Chasing Fedor

By Jason Probst Jul 30, 2009
If you’re a hardened watcher of the MMA scene, it should be no surprise that the UFC and Fedor Emelianenko have not reached an agreement. Vadim Finkelstein, manager of mixed martial arts’ best heavyweight, reiterated Wednesday that the Russian will not fight for the UFC unless M-1 Global is allowed to co-promote.

Somebody ought to update the Wikipedia entry on “chutzpah” with Finkelstein’s picture, because it’s a perfect fit for such a demand.

If the annual battle for the mixed martial arts fan base were a presidential election, the UFC would be Ronald Reagan in 1984 -- with M-1 running somewhere between Walter Mondale and Lyndon LaRouche. If Finkelstein’s gonna go all-in on unlikely-to-be-met requests, he might as well insist Uganda host the Winter Olympics. Or, maybe the Jonas Brothers headline the next Slayer tour. Because those two miracles are as likely to happen as the UFC letting M-1 hijack their brand and horn in on their success.

Such statements are often posturing and merely part of the mad dance of negotiation. The worst thing would be if Finkelstein were actually serious when he said it.

Because if that’s the case, UFC President Dana White’s oft-used “crazy Russians” phrase to describe negotiating with Fedor’s management would be regrettably correct.

Just because White is prone to expletive-laden tirades and colorful hyperbole doesn’t mean he isn’t (sometimes) very correct.

UFC is a high-maintenance negotiator, one that didn’t come to terms with HBO in 2007, despite the obvious advantages of doing so at the time.

There’s a thin line between good business practices and outright zealotry. But regardless of where you classify the UFC in that analogy, that single-mindedness is a big part of why UFC is largely identified as MMA (a la Xerox-as-photocopy), and also why the company engenders so much resistance (largely short-lived) from competitors. As Wilt Chamberlain aptly put it, “Nobody roots for Goliath,” but we’d sure miss him if he went away.

In the world of corporate deal-making, it was a ballsy move at the time not to budge when negotiating with HBO, which occupies a similar position in their industry as the UFC does now.

You don’t place demands on the prom queen unless you know you’ve got supreme confidence that something better will come along. But the UFC and White did by refusing to cede production control to the cable giant, and now they’re prospering in a dizzying version of double-digit growth, in a bad economy no less. Ask yourself why they should let M-1 cut in line merely to get Fedor? So they can go through another Affliction-like debacle, and build up a future rival?

Evgeni Kogan/

Vadim Finkelstein reiterated
that Fedor will not fight unless
M-1 is allowed to co-promote.
And thus MMA’s Cold War continues. And in this one, like the real CW, the winner will probably be the side that has more assets than the other guy.

If a deal happens with an M-1 partnership as part of landing Fedor’s services, that might be the most shocking announcement in the history of the sport. The fine details would demand an exacting review, and given M-1’s pithy cash position, it’s hard to glean how they could finesse their way into a Fedor signing. History suggests the UFC will not be intimidated or strong-armed, especially when they’re the ones used to doing it.

Finkelstein, in his news conference Wednesday, also alluded to ongoing negotiations with Strikeforce, which is another entirely weird possibility, however remote. The Bay Area-based promotion has been on good terms with the UFC, and prospered nicely -- the little engine that could.

Today, Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker confirmed the organization is indeed trying to sign Fedor.

Landing Fedor would place them squarely in the promotional crosshairs of the UFC, which is great for journalists, if not for fans who want to see the Russian take on Lesnar. It’s another plot twist entirely which will be tackled, if appropriate.

With brand-building the key to the UFC’s success -- and lack thereof key to everyone else’s failure -- letting M-1 get anywhere near the marquee in exchange for promotional mojo would be ill-advised, at best. Despite his breathtaking skills and a 30-1 record, Fedor is not forever.

Brand awareness, fan identification and dollars most certainly are.

It’s that kind of thinking, parlayed into difficult decisions which affect public opinion in the short term, that make the difference between promotional champs and chumps. A half dozen promotions have been cast to the wasteland in the past three years, footnotes to the sport’s history.

Personally, a potential signing of Fedor -- or failure to do so -- elicits ambiguous feelings. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

Failure to sign Fedor will be a letdown for fans, particularly in the wake of the Russian heavyweight getting more coverage in the MMA and mainstream media in the light of a potential acquisition.

But with Brock Lesnar’s ascension, no Fedor means the UFC has more time to build Lesnar, further solidifying their negotiating position. If you think the UFC has too much leverage now and is wanting too much, ask yourself how negotiations will go should Lesnar put together a couple more destructive performances. The time for Fedor’s signing is now, while the iron is hottest, and the two commodities at hand are perfect as a superfight. Both of them will lose eventually, but the UFC can always fall back on a deep roster of stars, and build Lesnar back up from whatever heights he ascends to.

If Fedor is upset, and/or bounces from one promotion to another, what will his people have to show at the negotiating table? Certainly not ratings, nor more leverage than they currently have.

Throw in the dizzyingly savage move of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show featuring Kimbo Slice in September, and the organization will further solidify its promotable heavyweights.

The Kimbo Slice acquisition is as clever a hand as the UFC has ever played, and the boost to the flagship division couldn’t come at a better time. Letting EliteXC and CBS burn millions to the tune of a Seth Petruzelli-supplied flameout of both, and then picking up Slice to boost your own company’s reality show and identity is a savage double-dip in the world of corporate warfare. Like letting an aggressive sucker (Gary Shaw, thank you) keep betting in a poker hand, only to finally spring the trap shut when the final card is turned.

With the UFC’s recent drive to squeeze sponsorship dollars from fighters, and self-protecting contractual status with its in-house talent, it could very well be that Fedor’s team doesn’t want to give up too much control over their gem. That’s entirely understandable. Emelianenko can live a long, fruitful life with hardcore fans remembering him, his phenomenal gifts, and the roads not taken for whatever reasons. Lesnar is still a long way from going down as the Sugar Ray Robinson of MMA, but Fedor could easily be the sport’s Charley Burley. And that’s no good for anybody.

Fedor will be Fedor, and all the things that endear him to the hardcore fans that know him. The UFC can bide its time, and rightfully refuse being forced to cede too much to acquire the world’s best heavyweight.

The world is an unfair place, but sometimes, the best deal is the one that is no longer on the table.

Does Fedor know it? Will he?

Stay tuned.
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