Stories from the Road: Fedor Emelianenko

Finding Fedor

Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com

Ask around for stories about Fedor Emelianenko and you get back similar responses insofar as what people don’t say about the Russian heavyweight great.

“There’s nothing crazy to share,” became a familiar refrain.

Dominating a world populated by wildmen, Emelianenko never acted like them, except in the arena when he came face to face with whatever danger they possessed. The revered “Last Emperor”—most fighters select him as the best heavyweight in mixed martial arts up to this point—could get as wild as he needed to be when he fought. This is among the reasons why, at the age of 46, a Soviet-era fighter who was born and raised on the border between Ukraine and Russia would be featured on American primetime network television right now.

Considering the state of affairs, Emelianenko’s second appearance on CBS in the Bellator 290 main event should be taken as undeniable proof of his all-time, hard-earned status, which is why many admirers, including several former opponents, will descend upon The Forum in Inglewood, California, this Saturday to watch him attempt to defeat Bellator MMA heavyweight champion Ryan Bader on the way out the door.

For all the compelling moments he left us to reminisce about, the retiring Emelianenko is no storyteller. The truth is he’s a chore of an interview, which is to say he rarely volunteers information and shows minimal interest in engaging in conversations that shed light on who he is or what he thinks. There were plenty of times when what he didn’t say was more interesting than what he did. At least that’s how he came off. Aware yet oblivious. Warm but cold. Either way, he was usually nice about it. This was another theme that came from the dozen people who knew Emelianenko in some capacity and shared stories with me.

Trying to understand Emelianenko, separating myth from the truth of the man, became a cross to bear for anyone who fought him during the first decade of the new millennia. In turn, it became lore as he made his way through a chaotic space that rarely let fighters operate from a power position while the media attempted to explain him to the public.

Before Brett Rogers got knocked out by Emelianenko on CBS in 2009, I asked him what it was like to look into the former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder’s eyes. I had previously asked Rogers what he expected at that moment; at first, he was dismissive. Then reality, he said, was marked by the stark nothingness he described. Emelianenko’s gaze may as well have been the cold void of space. No soul in there, Rogers told himself.

Again, it was often what Emelianenko did not say that left the lasting impression. So going to the source was not necessarily the best way to understand the man. Instead, it was the people who encountered Emelianenko and generally held onto those memories that revealed another of his unassumingly innate traits: a quiet, forceful charisma forged on competitive success.

This is Fedor Emelianenko—in their words:

Evgeni Kogan went in search of Emelianenko on assignment for Sherdog.com. Shortly after the fighter declined an offer from the UFC and put his name behind upstart M-1 Global, Kogan was hired as director of operations for M-1, culminating in a unique perspective of “The Last Emperor.” Kogan, no longer in the MMA business, recalled his journey to the Russian fighter’s hometown looking for answers.

This isn’t specifically a Fedor story. As much time as I spent around Fedor, there are people better qualified than me to speak to him as a sportsman and as a person. This is the brief story of my 2007 journey to Stary Oskol in the middle of the Russian winter to meet Fedor, so that I could write “Finding Fedor” for Sherdog.com. It’s still my favorite thing I ever wrote, and that trip began a period in my life which I remember with great fondness. To get to Stary Oskol, I had to take an overnight train from Moscow to Belgorod, then a long bus ride to Oskol itself. The bus had a ripped hole in its floor which was open to the frozen winter air. I stayed for a few days in a typical Russian apartment building (just like those you see in the photos), which had been converted into a hotel.

During my first day there, the hotel manager lent me a short-print-run book, which the city itself had produced to celebrate Fedor’s 30th birthday. She also discovered that I did not have my Russian registration. This resulted in a visit to the local authorities, who were only placated by the fact that I was there for Fedor, a $100 cash fine and promise of a CD—they did not have email—with landscapes from my country. The next day, I met Fedor and had the opportunity to watch him and the team train. I also accompanied them on a run through the winter forest, which was a daily ritual. There were no fights coming up; it was just his standard routine. No downtime. We had brief opportunities to speak, but Fedor has always been a man of few words, so my main focus became to pay attention to his training and take in all the trophies, certificates and memorabilia in the gym.

The following evening, we were getting together for a longer, uninterrupted meeting, so I spent the day reading the 30th jubilee book and preparing my questions. Not long before we were meant to meet, Fedor wrote to say that something had come up and that, unfortunately, he couldn’t make it. I was disappointed but not surprised. His feelings about speaking to journalists were well-known. I got through a lion’s share of “Finding Fedor” that day and left Oskol the next morning. That week, I handed in the story, and soon after, it was published. Somewhere in my inbox, still, are hundreds of emails from fans who were delighted to find out more about Fedor’s background and life in Russia. I never went back to Oskol, and the next time I saw Fedor was in Chicago in the lead-up to the Brett Rogers fight.

