A Small World : Moscow

When the Bolsheviks addressed Karl Marx’s observation that the forces of industrial capitalism exploit the common man and alienate him from himself, by instituting an even more impersonal and cold blooded hierarchy of commissars, functionaries, bureaucrats, thugs, torturers and assassins, it was, in retrospect, a poor idea. It took the lion’s share of the twentieth century to determine exactly how poor. But when The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 allowing all the people who wanted to get out of the Soviet Union to do so, it was one of the rare instances when just about everybody in the world agreed that it was a good thing for it to happen. What followed was one of the great mass migrations in history as people voted with their feet and flooded West causing the Soviet Union to crumble into its constituent pieces.

When I visited Moscow the city was still struggling twenty years later to reconcile forces of capitalism and the disadvantageous legacy of the old Communist system.  The signs were all around. In Red Square in the city’s center, foreign tourists and the young people of the new Russia, many of whom were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, enjoyed one of Moscow’s few enjoyable public places. Russian girls in bikinis roller-skated past grim-faced citizens from earlier times who seemed a bit puzzled by it all, while couples lazily whiled away the time strolling between fountains, park benches, hot dog stands and stoic soldiers with their wide-brimmed caps and assault rifles guarding the government buildings.

One of the attractions in Red Square was the mausoleum containing the corpse of Vladimir Lenin, who died in 1924. Attendance was down since it was no longer an official state policy to revere Lenin, but the crowds could still be healthy. Four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., curious spectators somberly filed past the body.  Photography was prohibited, as was 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 appeared exactly as it did on the day of his death 86 years ago and has been perfectly preserved by secret embalming techniques, having survived the Communist Revolution by a generation.

On the streets old Soviet-era jalopies choked and putted along beside Ferraris, Porsches and the chauffeured sedans of the country’s new elite. Oligarchs made rich by government connections and the country’s mineral wealth made Moscow, a city where the average person makes about $8,000 dollars a year, more expensive to live in than New York, London or Paris. What was that about alienation again, Mr. Marx?  As a cautious gesture of respect to the powerful Russian Mafia, the real players cruised around in armored Mercedes, flanked by SUVs filled with security teams of heavily armed men.

On billboards all over the city, familiar western brands stood out among strange Cyrillic writing and images of conspicuously rich and beautiful people living the good life. The luxuriant images were everywhere, contra posing 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 now there are skateboard parks with posters touting the latest NBA stars and advertising the newest basketball shoes as the path to happiness and success; one false narrative devouring another.

The day I arrived, Moscow was in the middle of the worst heat wave in its recorded history. The temperature hit me like a hammer as soon as I got off the plane. Someone from Russian MMA League M-1 Global was supposed to be waiting for me but thanks to huge crowds in the customs department, skeptical agents, and a crisis involving Paul’s luggage, it took us almost two hours to make it out to the pick-up area. I half expected our ride to have left as I scanned the crowd but then I saw a fierce-looking man with no neck and a head shaped like the top of a .38 caliber round holding up a sign that said “FIGHTING.” We caught eyes and he gave me a polite but perturbed look as he tapped his wristwatch with his index finger three times. I guessed I’d found the driver.

He spoke no English but took my bag from me and I followed him out to the car. As we drove through the bleak industrial landscape that separated the airport from Moscow proper, the thought occurred to me that here I was driving through a country with tenuous diplomatic relations to the United States, the language of which I didn’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. I put my faith in the old adage that God protects children and fools and waited to see what happened next.

I was in Moscow to see the incomparable Fedor Emelianenko.   The M-1 people had been eager for me to cover the promotion and I made a deal with them to do so in exchange for an interview with Fedor.  The most enigmatic and interesting athlete in the sport, Fedor was also at one point considered to be the best fighter in the world.  He came closest to the ideal of what a perfect mixed martial artist would look like, one with no holes in his skillset and one who had the psychological fortitude to go along with the physical gifts and technical knowledge.

He’d never fought in the UFC because Zuffa and M-1 couldn’t come to a deal.  It was a huge loss for the sport that Fedor and Randy Couture never fought.  That fight had the potential to be the first fight big enough to transcend the sport and become a cultural event, the way huge boxing matches sometimes do; The Russian Nightmare vs. Captain America!

