After the Fall

Luzh­niki

A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion stands in the court­yard of the mas­sive Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow. The statue gazes out across the black Moscova River and onto the city it names. The sta­dium, which was orig­i­nally dubbed the Cen­tral Lenin Sta­dium when it was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is in the old Soviet tra­di­tion: util­i­tar­ian, colos­sal, unin­spired. The name was changed in the Nineties when the Com­mu­nists fell out of power after their 80 year choke hold on the nation and today the city is still in tran­si­tion between the chaotic ener­gies of the Russ­ian brand of “any­thing goes”capitalism and the bag­gage left to it from so many years strug­gling under the failed Com­mu­nist system.

On bill­boards all over the city, famil­iar west­ern brands stand out amidst the strange Cyril­lic writ­ing and ubiq­ui­tous Madi­son Avenue-inspired images of impos­si­bly rich and beau­ti­ful peo­ple liv­ing the good life. The bill­boards are every­where punc­tu­at­ing the oth­er­wise drab indus­trial build­ings that com­prise most of the city. Years ago, there might have been pro­pa­ganda posters espous­ing the dream of a worker’s par­adise, but today there are skate­board parks with posters tout­ing the lat­est NBA stars and Adi­das shoes.

Old Soviet era junkers pop­u­late the streets along­side expen­sive sports cars and the chauf­feured sedans of the country’s new elite. Oli­garchs and made rich by gov­ern­ment con­nec­tions and the country’s min­eral wealth, have made Moscow, a city where the aver­age per­son makes about $8,000 dol­lars a year, more expen­sive than New York, Lon­don or Paris to live in. As a cau­tious ges­ture of healthy respect to the pow­er­ful Russ­ian Mafia in the city, the real big­wigs cruise around in armored Mer­cedes flanked by SUVs filled with secu­rity teams of heav­ily armed men.

One of the few instances of archi­tec­tural beauty in the city is the old Red Square in the city’s cen­ter where for­eign tourists and the young peo­ple of the new Rus­sia, many of whom were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, enjoy one of Moscow’s few enjoy­able pub­lic places. Beau­ti­ful Russ­ian girls in biki­nis roller skate past grim-faced cit­i­zens from the ear­lier generation—who seem a bit puz­zled by it all—and cou­ples lazily while away the time strolling between foun­tains, park benches and hot dog stands as the stoic sol­diers with their wide-brimmed caps and assault rifles guard the gov­ern­ment build­ings in the square. One of the attrac­tions in Red Square is the mau­soleum con­tain­ing the body of Lenin, who died in 1924. Atten­dance is down since it is no longer an offi­cial state pol­icy to revere the man, but the crowds are still healthy. Four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., curi­ous spec­ta­tors somberly file past the body. Respect for the dead man is still insisted on. Pho­tog­ra­phy is pro­hib­ited, as is talk­ing, smok­ing, keep­ing one’s hands in pock­ets, the wear­ing of hats or any other dis­play deemed insub­or­di­nate in the pres­ence of the body of the man who pre­dicted the end of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. Lenin’s body appears today exactly as it did on the day of his death 86 years ago and has been per­fectly pre­served by secret embalm­ing tech­niques and has already sur­vived the Com­mu­nist Rev­o­lu­tion by a generation.

What is M-1?

The day I arrive, Moscow is in the mid­dle of the worst heat wave in its his­tory. The tem­per­a­ture hits me like a ham­mer as soon as I get of the plane. Some­one from M-1 Global is sup­posed to be wait­ing for me, but thanks to huge crowds in the cus­toms depart­ment, skep­ti­cal agents and a cri­sis involv­ing my photographer’s lug­gage, it takes us almost two hours to make it out to the pick up area. I half expect to have been left as I scan the crowd but then I see a fierce-looking man with no neck and a head shaped like the top of a .38 cal­iber round hold­ing up a sign that says “FIGHTING.” We catch eyes and he gives me polite but per­turbed look as he taps his wrist­watch with his index fin­ger three times. I guess I’ve found our dri­ver. He speaks no Eng­lish but takes my bag from me and I fol­low him out to the car. As we drive, the thought occurs to me that here I am dri­ving through a coun­try with ten­u­ous diplo­matic rela­tions to my own, the lan­guage of which I don’t speak and in the car of a man who could have just come out of cen­tral cast­ing for evil villain’s hench­man num­ber three in a James Bond movie. But I put my faith in the old adage that God pro­tects chil­dren and fools and wait to see what hap­pens next.

