King Without a Crown: Fedor Emelianenko & Co. Find Their Own Way

The scene is set, the lights have been tested. Now there’s nothing left to do but wait. We sit in the Aegean Room , a small meeting space on the second floor of the Argosy Casino Hotel & Spa, an extravagant monument to an imagined Mediterranean past. The casino sits on the Missouri side of the state’s namesake river, across the Platte Purchase and Fairfax Bridges from the western half of Kansas City.

Minutes tick past our guest’s expected arrival time on this Friday afternoon, and FIGHT! Magazine photographer Paul Thatcher and I wait anxiously, listening for the ding of arriving elevators and the sound of muffled conversations coming down the carpeted hall. At last I hear the ding and the scuffling of feet, and see a young guy in an M-1 Global shirt heading our way.

Jacob Schaap is the advance man, M-1’s Dutch publicist, and he’s come to tell us that our guest just landed in Kansas City that afternoon, that he did a signing for Affliction at The Buckle before arriving at the hotel, that he is satisfying one last commitment before coming to us, and that he is very, very tired. We talk with Schaap for a few minutes before he leaves us to wait again.

Several minutes later, I hear an elevator ding and a muffled conversation coming down the hall. Schaap has returned with M-1 Global’s chief operating officer, Joost Raimond, and our guest, Fedor Emelianenko.

Fedor is large, but not in the way that other heavyweight fighters are. Eight weeks out from his WAMMA title tilt at “Affliction: Trilogy” against Josh Barnett, Fedor has a body that’s broad and soft. His shoulders are slack and relaxed. He lacks the action figure proportions of his contemporaries. And his expressionless face is less a window to his soul than a peephole in a great wall.

We shake hands and he nods, says hello softly, and offers a wan smile. “He can speak a little bit of English,” Apy Echteld would tell me later. M-1’s vice president of fighter relations says, “He doesn’t want to speak English. He’s forced to. He has to.” When I ask if Fedor realizes how much that limits his drawing potential in the West, Echteld shrugs. “He doesn’t want to be a star,” he says.

That’s why he stays in his adopted hometown of Stary Oskol, a small Russian mining city 100 kilometers (about sixty miles) from the Ukraine border. But his desire to compete forces him to leave. “The [highest] level of fighters, the [highest] level of fights are out here,” says Fedor.

Thatcher starts posing the fighter, motioning to him and clicking photos, the pop and whoosh of remotely triggered lights creating a sci-fi soundtrack to the mostly silent photo shoot. As he looks into the lens, it’s hard to tell if Fedor is really there or if the man is mentally absent, tucked away in whatever happy place he goes to as he walks to the ring, so focused on the routine of family, training, sauna and prayer in Stary Oskol that this American promotional tour seems like a waking dream.

But when Thatcher stops shooting and turns to his computer, the man who wasn’t there suddenly arrives. Sitting on an ottoman in the middle of the room, Fedor slides a mobile phone out from under his thigh, flips it open, and starts pecking away at the keypad. According to Echteld, the fighter fiddles with phones constantly, even stealing friends phones to play games before giving them back. When Thatcher turns back to Fedor, the Russian quickly closes the phone and slides it back under his leg like a schoolboy hiding his favorite toy.

“How long is this gonna take?,” Raimond asks from the doorway. “Mr. Fedor is very tired.” Thatcher keeps working, well aware that we’re not going to get anywhere near the hour that we were promised. At the 10-minute mark Raimond asks us to wrap it up. Thatcher works faster, moving a light, positioning a reflector, setting up a new shot. A minute passes and Raimond tells us to wrap it up. Thatcher continues shooting. Another minute passes and Raimond tells us that the shoot is over. The photographer lowers his camera. “Are we done?” Raimond asks.

“Yeah, mate, we’re done,” Thatcher says.

I hand our subject his shirt, literally; the soft red tee bears Affliction’s Fedor Emelianenko signature design. He says thank you, puts the shirt on over his simple wooden Orthodox cross, smiles wanly and walks out.

