From Russia with Glove: M-1 Selection and the State of Russian MMA -- Part 1

By Evgeni Kogan May 28, 2009
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- “What are you eating that for?” asks Voronov, Fedor Emelianenko’s wrestling coach, as I walk back into the office at the headquarters of M-1 Challenge.

I guiltily look at the processed lattice fruit thing in my hand, executing an elegant parabola on a collision course with my mouth. Then I eat it anyway. I’m hungry, it’s 10 p.m. and the six teams of fighters, from all over Russia, staying at the M-1 training complex have rendered the fridge as empty as deep Siberia in December.

“There are ‘pelmeni’ (Russian meat dumplings) in the freezer,” says Mikhail Vladimirovich [Voronov]. “So go and make some for yourself and stop eating that rubbish!”

When Fedor’s coach tells you to do something, you listen.

Now feeling very sated, especially after Aleksander Vasilievich Michkov (Fedor’s striking coach) showed me how to make the dumplings so I’d have a tasty soup to go with them, I feel ready to discuss my first day at the camp this summer.

Wednesday is the eve of the third round of a feeder tournament, the M-1 Selection, which is in theory designed to find and promote promising fighters who may be just starting out or flown under the radar of larger organizations. The guys who come out victorious here can one day find themselves in the M-1 Challenge fighting all over the world or perhaps go even further to the limelight of the Affliction events or the UFC.

M-1 Selection is an undertaking that follows along the general theme of M1’s leadership in Russia. The goal is to bring MMA to the masses, making rabid fans throughout the country, but also get a grass-roots fighter movement going, where those who have the guts to compete get a chance to strut their stuff on a bigger stage (initially St. Petersburg -- Russia’s second city) and maybe make a career for themselves.

This sounds trite. Fighters have been making careers out of their craft for ages, but in Russia -- where only 10 years ago men with combat sport backgrounds were only useful as bodyguards or mafia strongmen -- to be a successful professional fighter is a big, big deal.

M-1 is approaching the issue of the sport’s lack of popularity in Russia on both fan and fighter fronts. On the fan front, the main issue is government-owned television coverage.

If you’re not convinced of the importance of television to MMA, Google “Fuji TV and the demise of Pride.”

The issue at hand is that state-owned -- read: by far the most popular -- television channels here refuse to show MMA, claiming a lack of interest among the general TV watching public. Seeing the perceived lack of interest as a chicken-and-egg supply-and-demand issue, M-1 is currently in the process of petitioning the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, with a plea to weigh in and request the television programmers to add some Smeshannye Edinoborstva (as MMA is officially called here) to the average Russian’s weekly TV diet.

The petition itself is running off M-1’s Web site and requires those wanting to join to add their first name, patronymic and surname to the list (which will then be forwarded on to the president).

Some of the people adding their voice to the petition, however, felt that it wasn’t quite enough and left commentary. And I, in turn, felt it wasn’t enough just to mention its existence.

In Russia, evidently, MMA and Fedor Emelianenko supporters can fall into the categories noted below, along with these actual comments that have been posted:

1. Those that hate the Eurovision Song Contest as well as shows where stars past their use-by-date get a second chance at fame:

“To the devil with soccer and ‘Stars on Ice’ castaways for ‘Star Factory’ (an Idol type TV show). Give us MMA!”

“Who actually contributes to the ratings? Dima (Bilan, the Russian winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2008) and his cronies? Of course they’re cooler. No folks, I think we will not succeed, but we will fight to the death.”

2. The patriots:

“Pride and Glory to Fedor Vladimirovich Emelianenko! He’s our Russian Hero!”

“For him who beckons us to be proud of our country.”

3. Those who hate imbeciles and believe MMA is for real men:

“I think that they squeeze MMA in Russia because it a sport for real men, not for moral imbeciles who like beer and themselves above all else. If MMA becomes popular, then men will stop being pussies, and everyone knows it’s easier to control pussies.”

4. Those who think that our youth need a good example:

“I’m all for it! A person like Fedor it exactly who we need as an example for our youth!”

5. Those that can speak English and navigate successfully around the Sherdog forums:

“Give the people a choice of what to watch and what not to. Embarrassing. When I’m asked on American Internet forums “Is Fedor famous in Russia?” I have nothing to say. Fedor is fighting for our country, and the country is turning its gaze in the opposite direction.”

6. Those who hate beer and useless idiots, and love sport and exercising:

“Let’s finally start promoting sport, start growing a healthy nation, and not useless idiots with a beer in their hands. Fedor is the greatest (the whole WORLD knows this), but here no one even wants to notice. What we need is for people to see him, and then they will want to go exercising and not drinking …”

7. Those who’d like to enlist some higher help:

“I will pray.”

“HELP GOD. FEDOR, ALL RUSSIA IS BEHIND YOU. WE LOVE YOU!!!”

8. Those who’d like to deify Fedor (but are also patriots):

“Fedya (a familiar diminutive of the name Fedor) -- half god half man. The country needs to know its heroes. Give us Live Television!!!”

9. The pragmatic (and skilled with Internet searching), who still prefer live television:

“It’s better, of course, live on television. Rather than searching half the day for links on the Internet.”

10. And finally those who always consider the “What if they don’t believe us due to widespread corruption?” scenario:

“One thing I don’t understand: how can the collected names on a site help with promoting our cause to the networks, because it’s really [easy] to just fake the lists, you know?”

On the fighter side, the organization is trying to bring MMA here to the next level, in no small part by organizing and holding the M-1 Selection series. Earlier Wednesday, over a hot cup of tea and a mutual failure to remember (at least he has his fighting background to blame!) the name of Bas Rutten, I discussed the competition with Vadim Hazov.

Hazov is a fighter from the Moscow fight team, which is taking on the team from Anapa (Northern Caucasus). He appears to have a modest professional fight record and had never heard of Sherdog.com (surprisingly enough, this is very unusual for a fighter even here), yet he was genuinely glowing in his opinion of how the event has been organized: “I think they’ve been very hospitable and thought everything through well. Usually there’s always someone who’ll find something to nitpick about, but all the guys here, I think there won’t be a single complaint. This competition is a great thing that's happening here.”

We also finally did remember the name of the bald Dutch guy who fought in the 90s, then got on with our tea and small talk.

Stay tuned to more blogs from St. Petersburg over the summer to hear how M-1’s fight for MMA’s right to party on Russian TV is going.

With that said, it’s now almost 2 a.m., and after flying in from Moscow at 7 this morning, I have been awake for almost 22 hours. The only things keeping me awake are ‘salo’ (salted, cured pork fat that one eats frozen) and hot tea.

And to be fair, at this point I, and my cholesterol, think it’s time to call this a night and return in fighting form tomorrow to continue and conclude my report from St Petersburg. Apart from the standard, non-politically correct hilarity (“that’s a great dress … with pockets”) that always embellishes on my time here, I have over four hours of fights to look forward to Thursday and then a Russian after party of course.

So from me, Evgeni Kogan, once again, for a third year running, it’s good night from St. Petersburg, Russia.

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