From Surviving the Streets of Russia to MMA: The Story of Aleksander Emelianenko, Part 2

Emelianenko on Emelianenko

By Evgeni Kogan Jul 17, 2008
In Part 2 of this exclusive interview, Aleksander Emelianenko (Pictures) discusses Kimbo, the UFC and killing a bear with a knife.

On being European sport sambo champion:
Emelianenko: I was finishing Polytechnic and had to go to the European Championships. I was just finishing up the third and final year, and I had to do my exams externally because I had to leave to compete. I would go speak to my tutors, study without the group and also get ready and go to the European Championships.

Then I finished OK, passed everything. I have to be thankful to the tutors, who met me halfway, helped me out. They could have, you know. In most cases, you have a person and they hold some position, and they think that because of their position they can do whatever they want. They can make life for those depending on them very hard. But my tutors helped me. They understood that I am a sportsman, that I was never really going to be a welder or anything.

I learn to learn, for the experience of learning. But not to be a welder. I know how to weld, but I am not a professional. It’s not “mine.” “Mine” is sports, and I need to go to Europe to defend the honor of Russia. And they understood that. It’s not like I turned up, and they just gave me grades. I studied. I studied hard. Well, I was ahead of my classmates often.

I am continuing to study. At the Belorussian National University. I wanted to, very much, here in St Petersburg to go to a university, but my time … I don’t have enough time, and it’s not working out.

These days I am also learning the English language. I train in the morning, then I go to an English lesson and then I go and sleep. And later in the afternoon go to my second training.

On university studies:
Emelianenko: Economics. The title of my course is “The Economics and Management of a Concern.” There was an offer for me to join the sports faculty without entrance exams. When I went to enter into the university, I was going with documents to become a sports trainer in the sporting faculty. And then I thought, “Why should I be a trainer? I can already be a trainer without any further education. What can tutors, who themselves learn from books, teach me, an active sportsman?”

And so I decided that I had better join the business faculty. But there I had to pass exams. I had to pass mathematics, Russian, literature. I remembered most and managed to successfully sit all. Many I would go and discuss the subject with the lecturer, and they would give me an A. For Russian literature the question was to discuss and outline the biography of a favorite author or poet. And discuss their works.

They had to be from the classical Russian literature canon. I really like to read. Especially Russian literature. So I walked in and asked about whom would you like me to tell you. It doesn’t matter. For example, I said, “I am currently reading Alexei Tolstoy.” I listed the works I was reading, a lot of what he has done. I also discussed them with her. She eventually said, “That’s fine. Please, you’re free to enter. I’m giving you an A.”

I’m a smart person. I am friends with literature. She saw that it was pointless to spend a lot of time going from topic to topic because I knew my stuff.

On his favorite author/movie/music:
Emelianenko: I really like Henryk Sienkiewicz. I don’t know if you’ve read him. Ahhh, it’s called “Quo Vadis?” (“Where Are You Going?”). I recommend you read him. Really interesting book. Polish writer. It’s about the time of Nero. When Nero burned Rome. About the birth of Christianity in the world, where it all came from etc. …

I really don’t like how they film the latest Russian films. There is simply nothing to watch. Basically I think that the budget which is given is wasted on famous starts, famous actors. And the film itself ends up being just nothing.

Music. I like music. Rap is good, so is Shanson. I also like classical, pop. I like any music basically if it goes with a mood. But again, here, there’s some kind of mess with music. Out of this jumbled mess, I could choose single artists, songs, but I wouldn’t want to. If something goes with a mood, I’m in -- that’s OK.

I like rock a lot. I basically grew up with Russian rock music. The band Kino I like, also DDT and Alisa.

On whom he would like to meet, alive or dead:
Emelianenko: I’d like to talk to Muhammad Ali. If not for him, I don’t know where the world of boxing would be today.

I think that everything that boxing has achieved to date, it’s because of the great fighters like Forman, Frazier and those even earlier, Robinson. There are many boxers, but very few greats that changed everything.

They did what they did; they fought and forged the road ahead. In sport this always happens, even if you take chess. Take that American. I forget his name. Fisher. He had to sacrifice himself in making chess a more popular sport. Many people, in order to develop their craft, their ideas, have to sacrifice themselves. Otherwise it doesn’t work. So you have to choose.