Most U.S. fans expected Fedor to dump M-1 and sign a big contract with the UFC to make that fight happen but he never did.  A highly placed MMA official who had worked with M-1 briefly once speculated to me that Fedor wouldn’t leave M-1 because if he did he’d mysteriously fall off a mountain or die in a tragic skiing accident or something of the like.  “He’ll be fighting for M-1 as long as they want him to,” he said.  Whether it was true or not the M-1 was rumored to be a front for the Russian mob.

After an hours drive, we arrived at hotel, which was built into Luzhniki Stadium. Built for the 1980 Olympics the Stadium was in the colossal and uninspired tradition of Soviet Era Architecture.  To my horror I discovered that the air conditioning was broken in my room but thank God the windows opened. The window looked out on the back of large statue of Lenin, which in turn, gazed bleakly out across the black Moscova River. Surveying the scene, I thought how improbable it would have seemed to me as a boy growing up in Small Town USA in the middle of the Cold War that I would ever be in the place I was or see such a site.

 

Once I met the people running M-1, I discovered that instead of a shadowy cabal of Russian mobsters, the company was staffed by a young, good-looking group of people from all over Eastern Europe and Russia. The women were sleek and beautiful and the men seemed sophisticated and wore posh European fashions. I imagined this is what it would have looked like if Dolce and Gabbana had taken over King of the Cage.

M-1 was headed by a man named Vadim Finkelstein, who was also Fedor’s manager. Vadim was a successful entrepreneur before turning to fight promotion and he was as larger-than-life and flamboyant in his own way as was his U.S. counterpart Dana White. It’s plain to see how the two might come to loggerheads.

At the hotel I shared a floor of rooms with the M-1 staff and leading up to the event there was a constant and seemingly random furor of activity. Compared to the machine-like UFC, it appeared chaotic, but they were a scrappy bunch and had produced several successful events in Europe.  They all bought 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 witnessed the new Russian business model in practice: disordered, infuriating, hardworking, and somehow, mystifyingly, getting things done.

I’d been guaranteed a sit-down interview with Fedor prior to the event but once I got to Russia, the M-1 staff stonewalled me about the interview.

“Oh, Mr. Fedor doesn’t do interviews. NOBODY just sits down with Fedor,” they told 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 held Fedor verged on a mixture between awe and outright fear. I remained 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 was told that I could do a brief interview with Fedor one-on-one after the pre-fight press conference he’d be attending. It was better than nothing and so I decided to take what I could get and make the best of it.

On the day of the event, I walked over from the hotel early; talked my way past guards and got into the arena several hours before the event was to start.  Inside the auditorium the heat was even worse than on the outside, so much so that the production crew, cameramen and techs had all disrobed and were manning the equipment in their underwear.

The press conference was 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, seemed bored and non-committal. When he wasn’t speaking, Fedor’s attention drifted, his eyes scanning the balcony. As soon as the press conference was over, he was immediately whisked away. The event would start in a few hours and I was pretty sure once it did, my chance would be lost. Every time I asked one of the M-1 staff about Fedor, I’d get a “soon, soon,” or “we’ll come get you.” My gut told me that that either they were too petrified to ask Fedor about it or had already been flatly refused by him and didn’t want to break the news to me. I finally cornered Finkelstein, who seemed surprised to see me and as hesitant as anybody else to approach Fedor for an interview.

“Vadim,” (who I’d noticed, like his arch nemesis Dana White, is referred to by his first name,) “we spoke on the phone about this.”

“Of course, of course,” he assured me, not very convincingly. “It will be soon.”

I was reduced to following Finklestein and his small entourage of assistants around as he toured the building, giving instructions into the ever-present cell phone plastered to his ear, always carrying on three conversations at once. Every so often he’d glance over his shoulder and see that I was still tagging along before taking off again and, I suspected, trying to lose me. After about half an hour of this, sensing futility, I stopped him and pointed to a chair near one of the broadcast camera stations.

“Vadim, 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 said, and rushed off. My suspicion was that he wasn’t coming back, but I took my seat in the chair and waited in case he did.  But as crowd began to file in, I became more and more uncertain about my chances of meeting Fedor and I feared I might have lost the interview.  I wondered how I’d write the article I’d planned without it. As the show started I ran various rhetorical strategies through my mind and had settled on the title “Fedor is a Dick and Other Things I Learned in Russia,” when a remarkable serendipity occurred.

A tall man with a shaved head and a black earring approached and asked me in accented but precise English, “Aren’t you the editor of FIGHT! Magazine?”

