When I initially found out that M-1 was coming to New Jersey for their first show on American soil in February 2010, I scoffed at the notion. Any MMA fan worth his weight in Pride FC DVDs knows about the notorious M-1 Global: the Russian company that owned Fedor Emelianenko’s fight contract, which kept him away from the UFC because of their constant demand to copromote. There were all sorts of rumors flying around about the business practices of the company, none of which were very positive. Smugly, I trekked to Atlantic City for what I assumed would be a train wreck and another one-and-done show with the start of their American Selection series.
Against the odds, I became hooked on the company and was ringside for every future show thereafter in The Garden State. Storylines began to grow with their roster of fighters as I followed them along the tournament all the way to the final Selection event in NJ, leading up to the first M-1 Challenge event held in the U.S. It took the company more than a decade to bring their events to our continent, but it was worth the wait.
In the past, most fans associated M-1 with Fedor exclusively, unaware of the promotion’s history and how far back it stretched. The creation of M-1 Global was initially a way to have the best talent in Russia under one roof, and it has acted as a feeder system for some fighters and a launching pad for others. The earliest M-1 Mix Fight shows were one-night tournaments, but by 2001, the company experimented with nationalistic events that pitted Russia against another country. This concept proved to be wildly popular overseas, and events with teams representing a nation expanded into a beast of its own, leading to the formation of the first M-1 Selection event in early 2009, creating a pyramidal system to seek top talent.
“Russia has been known to favor martial arts, from hand-tohand combat early in history to Sambo later on,” says M-1 Global president Vadim Finkelchtein. “MMA is a relatively new, developing sport, but its popularity in Russia is rapidly growing, to a great extent due to the promotional activities of M-1 Global.” Vadim came from humble upbringings, but he always had a knack for business. Starting with a fruit and vegetable stand in his home-town of Uzbekestan, his company quickly grew to 15 stands across the country, and it expanded into a restaurant and meatimporting business. In 1997, Vadim made the move into MMA when he founded the Red Devil Sports Club, and he soon became acquainted with the man who would later become the most dominant heavyweight in the sport—Fedor Emelianenko.
Beginning with the M-1 Selection series, fighters from specific regions battled in five weight classes through an eight-man tournament held over a series of events. The top winner in each division moved ahead into the M-1 Challenge shows, where they represented their country against winners from other nations. Essentially, M-1 took the format for the IFL but started earlier, where the fighters had to earn their way onto the team before they could start to compete together and represent their nation. In 2010, M-1 sweetened the deal by creating their championship belts, while maintaining their team-based format but also emphasizing their single talent in a more mainstream way.
During the M-1 Challenge 2010 series held in Atlantic City, a team was selected over the course of four events to represent America in the next phase. The group consisted of lightning-fast lightweight Jose Figueroa; highly-skilled MMA veteran welterweight Tom Gallicchio; never-say-die middleweight Tyson Jeffries; knockout artist light heavyweight Byron Byrd; and heavyweight wrestling phenom and one-man marketing machine Kenny “Deuce” Garner. These five fighters put on action-packed shows from their first fight in the series—all the way to the finals.
“I didn’t have any hesitation working with them,” says Byron Byrd, American Top Team fighter and eventual winner of the lightheavyweight selection series. “At the time, I was trying to make my pro debut, and I wasn’t going to be picky. I was glad to have the opportunity to make my pro debut with them. Regardless of what other people say, M-1 is a good company and they treat their fighters accordingly.” Byrd was actually a last-minute replacement for a different fighter and came in on two-week’s notice.
With an undefeated amateur record, Byrd made his pro-MMA debut at the second Selection show, knocking out Mike Shenkenberg in 10 seconds and earning himself the fastest KO record in the company. Byrd followed up that win with another first-round knockout, leading up to the dramatic showdown against skilledgrappler Daniel Vizcaya.
“No one really knew much about me because my first fights were so fast, and everyone was saying Vizcaya was a good wrestler who would put me on my back since I didn’t have any ground game, which wasn’t true,” Byrd says. Vizcaya ended up taking down Byrd, who then locked in a triangle choke on the wrestler. Vizcaya worked his way into a standing position while Byrd held onto the choke. Vizcaya then delivered a vicious power-bomb, but Byrd survived and forced his opponent to tap seconds after impact. “At the time, it didn’t hurt, but for the next week my back was killing me.”