* * *

Steven Bash was a lawyer with ties to boxing prior to joining M-1 Global as senior vice president of legal affairs. While serving as Emelianenko’s spokesman and translator, Bash went wherever “The Last Emperor” did while he visited the United States.

Perhaps it’s his name or something else in my mind right now, but “F” words come to mind. For one thing, I never heard Fedor curse, and just about every boxer or MMA fighter I have ever worked with cursed all the time. I was always expecting Fedor to say the customary slang curse words as other Russian fighters, and he never did. As I look back to a period when I was blessed to spend a lot of time with him, the F words—friends, fun and faith—come to mind.

Fedor always cared more about his friends than any adoration or attention he received from others. His childhood friends, Denis and Slava, went with him anywhere he would go, and being around them and enjoying his career together was of utmost importance. They still acted like school kids around each other, whether it be “noogies” or flicking and tapping each other when the other wasn’t paying attention, including sack flicks. An array of childhood pranks. Other MMA fighters were not immune. I remember on a chartered bus ride from Kansas City, where M-1 Global was doing an [M-1] Challenge show, to St. Louis, when Gegard Mousasi fell asleep for a nap in his bus seat. Fedor grabbed the seat from behind and shook it as hard as he could. When Gegard woke up startled and looked behind him, Fedor said, “turbulence.” I will always remember going to Magic Mountain with Fedor and his friends the day after he destroyed Tim Sylvia in his U.S. debut. That’s all he wanted to do in L.A. He was like a big kid who just wanted to have fun with his friends, and they stayed until the park closed.

As many know, Fedor is a deep man of faith. Everything was always according to “God’s will,’ and it was always important to him that people knew he was a devout Orthodox Christian. His priests would travel with him, and a typical fight week involved prayer and spiritually. I remember getting a call from the hotel in Chicago before the Brett Rogers fight that Fedor and the priests had set off the fire alarm in their room because they were burning incense while praying. He was one of the most staunchly religious people I have met, yet he was kind, accepting, trusting and familial with many of us around him who were of different faith, culture and background.

* * *

Kelly Kahl, the former head of primetime programming for CBS, put MMA on network television. The opportunity to broadcast an Emelianenko fight live over the air brought Kahl face to face with the Russian legend years ago.

I do remember Scott Coker took me to meet him early on at a bar or a club. Fedor was in a private area with his posse. I was trying to extol the virtues of fighting on CBS… through his interpreter. While he didn’t speak, he never broke eye contact and nodded in all the places you’d expect someone to respond. What was very apparent to me is that Fedor understood every word I was saying. Helluva fighter… and a very smart man.

* * *

Stephen Quadros called the first fights of Emelianenko’s Pride career, including the iconic title match against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in 2003. On the English broadcast produced for American watchers, Quadros described the sound of Emelianenko’s thudding short left punches to Nogueira’s ribs as “somebody hitting a buffalo with a baseball bat.”

Fedor came to Pride from the Rings organization, which was very similar, in terms of the rule set to Pancrase, in that they were heavy on grappling and did not allow close-fist striking to the head [on the ground]. So there were some in the fan base who were skeptical that Emelianenko could make a successful transition to the Pride rules.

Fedor came into Pride like he was shot out of a cannon, rewrote the ground-and-pound rulebook and thoroughly mauled the 6-foot-11, four-time K-1 [World] Grand Prix champion Semmy Schilt in his debut. Then he destroyed top heavyweight contender Heath Herring in one round, setting up his challenge of Pride heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, who was widely regarded as the best fighter in the world, dominating everyone with his guard-based Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The Nogueira-Emelianenko fight was the most anticipated and meaningful fight that the sport had seen to that point. It was a true heavyweight title fight. Fedor dominated well, staying in the danger zone of Nogueira’s guard and blasting away with punch after punch. The fight went the distance, but there was no doubt. There was a new champion: Fedor Emelianenko. Nogueira took a horrendous beating and absorbed punches that would’ve knocked most guys out. To me, that fight was the MMA equivalent of the “Thrilla in Manila.”

Some of the executives at Pride didn’t know what to do with Fedor because he was soft-spoken, didn’t engage in smack talk and didn’t look like a bodybuilder or a movie star, but no one could beat him; and that, after all, is what it’s all about.

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