Return of the King

By Jake Rossen Nov 2, 2009
Even at its weakest, network television is still the circulatory system for most entertainment: It’s familiar, it’s accessible and it doesn’t need to buffer. Fedor Emelianenko’s appointment with the Sears Centre in Chicago this Saturday will be seen by, at minimum, several million viewers.

Some people would say that this is not enough, and that CBS is not doing itself many favors to help answer the question that will be debated this week and in the weeks ahead: Can they make a star out of Fedor Emelianenko?

Heading into what promises to be a long and exhausting media build into Strikeforce’s first over-air telecast, some observers have settled on the idea that CBS is simply “not doing enough” to promote their acquisition of the most effective Russian prizefighter since Ivan Drago.

If you look closely enough at that (paraphrased) statement, you might realize the cause is idling in the symptom.

Emelianenko cannot appear on a CBS talk show (his English is somewhere north of Chuck Liddell’s); Emelianenko cannot appear in advertisements displaying a ripped musculature (he doesn’t have one); Emelianenko cannot have a speaking part on “CSI: Miami” (he might be convincing as a corpse). As marketable athletes go, Emelianenko is not very marketable.

What he does have is a nearly unblemished 30-1 record and an unofficial title -- given to him by his peers, who should know -- as the world’s best fighter. CBS can and does put that in italics, but because virtually all of his fight footage is owned by Zuffa, you’ll have to settle for the “tell” rather than the “show.” (Why his fight footage from Rings is rarely seized is beyond me: It’s not in HD, but it’s not 8mm, either.)

Is all that winning enough? Emelianenko’s closest approximation is Anderson Silva, who also speaks little English, doesn’t have a physique cast in marble and has a reputation for being an all-time great. Because of the UFC’s market posturing, Silva rebounded from some lackluster performances to draw good business for a bout against Forrest Griffin over the summer. He’s well known but far from a household name.

Daniel Herbertson/

Could Fedor Emelianenko become
a household name in the U.S.?
Emelianenko does not have the UFC machine propelling him, which might be compensated for by CBS, except that their EliteXC broadcast that failed to feature Kimbo Slice dropped off the ratings cliff. CBS viewers, apparently, did not enjoy fighting so much as they enjoyed Kimbo fighting. This is an important, depressing distinction.

But Affliction -- a company that previously only had experience selling T-shirts that looked like Megadeth threw up on their printing presses -- managed some credible pay-per-view business with Emelianenko at the top. And ironically, Emelianenko’s biggest push may have come from the UFC itself: Summer’s drawn-out coverage of his negotiations with the UFC ran rampant, and he came off as a mythical figure the company desperately wanted. There’s intrigue in that.

His Nov. 7 date was mentioned during an NFL halftime show Sunday; Emelianenko also appeared in commercials during college and pro football telecasts, a direct appeal to likely viewers. What else, exactly, could CBS do to trumpet this guy? Their “60 Minutes” has invited controversy a handful of times over the years by endorsing stories that had some connection to CBS business: a book by Dick Clarke, former White house staffer, got the segment treatment in 2004 without revealing parent company Viacom would profit from its sales; “Guiding Light” got a send-off on the show shortly before it ended 72 years on the air. In terms of corporate synergy, a well-timed profile of the reputed toughest man on the planet would not seem all that dysfunctional.

Print advertising? It’s expensive, and there’s little evidence it can directly influence sporting events. Hype programming? Networks will rarely devote airtime to something that blaringly self-serving, but pre-empting Craig Ferguson one night for Showtime’s “360” show might have displayed a commitment to Strikeforce that the network has so far been reluctant to share. (That episode has been distributed to CBS’ local affiliates, who will use their discretion on when and where to air it. My best guess: 4 a.m., just after Billy Mays makes a posthumous pitch for OxyClean.)

The foreign athlete has it rough: Audiences like to see themselves in their sporting attractions. Someone who dominates Americans without speaking the language is not going to earn himself a Wheaties box. Whether he can earn enough viewers to best “America’s Most Wanted” is a question for the overnight ratings.

Emelianenko is a star to a lot of fans; but those fans, in the scale of network television, wouldn’t pay for a single 30-second Snuggles spot. It may take time for the general public to warm up to a cold guy. At 33, with nearly 10 years of wear, does he have the time to spare?

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