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.
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 both sambo and judo. He probably would have been happy with a career in either sport—he still competes in sambo and has won the world championship three times—but with little money to be made there and a new family to support, he had to turn to the one place his skills could earn him a decent living. Joining the Japan-based Rings organization, he began fighting in MMA competitions in 2000 and has never looked back. Amassing a 30-1 record, his single loss came early in his career—a stoppage that followed cuts from an illegal blow in a bout that should have been ruled a no-contest. He later avenged the lone blemish on his ledger by brutalizing Japanese fighter Tsuyoshi Kohsaka with a one-round TKO. Essentially, he’s been unbeatable for his entire MMA career—although this is an idea Fedor Emelianenko openly scoffs at. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “Sooner or later, it will happen that I lose.” Hardly the typical answer from a champion fighter. “He’s humble. Very much so,” said Joost Raimond, CEO of M-1 Global, the Russian-based company that manages and co-promotes Fedor Emelianenko. “That may put him in a different category from everyone else. But he doesn’t need to pound his own chest.” Indeed, chest pounding is the last thing anyone would expect from Fedor Emelianenko. Although engaged in the most brutal of sports, he doesn’t conduct himself like most other mixed martial artists, often referring to himself as a “sportsman” rather than a fighter. He said he still has a passion for learning and practicing the martial arts but doesn’t like watching others fight. This continued love of the arts was evident when he started running through techniques with his partner for the photo shoot, top-ranked light-heavyweight fighter Gegard Mousasi. Despite the bright lights and camera, it was quickly apparent that this, more than anything else, was Fedor Emelianenko’s natural environment as he began laughing and joking with Mousasi like a couple of youngsters enjoying themselves in the dojo. Losing himself in the pleasant familiarity of the training hall, he even slipped up on a few occasions and lapsed into a bit of English. “Gegard, your feet are dirty,” he teased. When Gegard Mousasi playfully tucked his chin at one point, making it difficult for Fedor Emelianenko to demonstrate his fearsome rear choke, the Russian casually forced Gegard Mousasi ’s head up by driving his knuckles under the other man’s jaw. He jovially explained how he uses the knuckle of each thumb to press underneath the hinge of his opponent’s jaw, causing enough pain to make him lift his head. Sliding those hard, bony knuckles down along the sides of his partner’s neck like water finding a crack to seep into, he slipped one arm under his chin to secure the choke, then proceeded to make Gegard Mousasi pay just a little for his temerity, applying the hold more than once with a touch of glee. Fedor Emelianenko is open when it comes to sharing tips about his legendary ground-and-pound technique from inside an opponent’s guard. Although many fighters become cautious under such circumstances, fearing a submission, or they look to simply loosen their opponent up with a few strikes so they can pass his legs, Fedor Emelianenko is renowned for administering a dominating punching attack while remaining inside the guard. It’s a skill that enabled him to handily beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, one of the best guard practitioners in the sport, on two occasions. From down on his knees, he’ll wind up his stocky body, cocking his punch back the way you’re told never to do in a stand-up fight, then hurl himself into the blow like a man throwing a javelin down into the ground. When asked if there’s a risk he’ll unbalance himself, he emphasized the importance of keeping the knees wide for a solid base. Then he explained how his body lands on the opponent’s torso, which he uses to maintain balance and stay somewhat upright. It was a fascinating change to witness a little of his normal reserve fall away as he became more involved in the techniques. Watching from the sidelines, Van Tornhout said she’d never seen him this way. Fedor Emelianenko confessed: “In my childhood years, I was very emotional. Now, maybe, all that energy goes into training.” It would be a mistake to assume he has no ego—almost all world-class athletes do, or they wouldn’t be where they are. When asked to allow Mousasi to place him in a few holds for photographs, he politely declined. No champion ever likes to be seen on the short end of the stick. It’s always tempting to read meaning and devious motives into every action of those in the public spotlight, but that kind of over-analysis isn’t necessary when it comes to understanding for Fedor Emelianenko. In the end, he may be that rarest of all modern celebrities, one about whom you can say, “What you see really is what you get.” What you do see is a thoughtful, reticent individual who genuinely doesn’t care for fame but who tolerates it because it’s part of his job. He also seems to be someone who, like a lot of martial artists, would be happiest simply hanging out at the gym with a few friends, swapping techniques on the mat. And whether in a gym or an arena, that may be something he does better than anyone else alive. (Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer and martial artist based in New York.)