While the team was being selected for America, M-1 also formed teams in Western and Eastern Europe, and by the end of 2010, an international clash of fighters led to crowning the first M-1 champions with the creation of their title belts. “The only thing they can do to improve is their travel arrangements,” welterweight Selection winner Tom Gallicchio says about his time across the ocean. “When they fly the American fighters overseas, I think they should give us more than a day and a half to adjust.” Gallicchio earned Fight of the Night honors in his matches against Reggie Pena and Aaron Meisner, and he made quick work out of his final opponent, Len Bentley, who later ended up on TUF 13.
Gallicchio had his shot at the M-1 welterweight title at M-1 Challenge 23, but he fell victim to champion Shamil Zavurov after two rounds. Jet lag may have proven to be their undoing, as Kenny Garner was the first man to fall victim to the Russians on their home turf, when Guram Gugenishvili submitted him by guillotine early in the second round in their first bout for the heavyweight championship.
Luck was not on the Americans’ side until a change of venue occurred. At the first M-1 Challenge Show in the U.S., taking place in Norfolk, Virginia, Jose Figueroa TKO’ed champ Artiom Damkovsky at M-1 Challenge 24 to become the first American M-1 champion. This event was another milestone as well, since it was featured live on Showtime. One event later in St. Petersburg, another American champion was crowned when Vinny Magalhaes submitted light-heavyweight champion Viktor Nemkov with a slick gogoplata submission from s-mount. An alumni of TUF, “Pezao” has since placed third in the inaugural Ultimate Absolute nogi tournament in New York this past Summer, and he won his division at this year’s ADCC no-gi grappling championships.
M-1’s growth has continued this year, with the creation of a new event called M-1 Fighter. At it’s inaugural show in Russia at the International Festival of Ol’gino Bikers, local unknowns were given a chance to show their stuff to M-1’s European matchmaker Alexander Shuldyakov. The bout winners may earn a shot in the M-1 Selection tournament or an undercard bout on a future M-1 Challenge card. Meanwhile, business rolls on as usual in Russia and the Ukraine, while the company combs more cities in the U.S. and around the world to find untapped talent.
“UFC has a long history and M-1 is still a growing and developing organization,” Vadim says about the outlook for his promotion and how they stack up against the top dog in the U.S. MMA scene. “To speak of competition here would not quite be appropriate. M-1 Global sets its targets on strengthening its presence on the international market. We keep working for the brighter future of M-1. These are exciting times for us.”
Born in Ukraine, Guram has been called the next big thing to come out of M-1, and likened to Fedor in his style of fighting and dominance. Guram has submitted all but one of his opponents in his career, six of which happened within two minutes of the first round. Guram was set to make his American debut earlier this year but an injury pushed it back till October, where a second injury sidelined him, forcing M-1 to create an interim heavyweight championship until his return.
Garner has been the man chasing the Heavyweight gold since winning the Americas selection tournament and beating Pat Bennett in the finals. The ATT fighter met Guram for the title in Russia, where he fell victim to a second round guillotine. Garner pushed on, and defeated Pat Bennett in a rematch, earning another shot at the heavyweight title. Guram was forced to withdraw due to an injury, allowing Garner to step in against Maxim Grishin, where after five grueling rounds, an exhausted Grishin gave up. Garner has earned his interim Heavyweight title, and fans can look forward to seeing Garner VS Grishin 2 down the line.
Having grown up in a martial arts family in Switzerland, Enomoto has held numerous titles in various disciplines from Karate to Muay Thai. Enomoto entered M-1 with a record of 6-2, and earned an immediate title shot against Shamil Zavurov for the lightweight title, becoming a very last-minute replacement for his original opponent. Enomoto went the distance and lost, but has become a solid contender and very exciting fighter in their roster, beating Rafal Moks and Joshua Thorpe in his follow-ups with M-1.
At 6’3”, Figueroa won the lightweight selection tournament with wins over George Sheppard and Joshua Thorpe. Figueroa has been fighting high-level competition from day one and holds a respectable 10-4 record. “The People’s Champ” dismantled Artiom Damkovsky in M-1’s first American show to become the first American M-1 Global champion ever..
EDDIE ‘CRAZY FACE’ ARIZMENDI
The 25-year-old Native American of Mexican heritage is Tucson’s middleweight gem. Standing a solid 6’3”, Arizmendi was previously a top-ranked high school football quarterback and a former RITC champion. Eddie just lost to Arthur Guseinov at M-1 Challenge 27 by heel hook, but expect him to quickly bounce back and work his way up the rankings to get a shot at Magomed Sultanakhmedov’s middleweight title in 2012.
Matthew Kaplowitz is the editor of TheFightNerd.com. He may be reached at Matt@TheFightNerd.com.