The Red Menace
Can undefeated martial artist Fedor Emelianenko single-handedly knock out the Ultimate Fighting Championship's dominance over the emerging sport?
By Sean Cunningham (more from this author)
12/18/2007, 6:54 AM
Jump to story
More than any of the other sweet sciences, mixed martial arts demands its practitioners learn to handle losing. None of the big names in the sport are undefeated. Few of them even boast the impressive records so common in boxing, where opponents are handpicked to ensure that the loss column remains nice and empty. Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell is 20-5, including two humiliating knockouts by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (who has lost six times himself). Indeed, the sport's living legend, Randy "The Natural" Couture, has a decidedly un-Rocky Marciano-esque record of 16-8.
Every rule has an exception, however, and Fedor Emelianenko is it. The Russian fighter is 26-1, the only blemish due to a doctor stoppage after a technically illegal elbow strike. Relying largely on the Soviet combat system Sambo -- the Russian acronym means “self-defense without weapon” -- Fedor has the potential to be to MMA what Woods is to golf and Federer is to tennis, only more so. After all, he’s the only member of that trio who literally pummels his rivals into submission.
And now, after avenging his only defeat and destroying the competition overseas, Fedor has come to our shores and finally found a worthy opponent: The Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Last month, Fedor landed the first punch in the battle when he turned his back on Dana White and company. Ignoring the $220 million the UFC cleared from pay-per-view last year (and countless additional millions they decline to discuss), Fedor signed a contract with MMA upstart M-1 Global. Fedor instantly established M-1 Global as a credible organization and, equally importantly, denied the UFC the man considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
The decision has already caused a seismic shift in the MMA landscape. Randy Couture, for years the public face of the UFC, quit the league, citing its inability to set up a fight with Fedor as the deciding factor. (Couture's belief he was making half what Chuck Liddell earned didn’t help.) Sides have been drawn and camps are getting testy. UFC President Dana White -- who once thought highly enough of Fedor to predict, “I’ll have him someday” -- has suddenly downgraded his opinion, saying, "I think that Fedor is completely overrated."
The man reshaping MMA is out cold on the couch in his Hilton hotel suite. It is ten in the morning, on a Monday, and according to his handlers, Fedor is still sleeping off a "big night." At the risk of gross generalization, Russians at this hour after a "big night" are not the most forthcoming people on Earth, a fact that is doubly true when the Russian in question is a military veteran -- Fedor served in the Russian army from 1995 to 1997 -- and triply true when he requires a translator. (His manager also has a translator, leading to surreal moments when the translators ignore the conversation to debate word choices: “…broke a toe in 2003.” “Finger.” “Finger?” “Thumb.” “Broke a thumb in 2003…”)
In person, Fedor looks smaller -- and more dangerous -- than his listed six feet. With his shaved head, perpetual poker face, and a body that, to use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, seems capable of great leverage, he appears the way Russian President Vladimir Putin must have visualized himself when he let the Kremlin release those photos of him hunting shirtless. Unlike the M-1 executives filling the room, Fedor's in a T-shirt and jeans. He is polite but reserved. He expresses great respect for Couture (“He’s one of the best fighters, and we will have to meet to find out who is the strongest”), less so for Brazilian Renzo Gracie (a member of mixed martial arts’ first family who claims he knows Fedor’s weaknesses and how to exploit them). The fighter who inspires the most intriguing response is Mirko Cro Cop.
Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic is a former member of Croatia’s Anti-Terrorist police unit ATJ Lucko (hence Cro Cop), who became a member of the Croatian Parliament while breaking into MMA. He was 16-2-2 when he faced Fedor. He lost, of course, but it was a good showing, a loss by decision, which against Fedor practically counts as a victory. Cro Cop's record since then has been a mediocre 6-3, including defeats in his last two fights. Once poised to be a breakout star due to his devastating knockouts, he’s dropped back with the pack. What happened?
“He has to regenerate psychologically. After my fight with him, he just broke down. In his soul, something just broke down, cracked…There are some psychological problems when you have all the time fight, fight, fight, without rest."
M-1 Global hopes Fedor can quickly get back into the fight, fight, fight routine. As their most bankable star by far, the organization plans to make Fedor their centerpiece. This means arranging for him to take on the best fighters in the world, regardless of the organization that currently employs them. M-1 has made a point of putting the UFC on notice, announcing that they'll pay $1 million more than whatever the UFC is currently paying its heavyweight champion to take on Fedor.
(While M-1 Global may have yet to come through on their promise to find Fedor the best opponents, they aren’t skimping on size: Fedor will fight in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve against Hong-Man “Techno Goliath” Choi, a seven-foot-two-inch, 360-pound Korean best known for his fondness for dancing to techno music.)
Such gamesmanship could be a positive sign that the sport is maturing. It could also be the first step on the road to ruin. For once the lethal combo of egos and lawyers get involved, the fans' desire to see the best possible match-ups goes out the window. Look at heavyweight boxing, which long ago decided that instead of a single, world-renowned titleholder it’s better to have four virtually unknown champs. If the UFC and the other leagues hold firm and manage to stop their fighters from dealing with M-1, Fedor will have to generate interest in his organization almost single-handedly.
This leads to the crucial question: Why would Americans warm to a taciturn Russian, when they’ve shown so little interest in the Klitschko brothers? (Whatever their other flaws, at least Wladimir and Vitali speak English.) The answer is on YouTube, where fans have been obsessing over Fedor's highlight reel. Watch his 2007 fight with Matt Lindland, shown below. Lindland opens a gusher over Fedor’s eye within the first 10 seconds. It’s the sort of injury that often results in a doctor’s stoppage (which is, again, the cause of Fedor’s only loss), so he needs to work fast. Within three minutes Lindland, who opened so strong, is tapping out to prevent his arm from being ripped out of its socket wookie-style. It’s thrilling because even though Fedor is desperate the victory still feels inevitable, like when the Bulls were trailing by one and ran a play for Michael Jordan.
It’s worth noting that while Fedor battles to maintain his personal pride, extend his 23-bout winning streak, and now to launch a new global MMA organization, those aren’t the only reasons he gets in the ring. The 31-year-old also fights to support a wife and daughter. Only one man may enter the arena, but a growing group of people count on him every time he takes on an opponent. Has it changed the combat experience? I decide to find out. “As you get older and have a family, does that affect you as a fighter?”
Fedor does something unexpected: he laughs.
“You’re talking about me getting older?” He seems both amused and slightly offended. He is awake now, the grogginess gone. I clarify that the question was more about obligations than physical decline. The translator explains. Fedor listens carefully. He answers in a perfectly civil tone.
“There are some motives that push me to go and do what I’m doing. The motives are very important and weighty. I try all 100 percent.”
The answer is at once completely vague, yet utterly assured.
Putin would be proud.