The Russian Nemkov will have the long shadow of his mentor, Fedor Emelianenko, in his corner on Friday night but no pressure, he says
Vadim Nemkov has more than just his own pride and ambition at stake when he challenges Ryan Bader for the Bellator light heavyweight title at Mohegan Sun Resort on Friday night. The Russian will have the long shadow of his master and mentor, Fedor Emelianenko, in his corner. And revenge is a dish best served cold. It was twenty months ago that Bader beat Emelianenko in the final of the Heavyweight World Grand Prix, and Nemkov, without saying it, will be carrying the pride of Team Fedor into this enticing contest.
As Scott Coker, president of Bellator MMA explained to The Telegraph, there is a narrative here which is classic of martial arts stories. “It’s the old martial arts thing of I’m going to do it for my teacher. He got beat and I have to avenge his loss” explained Coker, who insisted Nemkov is fully deserving of the title shot.
“Here’s a guy who has beaten a group of light heavyweights and former Bellator champions, elite fighters. Phil Davis was manhandled, Liam McGeary, a former champion, was chopped into submission from leg strikes. Bader has not been stretched for a while. Nemkov is young, hungry, strong as a bull. He’s built like a Greek statue. Ryan is going to have his hands full.”
Nemkov, meanwhile, is rather like his mentor Fedor. His talking has been done inside the cage. His emotions are in check outside of it. Fedor has known him since he was a teenager, half of his life ago. But even before then Nemkov, from the same town as Fedor – Stary Oskol – had been watching the great heavyweight wreck his way through the biggest, heaviest, most intimidating fighters on the planet – Mirko Crocop, Big Nog, Mark Coleman, Mark Hunt and on and on…in an incredible undefeated streak which created his aura as the greatest MMA heavyweight of all time.
“I was eight when Fedor started his run. I was eleven or 12 when I first saw him fight” explained Nemkov to The Telegraph. “I was amazed. I went back and tried to watch all his previous fights. From there on, I always wanted to be a fighter, be like Fedor. I wanted to represent my country and bring glory to my country. Now I’m here.”
Growing up meant a dedication to that task. “My parents always knew that I would follow some path of combat. When I was young they got me into wrestling, which is basically judo and sambo. Even in our club we’d always have gloves and I’d box people five or six years older than me. They’d kick my ass and I’d still come back the next day and try again. I’m not sure how much of that my parents knew about but they weren’t surprised by me doing it. At that time they didn’t know I’d turn out to be a fighter but they knew Fedor was from the same town. They were happy I was doing sports and focused on something.”
How has Fedor been as a mentor ? They say never meet your heroes, but it was not the case for young Nemkov in the Fedor bubble. “He didn’t disappoint. The first time I met him I was 14. We were at a sambo tournament. He didn’t have any reason to notice me but I was watching him. I could see he was everything he portrayed himself to be, genuine and sincere. That gave me more motivation that I was on the right path. I wanted to be like him.”
And now, on Friday, more than ever, there is the chance to not just be like Fedor, but to defeat Bader, and claim the Bellator light heavyweight belt against a man who beat his teacher. The script could not have been more perfect.
“I feel like I’m ready. I beat three world champions coming into this fight” Nemkov explained to Telegraph Sport. “I feel like I’m ready for a title shot. The truth is in this weight class there’s no one else for me to fight but the champion.”
He rates Bader, but knows the American is not unbeatable. “I’ll train so his strength won’t be his strength. We all know Ryan Bader is a great wrestler and he’s got pretty good hands. I’m going to train to neutralise those and impose my will.”
He added: “I don’t look through the fight and try to find how I’ll win. I think there’s only two ways I’ll win and that’s by knockout or by decision, but I am going to win. I’ll be imposing my will and forcing him to stand with me.”
Is there extra pressure because Fedor will be there ? “There’s no pressure. That’s a lot of guys who train with us. Training with and under Fedor is very stimulating. If anything it validates me belonging in the team I’m with. You wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t worthy of being there. It’s a positive.”
Your correspondent asks if he still spars with Fedor ? The great old Russian heavyweight, who is within earshot, reminds the young fighter that he has grown too old to compete with the young fighters… “He can joke” offers Nemkov. “He still beats my ass in the gym.” They both laugh. Nemkov will laugh longest if he can claim the belt come Friday night.