Thatcher moves to his laptop to see what his 12-minute photo shoot produced. He clicks through files, stopping at one simple portrait and enlarging it several times. The character and complexity of Fedor’s face is apparent up close, a network of tiny scars and creases around warm, peaceful eyes. But that character and complexity is invisible to those he keeps at arm’s length, from behind his phalanx of M-1 Global handlers, from the other side of a language barrier, at the end of a 12-hour flight from Moscow.

BORN ON SEPT. 28, 1976, IN WHAT IS NOW THE UKRAINE, Fedor moved with his family to Stary Oskol when he was 3 years old. His childhood—with younger brothers Aleksander and Ivan, and older sister Marina—was austere but unremarkable, save for young Fedor’s fondness for wrestling with classmates. He idolized Soviet Olympians like weightlifter Yuri Vlasov and dreamed of representing Russia in the Games as a judoka.

He studied judo along with Russia’s national sport of sambo from the age of 11. Emelianenko served two years in the Russian army and, when he was discharged in 1997, he earned the title “Master of Sport” in both arts. He received a small government stipend to compete on the national sambo team but, according to Fedor, “it wasn’t enough to live off of, so that’s why I went on to fight MMA.”

Fedor joined Russian Top Team, managed by Vladimir Pogodin, vice president of the World Sambo Federation and the promoter of Rings Russia. Emelianenko began fighting professionally in 2000, bouncing between Rings shows in Russia and Japan and racking up 10 wins against a single loss due to a cut. He joined Pride FC in 2002, earning a title shot against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira the following year after just two fights with the promotion.

That March night in 2003 marked both a beginning and an end for Fedor. He battered the resilient Nogueira to become Pride FC heavyweight champion, a title he held until the promotion was purchased and shut down by Zuffa, LLC in 2007. But he was cheated out of most of his champion’s bonus, an affront that would lead to his departure from Russian Top Team.

Echteld, a fighter and trainer by trade, met Fedor while in Japan and caught wind of the fact that Pogodin was allegedly robbing the fighter blind. “Normally, when you win as Pride champion they give you a bonus of $50,000,” Echteld says in heavily accented English. “Fedor got only $5,000 of it.” Echteld introduced Fedor to attorney Vadim Finkelchtein the trainer’s promotional partner in the Too Hot to Handle fight series in Amsterdam. In spite of Pogodin’s threats to revoke the Emelianenko brothers’ Master of Sport titles, Fedor and Aleksander left Russian Top Team shortly thereafter, partnered with Finkelchtein, and began training at the Red Devil Sport Club, in St. Petersburg, named for the European energy drink that Finkelchtein represented.

Fedor had never lost his title in the ring, and was undefeated in Pride, when Zuffa, LLC purchased the promotion and shut it down. He has fought just four times since. Many assumed that Fedor, like most of Pride’s top stars, would transition to the UFC, but he struck out on his own, preferring to let Finkelchtein broker deals that allowed him to capitalize on his global notoriety without sacrificing autonomy.

He faced middleweight Matt Lindland in a bodog- Fight event in St. Petersburg,
Russia, in April 2007, and Finkelchtein talked with the UFC, but Dana White found their demands for co-promotion to be unreasonable. Heavyweight champion Randy Couture cited the UFC’s failure to sign the Russian as one of the reasons he parted ways with the company in October 2007, and the two champions flirted with the possibility of a super fight while Zuffa kept Couture tied up in court.

Fedor finished the year by beating Korean giant Hong Man Choi at a Japanese New Year’s show. In 2008, Fedor and his management team partnered with MMA agent and regional promoter Monte Cox and with Best, an American television production and athlete representation firm, to create M-1 Global, an extension of Vadim Finkelchtein’s promotion, M-1 Mix-Fight.

Unable to create a viable economic model, Cox parted ways with M-1 Global before the group could promote a single show. Finkelchtein and his partner, Russian billionaire Sergei Matvienko, took sole possession of the name and trademarks and partnered with Affliction Entertainment to produce two copromoted events in Anaheim, California, headlined by Fedor: “Banned” and “Day of Reckoning.” There Fedor defeated former UFC heavyweight champions Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski.

In June of this year, Fedor traveled to America to promote the third Affliction/M-1 event, “Trilogy,” which, if it had not been cancelled, would have had him face Josh Barnett in a heavyweight bout that fans have waited years to see.

