim was a suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur before turn­ing to fight pro­mo­tion and he’s as larger than life and flam­boy­ant in his own way as his U.S. coun­ter­part Dana White. It’s easy to see how the two might come to log­ger­heads. At the hotel I share a floor of rooms with the M-1 staff and lead­ing up to the event there is a con­stant and seem­ingly ran­dom furor of activ­ity. Com­pared to the machine-like UFC, it seems chaotic, but they’re a scrappy bunch and they’ve been pro­duc­ing suc­cess­ful events in Europe for a while now. They’re all very friendly and when I get to know them, I find they all buy into Vadim’s vision of M-1 as a poten­tial giant global MMA brand, a kind of coun­ter­weight to White’s Amer­i­can based jug­ger­naut. With such an up close and per­sonal view I see the new Russ­ian busi­ness model in prac­tice: dis­or­dered, infu­ri­at­ing, lim­it­lessly hard­work­ing and some­how, mys­ti­fy­ingly, get­ting things done.

Meet­ing Fedor or Stas Saves the Day

I’ve been guar­an­teed a sit-down inter­view with Fedor prior to the event and I’m look­ing for­ward to it. But once I get to Rus­sia, the M-1 staff, despite being help­ful in every other con­ceiv­able way, start stonewalling me about the interview.

Oh, Mr. Fedor doesn’t do inter­views. NOBODY just sits down with Fedor,” they’d tell me, before con­tin­u­ing in hushed tones, “you know he’s friends with Putin,” refer­ring to Russia’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin. The rev­er­ence in which the M-1 peo­ple hold Fedor verges a mix­ture between awe and out­right fear. I remain per­sis­tent, telling them the whole rea­son I had trav­eled halfway around the world was to meet him and I didn’t appre­ci­ate the deal being switched on me at the last minute. Even­tu­ally I am promised that I can do a brief inter­view with Fedor one-on-one after the pre-fight press con­fer­ence he’ll be attend­ing. It’s bet­ter than noth­ing and so I decide to take what I can get and make the best of it.

The press con­fer­ence is a non-event, as these things usu­ally are, and Fedor, flanked by Vadim and one of M-1’s biggest sponsors—the head of Sambo 70—seems bored and non-committal. When he isn’t speak­ing, his atten­tion drifts, his eyes scan­ning the bal­cony. As soon as the press con­fer­ence is over, he’s imme­di­ately whisked away. Now I’m really get­ting frus­trated. The event starts in a few hours and I am pretty sure once it does, my chance will be lost. Every time I asked one of the M-1 big­wigs, I get a “soon, soon,” or “we’ll come get you.” I’m sus­pi­cious that either they are too pet­ri­fied to ask Fedor about it or had been flatly refused by him and don’t want to break the news to me. I finally cor­ner Finkel­stein, who seems sur­prised to see me and as hes­i­tant as any­body else to bother Fedor for an inter­view. I say,“Vadim,” (who I’ve noticed, like his arch neme­sis Dana White, is referred to by every­one by his first name) “we’ve spoke non the phone about this.”

Fedor at Press Conference

Of course, of course,” He assures me, not very con­vinc­ingly. “It will be soon.” I’m reduced to fol­low­ing him around as he tours the sta­dium, giv­ing instruc­tions on the ever-present cell phone plas­tered to his ear, always car­ry­ing on three con­ver­sa­tions at once. Every so often he’ll glance over his shoul­der and see that I’m still tag­ging along before tak­ing off again and I sus­pect, try­ing to lose me. After about half an hour of this, and sens­ing futil­ity, I stop him and point to a chair near one of the cam­eras. “Wadim,” I tell him as sternly as pro­pri­ety allows, “I will be here when Fedor is ready for the inter­view. Please come get me. I don’t care if it’s in ten min­utes or six hours; I’ll be wait­ing right here.”

Of course, of course,” he says, and rushes off. I don’t think he’ll come back.

I take my seat in the chair and begin to wait. The crowd files in and as the show pro­gresses, I get less and less cer­tain of the inter­view hap­pen­ing and I begin to won­der how I’ll will write the arti­cle with­out the inter­view. I run var­i­ous rhetor­i­cal strate­gies through my mind and have set­tled on the title “Fedor is a Dick and Other Things I Learned in Rus­sia” when a remark­able serendip­ity occurs.

About two hours into the show, a tall guy with a shaved head and a black ear­ring approaches and asks me in accented but pre­cise Eng­lish, “Aren’t you the edi­tor of FIGHT! Magazine?”

I am,” I tell him, sur­prised to get rec­og­nized over here. His name is Stanislav Khar­lamov, nick­named Stas, and he runs one of M-1s web­sites in Fin­land. He tells me he’s a big fan of the mag­a­zine; he even pro­duced the Mo Lawal edi­tion from his back­pack. Stas asks me, “What are you doing over here?”

Well, I wanted to come over and see M-1 for myself on its home turf and also inter­view Fedor.” “Oh,” he says, taken aback, “ how’s that going?” he asks me care­fully, prob­a­bly know­ing the answer. “Not well,” I answer. “ I’m kind of get­ting the runaround right now.”