“ I am,” I told him, surprised to get recognized. His name was Stanislaw Kharlamov, nicknamed Stas, and he ran one of M-1’s websites in Finland. He told me he was a big fan of the magazine; he even pulled out a recent edition from his backpack. Stas asked 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 asked me carefully, probably knowing the answer.

“Not well,” I said. “ I’m kind of getting the runaround right now.”

“Stay right here,” he said and then disappeared. He came back and told me that he’d talked to Vadim and Fedor and had taken care of everything. After the show ended, he escorted me through the crowd and backstage into a private reception area. It was a small room with a table in the center covered with platters of food. An exotic group of guests was crowded into the room. There was Vadim and the M-1 people, several important looking Russian businessmen and sponsors of M-1 and a host of other assorted starlets and celebrities. I was told a famous soccer player; circus acrobat, and several TV personalities were also on hand.  Fedor kept to himself, off in a corner deep in conversation with the Coptic confessor he always traveled around with. Eventually, Stas spoke to Fedor and they both come over to me. Stas proudly said that Fedor would be happy to speak with me and asked that we go take a seat in the back of the room. A group of people leapt up to make space for us to sit down when they saw Fedor coming and just like that, after a journey of thousands of miles, I was sitting six inches from the great Fedor Emelianenko himself. He was smaller and more solidly put together than I thought he would be. Someone bought a tray with several glasses of orange juice. He offered me one, which I declined, before he drained his.

Loud Russian conversations carried on in the background as Fedor looked at me with his famously blank expression. Stas told me he would serve as translator.

I asked Fedor about M-1 and he surprised me by saying that he was one of the owners of the company. Now the frightened awe with which everybody at M-1 treated him made sense. Not only was Fedor the star attraction, but he also signed their paychecks, figuratively at least.

He’d met Vadim when he was champion of PrideFC and they became business partners. Now he owned part of M-1 and served as the face of the company. He told 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 told me how important it was for fighters to be developed and promoted correctly right from the start. I agreed with him that there had been a few really good prospects on the night’s card including one killer named Shikhshabekov. He said it made him happy to help talented young fighters develop so they’d be ready when they stepped up to the next level. He said eventually the M-1 system would produce and develop the world’s top talent.

I asked him about his recent upset loss in to Fabricio Werdum.  Early in the first round he had blitzed Werdum, who was one of the top Jiu Jitsu fighters in the world and a man who interestingly had been first trained by my old friend Ricardo Murgel.  Fedor had knocked Werdum down then swarmed him. He looked to be on the way to another easy victory but then got careless about where his head was in relation to Werdum’s legs and was caught in a very basic submission called a triangle choke.  It was the first time Fedor had been defeated in over a decade. He reflected 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 said, holding up his hand and pinching his thumb and forefinger together, “and in MMA, even if you are prepared, anything can happen.” He said he’d always realized the possibility of losing and was now ready to start working his way back.

Fedor was a devout Christian and told me that he believed that in the final analysis  “everything is in God’s hands.” He said that maybe now he would start a new rise in MMA even greater than before. But one way or another, all he could do was to train hard and be as prepared as possible and leave the rest to God’s will.

I asked him about the UFC. Fedor offered only that negotiations failed because of “abnormal” demands, whatever that means. He wouldn’t elaborate. I asked him about Brock Lesnar’s recent come-from-behind victory over Shane Carwin in which the huge punching but crude Carwin had beaten Lesnar from pillar to post in the first round before tiring out and allowing Brock to come back and win the match. Fedor perked up—a match between him and Lesnar, if it ever happened, would be colossal. “Lesnar has good power and strength,” he began, “but,” ever polite, he now chose his words carefully, “from a technical standpoint he’s not perfect.” The smallest trace of a smile crept onto his face.

“He has a strong will to survive the beating Carwin put on him in the first round,” he continued with emphasis, “but you can’t take so many punches every fight.” I’m sure Fedor was imagining how Lesnar—strong-willed or not—would wilt under his withering barrage. A man came over and summoned Fedor, who rose and thanked me politely for coming to visit Russia. “Thank you my friend,” he said in English and smiled 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’d gotten some of what I wanted.

Soon after Fedor left, the reception broke up and a large group of M-1 staff and press left the arena together and walked back towards the hotel.  Regardless of the apparent disorganization beforehand the event had turned out well. A nice sized crowd had attended despite the heat and the M-1 staff was feeling good.

Outside, it was close to midnight and the temperature was still probably, 95 degrees.  The M-1 crew decided 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 the under this disapproving eye of Lenin’s Statue.