Rec­og­niz­ing the ever-growing global nature of the sport, I’m here to cover M-1 Global’s east­ern Euro­pean tour­na­ment. M-1 is known mostly to fans in the US through its asso­ci­a­tion with its star attrac­tion Fedor Emelia­nenko, the man many peo­ple believe to be the great­est mixed mar­tial artist that has ever lived. Recently M-1 has been linked to the seri­ally failed nego­ti­a­tions between Fedor and the UFC, which had aimed to have the Russ­ian super­star fight for the world’s biggest pro­mo­tion. UFC pres­i­dent Dana White, with typ­i­cal con­fi­dence, had guar­an­teed that he would even­tu­ally sign Fedor, but then the nego­ti­a­tion broke down at the last minute with each side point­ing fin­gers at the other for being unrea­son­able. The UFC was only the lat­est US Com­pany to have tur­bu­lent busi­ness deal­ings with M-1. First it was Calvin Ayers in Bodog and then Afflic­tion and their short-lived pro­mo­tion and finally White and the UFC. Today, Fedor—for the time being at least—has found a home in Scott Coker’s Strike­force, based in large part due to Coker’s acqui­es­cence to M-1’s demand to co-promote the events Fedor appears on. It was this con­di­tion and the inabil­ity of either side to give way on it that report­edly was a main rea­son the Zuffa talks col­lapsed. Unless he fights in the UFC, Fedor will likely not face the biggest names in the sport, the Brock Lesnars and Randy Cou­tures of the world. Because of this M-1 has been decried in the west­ern press as being hard to deal with and dam­ag­ing to Fedor’s career prospects. The image that is often played out, whether accu­rate or not, is that Fedor is an unwit­ting pawn in the whole affair and that he’s being used and his career and ulti­mate earn­ings power threat­ened by M-1, who seek only to use Fedor to pro­mote their brand and pur­sue their own impen­e­tra­ble busi­ness designs. Another of the big rea­sons I came over was to meet Fedor and ask the man him­self about it. I have been promised over the phone a sit down inter­view with Fedor which, given the Russ­ian superstar’s pen­chant for pri­vacy and uncon­cern with the press, is the MMA equiv­a­lent of a inter­view with the Pope, Pres­i­dent and Heis­man tro­phy win­ner all at once.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrive at the Luzh­niki hotel which is built into the sta­dium. Once I arrive and meet the peo­ple run­ning M-1, instead of a shad­owy cabal of Russ­ian supervil­lians, I find the com­pany is staffed by a young group of peo­ple from all over East­ern Europe and Rus­sia; a good look­ing group. The women are all sleek and beau­ti­ful and the guys seem sophis­ti­cated and wear posh Euro­pean fash­ions. Imag­ine Dolce and Gabanna tak­ing over King of the Cage.

The com­pany is headed by a man named Vadim Finkel­stein who also func­tions as Fedor’s man­ager. Wadim was a suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur before turn­ing to fight pro­mo­tion and he’s as larger than life and flam­boy­ant in his own way as his U.S. coun­ter­part Dana White. It’s easy to see how the two might come to log­ger­heads. At the hotel I share a floor of rooms with the M-1 staff and lead­ing up to the event there is a con­stant and seem­ingly ran­dom furor of activ­ity. Com­pared to the machine-like UFC, it seems chaotic, but they’re a scrappy bunch and they’ve been pro­duc­ing suc­cess­ful events in Europe for a while now. They’re all very friendly and when I get to know them, I find they all buy into Vadim’s vision of M-1 as a poten­tial giant global MMA brand, a kind of coun­ter­weight to White’s Amer­i­can based jug­ger­naut. With such an up close and per­sonal view I see the new Russ­ian busi­ness model in prac­tice: dis­or­dered, infu­ri­at­ing, lim­it­lessly hard­work­ing and some­how, mys­ti­fy­ingly, get­ting things done.

Meet­ing Fedor or Stas Saves the Day

I’ve been guar­an­teed a sit-down inter­view with Fedor prior to the event and I’m look­ing for­ward to it. But once I get to Rus­sia, the M-1 staff, despite being help­ful in every other con­ceiv­able way, start stonewalling me about the interview.

“Oh, Mr. Fedor doesn’t do inter­views. NOBODY just sits down with Fedor,” they’d tell me, before con­tin­u­ing in hushed tones, “you know he’s friends with Putin,” refer­ring to Russia’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin. The rev­er­ence in which the M-1 peo­ple hold Fedor verges a mix­ture between awe and out­right fear. I remain per­sis­tent, telling them the whole rea­son I had trav­eled halfway around the world was to meet him and I didn’t appre­ci­ate the deal being switched on me at the last minute. Even­tu­ally I am promised that I can do a brief inter­view with Fedor one-on-one after the pre-fight press con­fer­ence he’ll be attend­ing. It’s bet­ter than noth­ing and so I decide to take what I can get and make the best of it.