On the way athletes are looked at in Russia:
Emelianenko: When I won the European championships in sporting sambo, I thought I’d grabbed a piece of good fortune. I was going home with such joy and was feeling so lucky. I was just a boy who had been overseas for the first time, had shown up best at a European Championship and had done something really high, something really far reaching.

I was so happy when I came home. And the reaction was -- in most cases here, when someone achieves something in sport, it’s “You won. Great.” They shake your hand, they congratulate you and on the next day they forget about it. That’s not right. I allowed myself to be too happy, and of course it was hurtful. In general here in Russia, the attitude to sport is not what it should be.

Everyone, absolutely everyone starting from the government down to an average citizen thinks that it’s the business of the sportsperson. It doesn’t really matter whether they compete in sports or don’t compete in sports. Doesn’t matter whether they win or lose. I think that a sportsperson, to become good, has to approach their craft like it’s their profession, their career.

Like an engineer for example. If he’s an average worker, say at a factory, who screws in nuts and bolts, he earns say 10,000 roubles [$ 420 per month]. If he has an education and is on an engineer level, he now gets 20,000 [840 per month]. If he’s a master of his craft, say he gets 30,000 [1260 per month]. If he’s the director of the whole enterprise, the whole factory, obviously he gets more money. And so it should be with sportspeople, I think. The attitude has to be this.

Because I know that many sportspeople to this day who show great results, world-class results -- I have lots of friends who are world champions who are leaving their respective sports because they don’t get paid anything by anyone. They work as bouncers at average bars and nightclubs, and get 1,000 per month because they need to somehow feed their family. And that’s at the best of times do they get 1,000 [per month], in order to feed their families.

Because they get nothing from their sport. Yes, they train. Yes, they go to competitions and win. And they get given medals and certificates and get their hand shook, and then they’re forgotten about. Just like happened to me in 1999, when I returned from the European Sambo Championships.

I came back not thinking that millions would fall on my head or anything, but I thought the attitude would somehow be different. To this day it’s the same. Sportspeople have nothing. Many of the people who won gold at the last Summer Olympics, when [then] President Vladimir Putin gave the order that gold medal winners would get $50,000 each, many are still waiting. They haven’t received this acknowledgement of their success.

On the participation in sports in Russia today:
Emelianenko: With MMA I think you must first show some kind of results in your own sport. You must get somewhere, reach something. To put down a foundation of skills and knowledge in order to move forward, in order to achieve results. But now you take a drive around some sports halls, gyms, they’re all empty. No one wants to train.

A boxing trainer I know went around some school classes, years eight through 11. About five classes in each year. And he said if even one person would have come to have a look at where the training center is … what is happening there? Nothing he said, nothing at all. No one came. But in my time, when I was signing up to train, people were signing one year ahead because there wasn’t enough space for everyone.

Why? Because there is little of the seriousness with which sports should be viewed. There are little sports on television. There is little knowledge, interest in a healthy lifestyle. What they show, that’s what people go to watch. People sit in front of their computers, on the Internet. No one wants to train. They advertise only alcohol and cigarettes.

There was an incident here recently. There was a school playground where there were kids, always playing something. Almost 24 hours a day. Then the school administration decided it didn’t like this use of their space and locked the playground. And the next day the kids turned up and found the whole place locked. So they went and bought beer and cigarettes and spent time on a park bench drinking instead.

No one wants to do anything anymore. Dmitry Medvedev [Russian president] commented the other say that in school only 20 percent of students participate in sports. I’ve been talking to trainers who say that at the best estimate, only about two percent train. Everything is becoming commercial. Gyms, the only people who train at gyms now are older, of a certain status. They’ve understood that exercise is important, that looking after one’s health is important.

But as far as playgrounds and fields, there are less and less of them. They’re closing more and more all the time. And if they open one, it’s to say “Look we have a playground.” But who trains there – no one. Either it’s because it’s paid entry or it’s for some other reason. Maybe it’s limited to a certain group of people. So 100 people use it, what about everyone else? What do they do? Sit and watch how the others train.

