The most striking thing about Fedor Emelianenko in the flesh, up close and personal, is the stillness. The quiet man has an unbelievable stillness of being. It creates an extraordinary aura around him. Like an awareness. It affects you, too. He appears to glide when he walks. Head still, everything so deliberate. Like the air doesn’t move as he passes through it. Like the silent destruction of some many opponents.
I’ve worked with and interviewed many of the great heavyweights of the present – and the past – in twenty five years as a broadcaster and sportswriter, in boxing and MMA. And I have to confess that Emelianenko is like no other fighter I’ve ever come across. The closest would be Randy Couture, who has the same presence and assuredness and has that ‘thing’ about him that if you were in a trench during a war with him, and he said ‘follow me now’, you would simply go. You just would.
The very greatest champions develop an unmistakeable aura. It has been thus forever. The best of the best in every era inherits one. But they are all different. Most of the very greatest heavyweight fighters, given their standing, develop an imperious presence. Ego, accomplishment, riches, adulation. Not to mention the toughness, resilience, skills, effort and practice they took to get there. We know that, we have take a form of visceral pleasure in their acts of violence. These are a potent combination which raise a champion up to extraordinary levels in our consciousness. They can change a person, too. But those things don’t appear to have molested the core of the fighter – or indeed the man – in Fedor.
He engages IN HIS WAY. Even the lowered tones of his answers to the questions you pose makes you want to reach in and poke Fedor to see if he is real, as you wonder if his heart is actually beating. Or, at least, begs the thought of how slowly that resting heart-rate must thump. But it is beating…. we know that. And it’s a huge, stoical, champion’s heart. When you talk to the man known as ‘The Last Emperor’, who is in reality a rather reluctant emperor – famously – when it comes to media interviews, those probing eyes meet yours with a gentle intensity. Almost an indifference, even. Every answer, always modest, comes through a translator, with the answers having to be pulled out of him with a crowbar. In those eyes, I see – and feel – a man who has a fear of nothing, who is at peace with what is around him. There are no frills. He has a small entourage with him who all go about their work quietly and diligently with him. No outward air of menace. They ape Fedor.
He’s not a big man, either, which is a shock to most people when they meet him for the first time. But you know he could become a raging boulder in the flick of a switch.
‘Big John’ McCarthy and I were discussing this recently and he reckons that both of Emelianenko and Fedor have the same mental qualities: ‘They want to win, but don’t need to win’. That they have something in them which allows them, in some sort of mental and emotional state, to be at peace about enjoying a relaxed art of fighting. A comfort in that brutal artistry as any ‘civilian’, like us, might find in cooking our favourite meal. Normal, natural, no fuss. Yet to us ‘civilians’ those qualities leave an awe around which their personae fill the void for us.
Other heavyweights I’ve been around, such as Mike Tyson, gave off a frightening electricity; Lennox Lewis pulled himself up to his full height and arched his back, looking down on mere mortals. Brock Lesnar had a huge physical presence, with the emphasis on physical presence. And it is gratifying indeed, that ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, such a different character, has revealed that he is a huge fan of Fedor. Like so, so many other fighters.
Fedor is so often the fighter’s fighter. I reckon it’s because Fedor espouses the perfect identity. The hardest man on earth, who does not need to proclaim his own greatness. I discussed it with Scott Coker, CEO of Bellator, and his attitude was the same, yet put another way: Fedor is actually the living embodiment of what a martial artist should be. Correction: what a ‘true’ martial artist should be.
Having discussed Fedor with dozens of heavyweight names from fight sports over the years, no one has a bad thing to say about him, either, even those who have been mashed by him. Says so much about the man.
I’m back up close and personal with him again, and as you attempt to probe a reluctant fortress for information about him, and his life, so little emotion exudes from him, yet there is something immediately likable about him. Perhaps because we know what he is capable of in an instant. It’s what old T’ai Chi masters might have recognised as a state of Zen. He’s very special, mesmerising even. In fight terms, perhaps that leap from neutral to fourth gear, and his ability to sustain any crashes, is what has made him such an icon.
Just a couple of months back, I was in San Jose to interview the quiet Russian as he slipped into the SAP Center, home of the National Hockey League team from the Silicon Valley city. The venue is known as ‘The Shark Tank’. We are talking in the same building in San Jose where that win streak ended, in June 2010, against Fabricio Werdum. Until then, he swam through that tank himself, and gobbled up all the sharks.
And indeed, this place was the scene of his first loss in that long, long 28-fight unbroken run of victories, defying styles, opponents
from five continents, and the mores of MMA which say all fighters can be beaten.
A tiny smile exists on his face that day in San Jose, and through his utter civility, I know that it actually belies a ferocious fighting past, a wrecking style all of its own. Sizing ‘Fedor‘ up in the flesh, his accomplishments become all the more astonishing. Given his size, at just under 6 feet tall, and weighing 16 and a half stone, how did he beat all-comers for that sustained period ? Speed of thought, action, and self-belief. Or even the belief that God would decide his fate. These are powerful foundations on which to fight. Just as intriguing are the stories and profiles written about a person who very rarely opens up. And it is no ruse. Fedor is a modest, simple man. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.
He was clearly ahead of his time, and the man of his time, but one question mark will remain: what would have happened if he had gone into the UFC ? It never happened so there will always be that question.
Yes, he’s lost a few fights now, as happens eventually with pretty much all the greats, but Fedor’s main trademark, his fighting charisma, has never left him. When he comes into the ring, he appears as calm as a monk: no emotions, walking straight to the ring, no great salutations. Ditto – win or lose.
I think Coker is right when he told me this: “His body of work will speak for itself and how he carries himself will speak for itself. You talk about martial arts character. He’s got all that. That’s what I love about him.” Spot on.
What I have experienced around Fedor rings true when you hear his compatriots talk of him. Fans and fellow journalists. That he is loved by the people of that country for the way in which he carries himself, that he remains a champion of the people, and the face of Russian sport. The quiet fighter’s great reluctance to open up to just a very few has only added to the mystique and enigma of the man. They say never meet your heroes. It couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of Fedor Emelianenko.