Fedor Emelianenko

Fedor Emelianenko’s Rise to MMA Greatness

Born into a working-class family in Rubeshnoe Lugansk, Russia, in 1976, MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko established himself as a man of intelligence when he graduated with honors from college in 1994. But alongside his penchant for academic achievement lived a spirit of competition. After serving two years in the Russian army, he let that side of himself surface, winning a national judo tournament and the European Sambo Championship in 1997. Five years later, he placed first at the World Sambo Championship.

Grappling wasn’t the only facet of the combat arts at which, Fedor Emelianenko excelled. His punching ability grew hand in hand with his ground skills. One reason for his rapid development was his reliance on old-school training methods, such as standing out in the cold and hitting truck tires with a sledgehammer. Further assistance came from little brother Aleksander Emelianenko—who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 275 pounds.

Fedor Emelianenko Enters the MMA Forum

While many a sport grappler would be content to remain in that realm and be the big frog in the small pond, Fedor Emelianenko wanted to test himself further by plunging into the MMA arena. On August 16, 2000, he made his MMA debut in Russia, dispatching his opponent with a choke. His next bout, also in his home country and less than a month after the first, saw him crush his adversary with an onslaught of punches.

The lure of Japan—the world’s biggest market for MMA—led Fedor Emelianenko to make that country his professional haven. His first RINGS fight was against Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter Ricardo Arona. Arona was undefeated at the time and had just beaten Russian leg-lock specialist Andrei Kopylov and American submission master Jeremy Horn. Fedor Emelianenko wasn’t intimidated, however, and he wound up handing Ricardo Arona his first loss (unanimous decision).

A subsequent Fedor Emelianenko appearance in RINGS ended with a decision victory over the highly regarded Renato “Babalu” Sobral, leading the Russian to eventually win the RINGS World Title Series tournament in 2001.

Fedor: MMA’s New Emperor

Fedor Emelianenko was now a champion MMA fighter, but it wasn’t until he stepped into the PRIDE ring that he sent notice around the world that there was a new sheriff in town. His first match was a tall order in more ways than one. Opponent Semmy Schilt stood 6 feet 11 inches tall and possessed an undefeated record in PRIDE (all victories by knockout). Fedor Emelianenko knew that because he was giving away almost a foot in height, he’d have to devise a sound game plan to avoid becoming another victim. When the bell sounded, Semmy Schilt was tough, but Fedor Emelianenko was unstoppable with his takedowns. He kept the Dutchman on his back and punished him with punches from the guard. The judges voted in favor of Fedor Emelianenko.

Things didn’t get any easier after that bout. Fedor Emelianenko’s next opponent was Heath Herring. Since the American moved to Holland to train under muay Thai wizard Cor Hemmers, he’d become a force to be reckoned in the MMA arena. Despite two decision losses in PRIDE, Heath Herring had managed to stop Mark Kerr, Enson Inoue and Tom Erikson, and he decisioned Igor Vovchanchyn. In the ring, Fedor Emelianenko’s took matters into his own hands. Few had seen such a display of the ground-and-pound style. The Russian shifted position often and blasted Herring with every move. The Yank was reduced to the status of a punching bag. He didn’t make it to the second round.

Now it was time for what many have called the MMA equivalent of Frazier vs. Ali. Within the PRIDE organization, it involved heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko’s. Rodrigo Nogueira had ruled supreme since leaving RINGS in 2001. He submitted virtually everyone he faced, including Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Schilt, Dan Henderson, Bob Sapp and Inoue. On March 16, 2003, the two clashed. Did Emelianenko heed the lesson the Brazilian had taught the world—to stay out of his guard? No. Instead, he jumped into the fire and spent most of the match in Rodrigo Nogueira’s guard. While there, the Russian defended against triangle-choke and armbar attempts as he unloaded a string of punches. At one point, he hit Rodrigo Nogueira so hard most people thought it was over, but the BJJ fighter endured—only to lose the decision. Fedor Emelianenko was now at the top of the MMA world.