The press con­fer­ence is a non-event, as these things usu­ally are, and Fedor, flanked by Vadim and one of M-1’s biggest sponsors—the head of Sambo 70—seems bored and non-committal. When he isn’t speak­ing, his atten­tion drifts, his eyes scan­ning the bal­cony. As soon as the press con­fer­ence is over, he’s imme­di­ately whisked away. Now I’m really get­ting frus­trated. The event starts in a few hours and I am pretty sure once it does, my chance will be lost. Every time I asked one of the M-1 big­wigs, I get a “soon, soon,” or “we’ll come get you.” I’m sus­pi­cious that either they are too pet­ri­fied to ask Fedor about it or had been flatly refused by him and don’t want to break the news to me. I finally cor­ner Finkel­stein, who seems sur­prised to see me and as hes­i­tant as any­body else to bother Fedor for an inter­view. I say,“Vadim,” (who I’ve noticed, like his arch neme­sis Dana White, is referred to by every­one by his first name) “we’ve spoke non the phone about this.”

“ Of course, of course,” He assures me, not very con­vinc­ingly. “It will be soon.” I’m reduced to fol­low­ing him around as he tours the sta­dium, giv­ing instruc­tions on the ever-present cell phone plas­tered to his ear, always car­ry­ing on three con­ver­sa­tions at once. Every so often he’ll glance over his shoul­der and see that I’m still tag­ging along before tak­ing off again and I sus­pect, try­ing to lose me. After about half an hour of this, and sens­ing futil­ity, I stop him and point to a chair near one of the cam­eras. “Wadim,” I tell him as sternly as pro­pri­ety allows, “I will be here when Fedor is ready for the inter­view. Please come get me. I don’t care if it’s in ten min­utes or six hours; I’ll be wait­ing right here.”

“Of course, of course,” he says, and rushes off. I don’t think he’ll come back.

I take my seat in the chair and begin to wait. The crowd files in and as the show pro­gresses, I get less and less cer­tain of the inter­view hap­pen­ing and I begin to won­der how I’ll will write the arti­cle with­out the inter­view. I run var­i­ous rhetor­i­cal strate­gies through my mind and have set­tled on the title “Fedor is a Dick and Other Things I Learned in Rus­sia” when a remark­able serendip­ity occurs.

About two hours into the show, a tall guy with a shaved head and a black ear­ring approaches and asks me in accented but pre­cise Eng­lish, “Aren’t you the edi­tor of FIGHT! Magazine?”

“ I am,” I tell him, sur­prised to get rec­og­nized over here. His name is Stanislav Khar­lamov, nick­named Stas, and he runs one of M-1s web­sites in Fin­land. He tells me he’s a big fan of the mag­a­zine; he even pro­duced the Mo Lawal edi­tion from his back­pack. Stas asks me, “What are you doing over here?”

“Well, I wanted to come over and see M-1 for myself on its home turf and also inter­view Fedor.” “Oh,” he says, taken aback, “ how’s that going?” he asks me care­fully, prob­a­bly know­ing the answer. “Not well,” I answer. “ I’m kind of get­ting the runaround right now.”

“Stay right here,” he says, incensed, and then he dis­ap­pears. When he comes back and tells me he had talked to Vadim and Fedor and that he’d take care of every­thing. After the show ends, he escorts me through the crowd and back­stage into a pri­vate recep­tion area. It’s a small room with a table in the cen­ter cov­ered with plat­ters of food. An exotic group of guests is crowded into the room. There’s Vadim and the M-1 peo­ple, sev­eral impor­tant look­ing Russ­ian busi­ness peo­ple and spon­sors of M-1 and a host of other assorted star­lets and celebri­ties. I was told a soc­cer player, cir­cus acro­bat and sev­eral TV per­son­al­i­ties were on hand. I notice Fedor keeps to him­self, off in a cor­ner deep in con­ver­sa­tion with the Cop­tic con­fes­sor he always trav­els around with. Even­tu­ally, Stas speaks to Fedor and then they both come over to me .  Stas proudly says that Fedor would be happy to speak with me and asks that we go take a seat in the back of the room. A group of peo­ple leap up to make space for us to sit down when they see Fedor com­ing and just like that, after a jour­ney of 10,000 miles, I am sit­ting six inches from the great Fedor Emelia­nenko him­self. He is smaller and more solidly put together than I thought he would be.

Some­one brings him an orange juice. He offers me one, which I politely decline, before he drains his.

Russ­ian con­ver­sa­tions bub­ble in the back­ground as Fedor looks at me with his famously blank expres­sion. Stas tells me he will serve as translator.