Stay right here,” he says, incensed, and then he dis­ap­pears. When he comes back and tells me he had talked to Vadim and Fedor and that he’d take care of every­thing. After the show ends, he escorts me through the crowd and back­stage into a pri­vate recep­tion area. It’s a small room with a table in the cen­ter cov­ered with plat­ters of food. An exotic group of guests is crowded into the room. There’s Vadim and the M-1 peo­ple, sev­eral impor­tant look­ing Russ­ian busi­ness peo­ple and spon­sors of M-1 and a host of other assorted star­lets and celebri­ties. I was told a soc­cer player, cir­cus acro­bat and sev­eral TV per­son­al­i­ties were on hand. I notice Fedor keeps to him­self, off in a cor­ner deep in con­ver­sa­tion with the Cop­tic con­fes­sor he always trav­els around with. Even­tu­ally, Stas speaks to Fedor and then they both come over to me .  Stas proudly says that Fedor would be happy to speak with me and asks that we go take a seat in the back of the room. A group of peo­ple leap up to make space for us to sit down when they see Fedor com­ing and just like that, after a jour­ney of 10,000 miles, I am sit­ting six inches from the great Fedor Emelia­nenko him­self. He is smaller and more solidly put together than I thought he would be.

Some­one brings him an orange juice. He offers me one, which I politely decline, before he drains his.

Russ­ian con­ver­sa­tions bub­ble in the back­ground as Fedor looks at me with his famously blank expres­sion. Stas tells me he will serve as translator.

I ask Fedor about M-1 and he sur­prises me by say­ing that he is one of the own­ers of the com­pany. Now the fright­ened awe with which every­body at M-1 treats him makes sense. Not only is Fedor the star attrac­tion, but he also signs their pay­checks, fig­u­ra­tively at least.

He says he met Vadim when he (Fedor) was cham­pion of Pride and that after dis­cussing Wadim’s ideas, they became busi­ness part­ners. Now he owns part of M-1 and he’s the face of the com­pany. He tells me that early in his career he was involved in dead-end matches that exposed him to great risk but didn’t really help his career. He now real­izes how impor­tant it is for fight­ers to be devel­oped and pro­moted cor­rectly right from the start. I agree with him that there had been a few really good prospects on the card tonight includ­ing one killer named Shikhshabekov. He agrees and says it makes him happy to help tal­ented young fight­ers develop so they’ll be ready when they step up to the next level. He says even­tu­ally the M-1 sys­tem will pro­duce and develop the top tal­ent in the world. It’s an inter­est­ing con­cept made espe­cially so con­sid­er­ing who is explain­ing it to me.

I ask him about the story the whole MMA world is talk­ing about; his recent upset loss in Strike­force to Fabri­cio Wer­dum and Fedor reflects on the loss answer­ing in the same relaxed tone. “ I was never the one to say I was unbeat­able. This sport is about sec­onds and mil­lime­ters,” he says, hold­ing up his hand and pinch­ing his thumb and fore­fin­ger together, “and in MMA, even if you are pre­pared, any­thing can hap­pen.” He says he’s always real­ized the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing and is now ready to start work­ing his way back.

Fedor is a very devout Chris­t­ian and though pri­vate about it, is up front about his faith and he tells me that he believes that in the final analy­sis he knows “every­thing is in God’s hands.” He offers that maybe now he will start a new rise in MMA even greater than before, but all he can do is to train hard and be as pre­pared as he can be and leave the rest to the Will of God. When I press him about his faith and its place in his life, he clams up and changes the sub­ject. Between the over­whelm­ing heat in the room and his legit­i­mate dis­com­fort dis­cussing him­self, maybe I went too far press­ing him about his reli­gious beliefs, I sense he is get­ting impa­tient and ready to leave.

I ask him about the UFC. Fedor offers only that nego­ti­a­tions failed because of “abnor­mal” demands, what­ever that means. He won’t elab­o­rate. I ask him about Brock Lesnar’s recent come-from behind vic­tory over Shane Car­win at UFC 116. Fedor perks up—a match between him and Lesnar, if it ever hap­pens, would be colos­sal. “Lesnar has good power and strength,” he begins, “but,” (ever polite, he chooses his words care­fully before con­tin­u­ing) “from a tech­ni­cal stand point, he’s not per­fect.” The small­est trace of a smile creeps into his face. It’s the invol­un­tary grin of a nat­ural born preda­tor smelling blood.

He has a strong will to sur­vive the beat­ing Car­win put on him in the first round,” he con­tin­ues with emphases, “but you can’t take so may punches each fight.” I’m sure Fedor is imag­in­ing how Lesnar—strong-willed or not—would wilt under his with­er­ing bar­rage. Espe­cially if Brock doesn’t keep his head bet­ter than he did ver­sus Car­win, who many said gassed pre­ma­turely and let many chances to fin­ish Brock slip away. Then a man comes over and gets Fedor who rises and thanks me politely for com­ing to visit Rus­sia. “Thank you my friend,” he says in per­fect Eng­lish and smiles sweetly as they rush him out the door. Well, it wasn’t the longest inter­view in the world, but I met the man and feel like, thanks to my new friend Stas I got some of what I wanted.

Soon after Fedor leaves, the recep­tion starts to break up and we leave the arena and head back towards the Luznikhi hotel. Despite the seem­ing dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion before hand the event had turned out well. A good crowd had turned out, despite the ter­ri­ble heat and the M-1 Staff is on a high. 2011 they say will be the year when the pro­mo­tion really arrives as a global force in the busi­ness. For that to hap­pen M-1 will have to deal with the most pow­er­ful force in the sport, the UFC which is also fight­ing hard to cre­ate a dom­i­nant global MMA brand. Pick­ing a fight with Dana White is a tall order but while here I’ve seen that while the Rus­sians don’t always get from point A to point B by the short­est or most effi­cient route, they do get there and when they arrive, it’s with a bang.

Out­side, it’s close to mid­night and it feels like it’s still 95 degrees. The ever-energetic M-1 crew decides on the spur of the moment to throw a get-together with wine and food and music across the Luzhniki’s court­yard, down by the banks of the river and right under the giant statue’s nose.


D and Stas