The early era of mixed martial arts has a wide variety of narratives to choose from. Pioneers such as Bob Meyrowitz’s and Rorion Gracie’s initial efforts with the Ultimate Fighting Championship provided copious amounts of controversy and talking points in the news cycle. “Style vs. style” match-ups were the norm with life-long practitioners attempting to exhibit the long-held and perceived beliefs about the strength of one art over another. Legal wrangling was introduced in the United States to ban the sport in various jurisdictions while promotions based from the Japanese style of shoot wrestling began to slowly attract crowds and attention.
As the blending of ground and striking styles emerged, so did better-equipped fighters and teams. Limited or no exposure Stateside from overseas promotions like Pancrase, RINGS, PRIDE FC and Shooto prevented a wider perspective of the sport’s existence and promotional methods. Athletes such as Igor Vovchanchyn, Sanae Kikuta, Rumina Sato, Volk Han and Bas Rutten fought in Japan to a growingly accepting public while Zuffa’s takeover of the UFC drew little interest. Waiting in the wings under the tutelage of Han in the Russian Top Team was a young Fedor Emelianenko.
A combat sambo practitioner from Stary Oskol, Russia, Emelianenko’s rise to prominence and dominance came in paradoxical form: pudgy, unassuming, but ever devastating. Young fighters like Renato Sobral and Hiroya Takada in RINGS, along with more established talent in PRIDE FC like Heath Herring and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, felt the impact of what is now seen as the best heavyweight, perhaps even pound-for-pound, in the early history of MMA.
Despite splitting with Han and Russian Top Team and moving on to Red Devil Fight Club and management by Vadim Finklestein’s M-1 Global, Emelianenko’s dominance over highly-ranked heavyweights did not cease. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovi?, Mark Hunt, Tim Sylvia, and Andrei Arlovski all succumbed to the consensus number one heavyweight’s power. Fans and observers began to take notice and clamored for fights against some of the UFC’s top heavyweights. Arduous, back room negotiations carried for some time, in 2007 and again in 2009, but the insistence of co promotion with Zuffa became a sticking point. Fans expressed feeling deprived that the Russian legend wouldn’t be fighting Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez and other emerging heavyweight talent.
At issue for many observers, analysts and fans is M-1 Global’s handling of Emelianenko. BodogFIGHT’s Calvin Ayre and UFC President Dana White have repeatedly cited difficulties in dealing with Vadim Finklestein and Apy Echteld, and speculation of strife between Strikeforce’s Scott Coker and M-1 Global regarding co-promotional efforts has surfaced since the Brett Rogers fight last year. Prior to Affliction’s doomed “Trilogy” event last year, efforts to match Emelianenko with Rogers and even middleweight fighter Vitor Belfort bore no fruit. Central to these speculated incidents is the belief that M-1 Global’s involvement in negotiations after every bout has complicated high-risk, high-reward bouts that made Emelianenko famous in PRIDE FC.
Which makes today’s press release from M-1 Global concerning Fedor Emelianenko’s run in Russian Duma primaries not at all surprising. M-1 Global’s strict management style and fighter-centered policies are a departure from the top-down promotional model frequently seen in the UFC. With a reported 10% to 20% stake in M-1 Global, Emelianenko can also exercise his right to outside activities with little to no interference. Little truly remains for The Russian fighter, who still has two fights remaining on his Strikeforce contract. Should he defeat Fabricio Werdum later this month, the push for a bout against Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem will begin from die-hard MMA fans.
Still, a complete perspective on Fedor Emelianenko’s career will yield one undeniable result: The most dominant heavyweight in the sport’s young history, complete with a unique athlete-centered promotional and managerial model. While bouts against Couture, Velasquez, Carwin and Lesnar are appealing inside the Octagon, Emelianenko runs the biggest risk of losing since his bout against Arlovski. Regardless, his past accomplishments and his decision-making with his management team – however unpopular – should not surprise anyone.