NEW YORK – Fedor Emelianenko isn’t sure when the last time he cried was. I know, because I asked the stoic himself. He was sitting in a small conference room at the Viacom offices on Hudson Street in Manhattan on Tuesday, and he took a long penetrating look into that godful abyss that he so often does before finally shrugging his shoulders and smiling. His interpreter says, “He doesn’t have a response.”
No, and then again he wouldn’t.
Back in the day, Fedor Emelianenko was so unbothered by the prospect of fighting much bigger men than himself that it became a special brand of terrifying. While the adrenaline was kicking through the crowds in Japan during Pride, and later in Anaheim with Affliction, and Hoffman Estates and San Jose with Strikeforce, and finally Russia, Emelianenko carried a sense of cathedral calm into the ring. Some people likened his emotional control to that of a psychopath.
Whatever it was, it was disturbing, profound…unknowable to the western mind. For all the audacity of the game’s great carnival barkers, Emelianenko was a reservoir of quiet Russian faith. There wasn’t any of the American-style bombast with him. He’d swallow a fuse-lit bomb, belch, and blow out a tiny puff of smoke. He traveled with his priests. He trained shirtless and wearing jeans, and part of his training was chopping wood. The most pretentious thing about him was his nickname as “The Last Emperor”…but then again, hey, he sort of was. With a demeanor like his and a winning streak spanning a decade, you weren’t sure whether to compare him to some great parallel like Michael Jordan or a heroic figure from 19th century Russian literature.
Either way, he became an ascetic with millions of rubles. And right now, he says he is happily retired in Moscow, where he works as an ambassador of the sport of MMA.
“I’m just enjoying the retirement,” he says. “Even though I am retired, I still train and I still go to workout and train to not lose that stamina that I worked very hard to build. Nonetheless, I’m still in retirement. If I do decide to come back, I’ll do a big press conference and invite you.”
Fedor’s in New York for Bellator, which has a show on Friday night at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. He’s part of the promotion’s Fan Fest that’s going on Thursday, alongside Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and others. They will do this at a Dave & Buster’s in Manchester, which as Bleacher Report’s Chad Dundas pointed out, is like catching a glimpse of the Statue of David as it exhibits at the Golden Corral.
He is doing this all for his friend and current president of Bellator, Scott Coker, whom he fought for in Strikeforce, and whom he says has not bugged him once to come out of retirement.
“I am still in the sport, but from a slightly different angle,” he says. “I still heavily advocate on behalf of MMA. I try and make it possible for beginners to start training MMA and not be scared of it as a sport. I try to actually give them the skill set that is necessary — to feel comfortable, maybe not on a big level. And not just Russia, but worldwide. I also work in advocating karate, judo, sambo, boxing, kickboxing and the combinations by themselves. I am the face and ambassador of sambo. The organization I’m working is trying really hard to make sambo a sport on the Olympian level. I’m doing a little bit of everything.”
If there’s any regret to never fighting in the UFC, you can’t detect it when talking to him. At one point, UFC president Dana White said Fedor had become his “obsession,” and that he was doing everything he could to sign the pride of Stary Oskol. At another point, just as the temple crumbled that 2010 night in San Jose when Fabricio Werdum defeated him, White tweeted out a smiley face. These were what you might call “mixed signals.”
And that Fedor never graced the Octagon remains one of the biggest “what if’s” in the sport. What if the mighty Fedor had fought Randy Couture back in the day, back when that was the biggest fight feasible? What if he and Brock Lesnar had fought, when Lesnar carried the belt? What if that event happened at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, as was flirted?
It is unbelievable how comfortable Emelianenko is that none of this ever materialized.
“I got the invite [to fight Lesnar] only after I was retired,” he says. “Everything has its time and place, and it wasn’t the right time for it. This is how God willed it, so it happened. I also believe it could have happened earlier had the UFC — primarily Dana — reached out and actually started a proper dialogue where both parties met halfway. Not just, ‘these are my rules, either take it or leave it.’”
Emelianenko and White could never get on the same page. Most people know what happened from White’s rendering, about the meeting on “an island,” where negotiations took place and broke down, about how the collective at M-1 Global — ran by Vadim Finkelchtein (later dubbed “Vadummy” by White) — were the biggest impediments.
“In all actuality, we did have a couple of conversations here and there, and a lot of what Dana White had said came through as inadequate,” he says. “Meaning, during the dialogue that happened over the phone one thing would be said but when the paperwork was sent over it would be something completely different.”
But what about the meeting on “the island,” when White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta flew out with their mission to sign the great Fedor?
“We did meet on the island,” he says. “It was very short. It was unclear why he came. Of course, over the conversation one thing was promised, but when the paperwork was received it was something else. There was a very extensive dialogue between me and Dana, as well as Dana’s lawyers, but it didn’t go anywhere. In other words, Dana basically said, sooner or later you’re going to end up fighting here anyway. You’re still going to say yes to this contract I’m giving you.”
He doesn’t lament the fact that it didn’t happen. And in thinking back on it, Fedor concedes that the contractual snags were more about “proper treatment.”
“Throughout my entire career, I’ve heard and read on the Internet a lot of negativity coming from Dana,” he says. “Someone who says a lot of negative things about you and then turns around and invites you to join him, how do you react to that? And it’s not even about money. It’s all about mutual respect, meeting each other halfway. Not just one saying one thing to the other.”
The landscape has changed a bit since Fedor walked away from the fight game after defeating Pedro Rizzo in St. Petersburg back in 2012. In the day and age of exposing users of performance-enhancing drugs — spearheaded, in large part, by the UFC — Emelianenko sides with a the idea of cleaning up the sport. Having spent a large portion of his career in Pride, which was infamous for its lack of drug testing, he says thinks that there should be harsher penalties doled out to those who pop for PEDs.
“I feel that they should increase the punishment or control what’s happening,” he said. “There’s definitely more room for control over it. I feel betrayed by those who actually enhance their performance with various drugs. It’s unfair, and it should definitely be stopped. It reflects on the sport overall, as well as the fighters, in a very negative way. And athletes should get to where they’re going because of all the work they put in, not because they are taking something that will enhance their performance.
“When I was competing I would run daily 20 kilometers, and in addition to that I’d put in many hours of fighting and sparring. That’s why I was always able to keep the speed in the ring. I would train so hard that sometimes it was not only hard to stand up, but it would also be hard to lay down. Nowadays in not just this sport, but in other sports, people are trying to substitute that hard work with drugs.”
You can’t help but think of the behemoths Fedor faced in his career. Even though he took some beatings, particularly later on when he lost to Dan Henderson and Antonio Silva, he says he didn’t suffer any long-term damage.
“Other than some broken fingers, nothing that extensive,” he says, holding up his hands. They are average looking hands. They aren’t gnarled or disfigured. They don’t look like the anvils they were. In fact, it’s hard to believe he was a heavyweight in his 6-foot frame, and with hands like his.