Fedor Emelianenko Defends his MMA Title

He ended up facing Rodrigo Nogueira two more times. The first rematch occurred on August 15, 2004, in the last fight of the PRIDE Final Conflict tournament. Rodrigo Nogueira went into the match deserving of the opportunity, having defeated Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Herring, Ricco Rodriguez and Sergie Kharitonov. But Fedor Emelianenko hadn’t rested on his laurels during that …

Up Close With Fedor Emelianenko, an MMA Legend

When Fedor Emelianenko—the baddest man on the planet—walks through the door, the first thing you notice about him is … he’s not all that big.

The statistics list Fedor Emelianenko as 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, but even that seems a stretch. When he enters a Manhattan gym with an entourage of handlers, several of whom are larger than he is, you might not know he’s regarded as the greatest heavyweight in the history of the mixed martial arts unless you were already a fan of his. And the common wisdom has long been that his fan base in the United States is confined to the hard-core MMA junkies, the kind of people who scour the Internet for hours on end just to learn what Chuck Liddell had for breakfast this morning.

But either the common wisdom is horribly wrong or New York has more MMA fans per capita than anywhere else on earth. Word of Fedor Emelianenko’s arrival in town for a public workout and press conference was sent out only a couple of days beforehand to MMA journalists, but hundreds of fans were lined up around the block an hour before he was scheduled to show up.

There was a brief period earlier in the day when it appeared the event wouldn’t even get off the ground. Several uniformed firefighters made their way into the building, and concerns about safety-code violations related to overcrowding began to dance in the heads of the Showtime executives who’d scheduled the appearance. But it turned out the firemen were there simply to get their pictures taken with Fedor Emelianenko. Apparently, even the NYFD are big fans.

It was difficult to tell if the enigmatic heavyweight returned the sentiments. Although he’s always polite, it’s hard to fathom what’s going on in the 33-year-old Russian’s mind. During the press conference, he gave his careful, stock answers to queries about why he signed with Strikeforce rather than the much larger Ultimate Fighting Championship and what he thought of UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar, always taking his time to listen to his translator—even though he has a good grasp of English. Known as an emotionless, stone-faced fighting machine inside the ring, he prefers to give little away outside the ring, even when there’s just one reporter rather than a hundred.

At a private photo shoot the next day, Fedor Emelianenko would listen as translator Tanya Svyatodumova interpreted the questions from a lone interviewer, then pause for several seconds glancing down at the floor as if lost in thought before giving brief replies. When asked why he seemed so careful and thoughtful, Fedor Emelianenko said: “I don’t think we should say just anything that comes out of our mouths. We shouldn’t utter empty, meaningless words.”

The reply from his interviewer, that journalists would be out of business if this were true, managed to bring a small, bemused smirk to his face—but just for a moment before he clamped down again. So much for witticisms.

The kind of fame that brings a constant stream of fans and media to his doorstep is not something Fedor Emelianenko ever sought, although he handles it as gracefully as a reluctant celebrity can. His poise may end up being tested even further with his next fight against Brett Rogers, set to be broadcast live on cable television for the first time in the United States via Showtime, a company that would love nothing more than to make him a household name. If that happens, it’ll be on the basis of his fighting skills, not his love of the spotlight.

“Fedor Emelianenko’s just a very quiet, private guy,” said Annie Van Tornhout, Showtime’s supervisor of sports communication. It’s her job to help cajole him toward American superstardom. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that his reserved nature is a Russian character trait or the product of the old Soviet sports system, which was just winding down as Fedor Emelianenko began his training in sambo, the Russian grappling art in which he became a world champion. He grew up idolizing the Soviet sports stars of the past, men who were often perceived in the West as cold and robotic. Despite being a self-described weak child, Fedor Emelianenko seized the opportunity to participate in sambo, making up for his lack of athleticism with a burning desire to excel.

His longtime trainer, Vladimir Voronov, has said persistence is Fedor Emelianenko’s greatest talent. It was persistence that kept him practicing the martial arts when he entered the Russian army but was inexplicably denied a post in one of the units that specialized in athletics. Instead, he was placed in a firefighting brigade and forced to train on his own during off-duty hours. He left the army in 1997 and ended up winning national championships in …