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.
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.
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.”
“ 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.