Children’s sport has become a paid activity. But many do not have the money to pay for it. In my time if sports was a paid activity, I would never have become a sportsperson, because my parents would never have the money to pay for me. But I think that for children, for teenagers with issues, from difficult families to pay money as well, it’s terrible. They want to compete in sports, but they just can’t.

I think that I myself was a difficult, troubled teenager. And again if sports had been a paid activity, we wouldn’t be sitting here with you now, talking. You wouldn’t be asking me to answer questions as a sportsman. So that’s why I think that we have to make sport available.

First and foremost, children’s sport. We need to attract children and youth to sports. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to be combat sports. Let them be team sports or other sports -- there are millions of them. I think they need to build schools, sports clubs everywhere. It needs a government program, to be available to everyone.

On what he does to help with the problem:
Emelianenko: I go, I talk to them, I try to involve them in sports. When I can I go to orphanages, to teenage offender colonies, I visit the youth there. I try to tell them about a healthy way of life. About some perspectives on life different to those that they may have. I tell them about having a good future. You know, when you talk to someone, say with a child, and you tell them what will happen with them if they drink and smoke, if they take heroin or sniff glue, what will happen to them. And what will happen to them if they play a sport.

And of course the choice is theirs. But just to tell them, it’s not enough. You must also attract them, to hook them into it. As I’m saying, there are a lot of wrong paths, but to play a sport, it’s very hard work, especially if you’re aiming at results. And because of how hard this is at this point in time, I am limited in my abilities.

But eventually to fully realize my goals, I’d like to build a school for sports. I’d call it the Aleksander Emelianenko School, and anyone who wanted to use it, or to train there, could. Not only in Russia but throughout the whole world.

On why he decided to compete in MMA:
Emelianenko: In Russia in amateur competition, it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how good a sportsman you are. It doesn’t matter what kind of results you attain. I’m a person from nowhere, someone that no one knows, and when I entered the Russian stage as a sportsman, they stopped giving me access, stopped giving me a fair path through competition. They started to block my advancing in competition.

In amateur sports in Russia, you already have your champions. You have your winners, and it’s already set out long ago -- it’s all decided. Who goes where and for what. And they had no need for me whatsoever; I wasn’t at all advantageous for them. And so I decided to leave amateur sports. So I thought I’d go into professional sport. So I re-qualified into combat sports.

From sports sambo into combat sambo, and I think I would have also entered Pride earlier. But even then I was the youngest fighter to fight there. I didn’t work before Pride. I’ve never worked. I just trained.

On what happened between 2000 and 2004:
Emelianenko: I lived with my parents and trained. And I understood, I mean, it was important to understand how to continue and what to do and how to live. I had to work things out and choose a path for myself into the future. I understood that like an engineer, for example, or a scientist, I wouldn’t become. Some kind of worker I wouldn’t make either. And so the road for me was sport. Professional sport. And so I decided to go professional.

On the transition from martial arts to MMA:
Emelianenko: I don’t know, for me it came easily. I am not just a sportsman; I am a fighter in my heart. To me it’s all, it’s everything. I love to fight.

On fighting and Mark Hunt (Pictures):
Emelianenko: When I had to, on the 11th of May, fight with Mark Hunt, I was just overjoyed that I would get to fight him. That I can fight against such a fantastic fighter, that we’d come out and have this great fight. That we could beat on each other. That he’s a guy who would provide a good opponent for me, who’d show a good fight.

I was just so happy to hear that. And it was like a huge weight falling on me when I was told that Mark Hunt had declined to fight me. I couldn’t find anywhere to get away, to sort out my thinking. So I became upset. Because. Tell another person … I don’t know. Can you become upset about the fact that you don’t have to fight someone? No. …

And it’s not even a fight. I think that when you walk out into the ring, the fighters, I think, they don’t even get a beating from each other. It’s more like a game of chess in the ring. Who can outplay who, find their weak points. Who will outlast who, who trained better. Who can better trick who.

It’s not like they took someone off the street and just put him in the ring with me, you know, and I’m standing there, beating him like I want. No. I have to watch everything. Have to think about everything. I have to make instantaneous decisions. I have to judge the situation all the time. It’s chess in the ring.

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