I ask Fedor about M-1 and he sur­prises me by say­ing that he is one of the own­ers of the com­pany. Now the fright­ened awe with which every­body at M-1 treats him makes sense. Not only is Fedor the star attrac­tion, but he also signs their pay­checks, fig­u­ra­tively at least.

He says he met Vadim when he (Fedor) was cham­pion of Pride and that after dis­cussing Wadim’s ideas, they became busi­ness part­ners. Now he owns part of M-1 and he’s the face of the com­pany. He tells me that early in his career he was involved in dead-end matches that exposed him to great risk but didn’t really help his career. He now real­izes how impor­tant it is for fight­ers to be devel­oped and pro­moted cor­rectly right from the start. I agree with him that there had been a few really good prospects on the card tonight includ­ing one killer named Shikhshabekov. He agrees and says it makes him happy to help tal­ented young fight­ers develop so they’ll be ready when they step up to the next level. He says even­tu­ally the M-1 sys­tem will pro­duce and develop the top tal­ent in the world. It’s an inter­est­ing con­cept made espe­cially so con­sid­er­ing who is explain­ing it to me.

I ask him about the story the whole MMA world is talk­ing about; his recent upset loss in Strike­force to Fabri­cio Wer­dum and Fedor reflects on the loss answer­ing in the same relaxed tone. “ I was never the one to say I was unbeat­able. This sport is about sec­onds and mil­lime­ters,” he says, hold­ing up his hand and pinch­ing his thumb and fore­fin­ger together, “and in MMA, even if you are pre­pared, any­thing can hap­pen.” He says he’s always real­ized the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing and is now ready to start work­ing his way back.

Fedor is a very devout Chris­t­ian and though pri­vate about it, is up front about his faith and he tells me that he believes that in the final analy­sis he knows “every­thing is in God’s hands.” He offers that maybe now he will start a new rise in MMA even greater than before, but all he can do is to train hard and be as pre­pared as he can be and leave the rest to the Will of God. When I press him about his faith and its place in his life, he clams up and changes the sub­ject. Between the over­whelm­ing heat in the room and his legit­i­mate dis­com­fort dis­cussing him­self, maybe I went too far press­ing him about his reli­gious beliefs, I sense he is get­ting impa­tient and ready to leave.

I ask him about the UFC. Fedor offers only that nego­ti­a­tions failed because of “abnor­mal” demands, what­ever that means. He won’t elab­o­rate. I ask him about Brock Lesnar’s recent come-from behind vic­tory over Shane Car­win at UFC 116. Fedor perks up—a match between him and Lesnar, if it ever hap­pens, would be colos­sal. “Lesnar has good power and strength,” he begins, “but,” (ever polite, he chooses his words care­fully before con­tin­u­ing) “from a tech­ni­cal stand point, he’s not per­fect.” The small­est trace of a smile creeps into his face. It’s the invol­un­tary grin of a nat­ural born preda­tor smelling blood.

“He has a strong will to sur­vive the beat­ing Car­win put on him in the first round,” he con­tin­ues with emphases, “but you can’t take so may punches each fight.” I’m sure Fedor is imag­in­ing how Lesnar—strong-willed or not—would wilt under his with­er­ing bar­rage. Espe­cially if Brock doesn’t keep his head bet­ter than he did ver­sus Car­win, who many said gassed pre­ma­turely and let many chances to fin­ish Brock slip away. Then a man comes over and gets Fedor who rises and thanks me politely for com­ing to visit Rus­sia. “Thank you my friend,” he says in per­fect Eng­lish and smiles sweetly as they rush him out the door. Well, it wasn’t the longest inter­view in the world, but I met the man and feel like, thanks to my new friend Stas I got some of what I wanted.

Soon after Fedor leaves, the recep­tion starts to break up and we leave the arena and head back towards the Luznikhi hotel. Despite the seem­ing dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion before hand the event had turned out well. A good crowd had turned out, despite the ter­ri­ble heat and the M-1 Staff is on a high. 2011 they say will be the year when the pro­mo­tion really arrives as a global force in the busi­ness. For that to hap­pen M-1 will have to deal with the most pow­er­ful force in the sport, the UFC which is also fight­ing hard to cre­ate a dom­i­nant global MMA brand. Pick­ing a fight with Dana White is a tall order but while here I’ve seen that while the Rus­sians don’t always get from point A to point B by the short­est or most effi­cient route, they do get there and when they arrive, it’s with a bang.

Out­side, it’s close to mid­night and it feels like it’s still 95 degrees. The ever-energetic M-1 crew decides on the spur of the moment to throw a get-together with wine and food and music across the Luzhniki’s court­yard, down by the banks of the river and right under the giant statue’s nose.

 

 

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