IT’S EARLY SATURDAY AFTERNOON, and we’re eastbound in western Missouri, gliding down I-70 toward St. Louis in a chartered minibus. The M-1 Global crew is exhausted. After days of traveling from Moscow and Amsterdam to New York City and Los Angeles, Finkelchtein, Raimond, Echteld and M-1 USA Vice President Jerry Millen produced an M-1 Challenge show in Kansas City last night with the help of a local fight promoter. Fedor did a signing before the fights, autographing magazines and taking pictures with a long line of fans.

Fedor isn’t a vocal leader, but he definitely issues the marching orders. The bus got a late start out of Kansas City because the fighter wanted to visit a toy store to pick up gifts for his daughters. The M-1 Global entourage followed him around the Crown Center Shops, in downtown Kansas City, dressed head-to-toe in Affliction-branded designer denim and tee shirts, milling around in Micah’s and Halls department stores while he sorted through tiny dresses with his childhood friend and traveling companion, Denis Kurilov.

An hour into the drive, Fedor and his English voice, attorney Steve Bash, sit down in the back of the bus to talk. Dream middleweight champion and Strikeforce light Heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi is asleep in the row immediately in front of Fedor, and the Russian grabs each side of Mousasi’s chair, shaking it violently. Mousasi startles and Fedor laughs, saying something quietly to Bash.

“Turbulence,” Bash says.

Fedor turns to Mousasi and grins. “Turbulence,” he says.

Mousasi goes back to sleep and Fedor looks at me. He doesn’t like doing interviews and his lazy, predatory stare makes me feel that he doesn’t like the people who conduct them, either. I address questions to him and Bash, confirming relevant details from Fedor’s biography. It’s a tedious process, posing a question in English, waiting for it to be translated into Russian, waiting for Fedor’s measured response, and then getting the finished product in English from Bash.

While Bash and I talk, Fedor glances at someone in the front of the bus, nods and catches a handful of ice tossed from somewhere behind me. He stands up behind Mousasi, now doubled over asleep in his seat, and drops the ice into Mousasi’s boxers. The Armenian- Dutchman bolts upright and digs the ice out of his pants, glares at his tormentor and moves to a different seat while Fedor laughs.

We continue to pass questions and answers back and forth and I get antsy, waiting for Bash or Raimond or Millen to bang a gong and pull me away from Fedor with a long hook. “I’m sorry, Mr. Fedor is very tired,” they’d say. But to my surprise, Mr. Fedor is relaxed, and his answers get longer and more thoughtful as we wind around topics like the benefits of banya, the Russian sauna and his adult religious conversion.

I ask him about the simple wooden cross he wears around his neck, the one he only takes off when he’s fighting. Fedor, like many Russians who grew up in the officially atheist USSR, returned to the Eastern Orthodox Church as an adult. It’s not only a spiritual sanctuary but an integral component of Russian national identity.

“There was a moment when I strongly felt God’s presence in my life,” he says of his conversion. “When I was younger I believed in God but not in any particular side,” he says. “My father wasn’t very religious; to this day he’s basically an atheist. My mother was religious and I grew up believing in God, but certainly not as religious as I am right now.”

The fighter counts his priest, Father Andre, among his closest confidants, and attends services regularly. “The way that I had lived before, I wasn’t living my life the right way,” Emelianenko says. “Today, it’s a conscious decision, not like before, to follow certain principles of the church. To pray, to ask for forgiveness for my sins. Mainly, my relationships with people, not to treat people the way I might have treated them in the past.”

I ask him to clarify, curious to know what sins he’s referring to. Bash asks him for an example, but Fedor smiles slightly and shakes his head, politely declining to elaborate. He is divorced, with daughters by both his former wife, Oksana, and his current companion, but he doesn’t talk about his personal life. He doesn’t talk about his brother, Aleksander, a well-regarded heavyweight who left the M-1 family earlier this year. He doesn’t talk about Pogodin, either. His former manager was killed in a plane crash in 2008 and Fedor avoids the subject, preferring to let his relationship with Russian Top Team molder in the past.

The minibus pulls off the interstate, and the entire M-1 Global entourage spills out—Fedor; Kurilov; Finkelchtein, Raimond, Millen, Bash, Schaap, Echteld, Echteld’s daughter and her friend, Mousasi, and Dennis Spencer, executive vice president of television at Best. Almost the entire group heads directly to the men’s room, which quickly becomes crowded. Just as Fedor steps in front of a urinal, Mousasi rushes over, grabs the Russian’s shoulders and shakes him violently. Both men laugh as Mousasi walks out.

“Turbulence,” he says.

FOR THE BETTER PART OF TWO YEARS, M-1 executives have engaged in a public battle with UFC president Dana White for the hearts and minds of MMA fans. The two sides push back and forth over the idea that Fedor is the world’s best heavyweight fighter or, as some think, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world. M-1 holds up Fedor’s nearly flawless record and a resume that features wins over most of the best heavyweights of the mid-2000s, including five of the 12 men who have held the UFC heavyweight championship belt. White vacillates between measured praise for Fedor and accusations that he is a can-crusher who beats up UFC washouts. White rightly points out that Fedor is not a proven pay-per-view draw in the United States and mocks the unrealistic demands of “crazy Russians.”

Despite the public histrionics, conversations continued between both camps throughout M-1 Global’s partnership with Affliction, and when the apparel company cancelled Trilogy on short notice and dissolved its entertainment division, it seemed that a deal between White and M-1 was in the offing. Negotiations resu
med in earnest, and the UFC reportedly offered more concessions than it had previously, such as allowing Fedor to compete in combat sambo and to feature M-1 logos on his clothing and Octagon banners. But the talks broke down again on the point of co-promotion. M-1 Global wants to co-promote any cards featuring its contracted fighters in order to build its own global promotional concern. “That’s why I want our fighters branded ‘M-1 fi ghter Fedor Emelianenko, M-1 fighter…,’ because we are not ready to do our own shows, to be honest,” says Echteld.

The UFC has remained steadfast in its belief that it will not benefit from any form of co-promotion, so on August 3, Strikeforce stepped into the breach and announced that it had partnered with M-1 Global to bring Fedor to Showtime. It was a deal that had been set in motion several months earlier, during the Affliction/M-1 promotional tour.

THE BUS STOPS IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARCH; downtown St. Louis traffic is snarled before the start of a Cardinals game at nearby Busch Stadium. When questioned about the controversy that has swirled around him since Pride was shuttered, Fedor often lays it at the feet of his management, saying only that he trusts them to make the best decisions. “I think it’s his way of being complimentary,” says Echteld. “At the end of the day, me and Vadim and the other management people, we work for him.”

But M-1 Global knows that Fedor isn’t long for fighting. “I don’t know when he’ll stop but, I’ve known him for quite a long time now,” Echteld says. “He has an expiration date.” M-1 Global is aware that there is a limited window of opportunity to leverage Fedor’s appearances into a greater share of the American market.

That’s partly the reason why the M-1 Global crew is en route to the Scottrade Center for Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields, where Finkelchtein and Fedor will sit cageside with Barnett to promote Affliction: Trilogy, on Showtime. Echteld makes veiled references to negotiations with Strikeforce to build Mousasi into a star in the American promotion. The young Dream champion is a charismatic, dynamic fighter who speaks English fluently, the kind of athlete who could headline events in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

On my way to the press row I pass Strikeforce owner Scott Coker and Affliction’s Tom Atencio talking with M-1 Global officials. Inside the arena, the crowd lights up when Fedor’s presence is announced over the public address system. He sits with Finkelchtein to his left, looking mostly uninterested in what’s happening in the cage. Barnett sits on the other side of Fedor’s manager, making small talk with people who approach him.

I watch Fedor, wondering about the complexity of his internal life, curious to know how much control he exerts over M-1 Global’s dealings and how much he really trusts his representatives to work with his best interests in mind. Is he really just a simple guy who likes eating ice cream and playing Russian word games with his oldest friend? Or is there something more complicated at work behind his stoic façade?

In between main card fights, a Showtime cameraman trains his lens on Fedor, Finkelchtein and Barnett. Fedor Emelianenko appears on the arena’s jumbo monitors and the crowd roars. The fighter slowly turns to face the camera, looks out into America with an unaffected stare, winks and smiles.

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