Costa Rica, at this time of year, or any other, is very different from Russia. Not that I have ever been to the homeland of Pride heavyweight champion, Fedor Emelianenko. Particularly regarding the region south of Moscow, in Ukraine -– where our character was born, –- or near it –- where he lives, –- all my knowledge comes from a report by the writer John Steinbeck and Robert Capa’s pictures in A Russian Journal. According to the book, even in a Soviet Union of 1948-– Stalinist and still shaken from World War II -– this is a merry, festive region, more spontaneous and less suspicious of the “spendthrift, capitalist West.”
Almost 50 years have elapsed, there is no more USSR, but it’s a shock for Fiodor (that’s how it’s pronounced) to be in a country so different from his. Although Russia is not the military power it was during the Cold War and nuclear race, it still has five times as many generals as the United States, leaders of a contingent not nearly as well prepared as a half century ago, but still with about a million soldiers. Costa Rica, for its part, since the year that followed Steinbeck’s visit to the USSR, simply does not have armed forces, abolished as they were by president Don Pepe Figueres, in 1949.
And the constant heat of the Pacific coast here in Central America contrasts with the unstable weather Fedor described to me. “Up there sometimes it’s cold, brrrrr,” he hugs himself, gesticulating. “Sometimes it’s hot,” he smiles. “And sometimes there’s rain with wind,” he finishes. The robust railway and highway system, fruit of the communist regime’s planned economy, must have made the fighter nostalgic, when an insane driver brought him from the capital San José to the resort Los Sueños, on Playa Herradura, where the Mariott he was staying at was located.
Over the almost 50 miles of mountain range, out of the total of 70 which separate the cities, the two-way streets without shoulders, with stretches of traffic jams, broken down cars, accidents and police check points. In order to go over the narrow bridges, one must take turns: there is only one lane for both directions. After two and a half hours that were more exciting than a fight against Mirko Cro Cop, Fedor is then faced with a 1,100 acres development whose construction will provide the local biology students with an entire semester worth of study about environmental impact.
The luxury of the hotel where he stayed from August 20 through 23 would be unthinkable for a man who began fighting in 2000 because he needed money. However, time has been kind to MMA, and especially to the man considered to be the world’s current number one. According to the article “No holds (or kicks, or punches) barred”, published in the New York Times on July 22nd, Fedor is being paid a million dollars per bout.
The amount seems an exaggeration, but, backstage in the UFC, the following week, in Las Vegas; I hear that, when wooed by America’s biggest promotion, this was precisely what he requested in order to leave Pride. Anyhow, the Costa Rican stay didn’t cost him a penny.
It was Canadian billionaire Calvin Ayre, cover of Forbes magazine early this year, and owner of the betting website Bodog.com, based in Costa Rica, who paid for it. In association with the Russian organizers of Euphoria and Mixed Fighting Championship, Ayre entered MMA. And big time.
“The people who used to know our event have no idea of what it has become. Believe me, now it is huge,” says matchmaker Miguel Iturrate.
No wonder. With 120 people working on the production, they filmed a group of 14 fighters during two weeks in Costa Rica. To conclude, they held seven fights from 3 to 11pm on the 22nd, for guests only. The program, similar to UFC’s reality show, will be broadcast in the USA during the weeks prior to November 4, when the winners will face off against a team selected by Fedor Emelianenko, who was invited over for that reason.
Like Roger Gracie, who, representing the same organization, is scheduled to make his MMA debut against veteran Don Frye, in the main event, after this clash between the US and Russia. Since Frye didn’t show up (“His wife didn’t let him come alone, and they couldn’t get a nanny on time, so neither came,”, explained Miguel), Fedor and Roger were the celebrities, placed side by side in the front-row, and with cameras focused exclusively on the two, who talked a bit (“He wished me luck and said his hand is fine,” said Roger – Fedor has been recovering from a surgery due to an injury that dates back to 2003, when he punched Gary Goodridge).
“It was a surprise by the promoters. They offered you Don Frye so that you would accept it and, in the end, came up with Fedor,” I teased Roger. He laughed. Miguel thought it was a good idea. Jokes aside, Roger, like everyone who’s been following the fight scene lately, deems the Russian to be the best fighter on Earth. But it is interesting how, outside the ring and wearing his sneakers and jeans, it is hard to see that.
Roger is more than a head taller than him. “Size doesn’t matter. Did you see what he did to Zulu’s son?” Gracie recalled. He was referring to the champion’s latest appointment in the ring, which lasted but 36 seconds. But what the Jiu-Jitsu standout really liked was the shirt Fedor wore for the three days. Made of black fabric, it bore, on the front, half of the Russian’s face completed by the number one. Beneath, the words: “Nobody beats me.” Sitting on his 23 wins and one duly avenged loss, he is as right as anyone can be.
With the help of Russia’s Victoria Mazepa, I interviewed Fedor for almost one hour on the night of the 21st. He preferred to stand. I seized the opportunity:
“I understand. He never gets tired. Fedor, are you never tired?”
“I do get tired. In trainings.”
“What about during the fights?”
“Never, because I divide my energy according to the time I have to fight. This has always made me hold on and not feel tired.”
It was going to be harder to lower his guard than I had expected. Monosyllabic, he answers questions formally, with the same impassible countenance he displays in his fights.
We talked about the early days of sambo, and how big it’s all become. He didn’t expect it, of course, but he doesn’t feel indebted to the style that provided him the base that brought him to where he is now. He continues to compete in sambo, of which he was the world champion in 2002 and 2005, “because it is a great pride to represent my city and my country. It gives me a lot of prestige.”
Being from a small town like Stary Oskol (in fact he comes from Luhans, now a part of Ukraine, but his family moved out when he was 2, in 1978) made things difficult for him at competitions, before he became a celebrity. He bears some hard feelings: “I had to fight against my opponents and against the referees, for I was from a small town, not Moscow or Saint Petersburg.” It was in the 2000 National Championship that Fedor had his toughest sport fight. Again, he attributed the difficulty more to the refereeing than the level of his adversary.
In MMA, he admits, his greatest obstacles are the fights against Brazil’s Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira. Any of them in particular? “No, they were all hard.” Regarded as a complete fighter, Fedor denies that he trains several styles. “I only practice sambo, but, during my preparation for an MMA bout, what I do is train with boxers, kick boxers, wrestlers, athletes of other martial arts.” Despite being a heavyweight, the Russian moves with the speed of a lightweight.
But, what is the secret for to that? That is the answer everyone wants to know. But he isn’t very helpful here: “There are no secrets, I train a lot… Before my fights, six hours a day, divided into morning (one hour), afternoon (two and a half) and night (two and a half). But what’s most important is that I like to train. This way routine becomes easy.”
He won’t depart from the obvious, apparently. But I’ll try my best:
“Your expression does not change in the ring. Are you cold, or is it just the way you look?”
“I have no emotion in the ring. I am really like that; I try not to let emotions get in the way of my performance.”
“When was the last time you cried?”
“When I was a kid. But honestly, I don’t remember why.”
“And what was the happiest day of your life?”
“The day my daughter [Masha] was born. But I am not cold – I smile, I play, I’m an average person. Only in the ring I have no emotions.”
Or at least, so it seems. Looking for recognition of weakness, I ask about the suplex Randleman gave him in the second round of Pride’s heavyweight GP, in 2004. On that day, Fedor took a trip through space. But when he landed with his neck on the canvas, he didn’t even blink and went smoothly on to a submission:
“Wait a second. That didn’t hurt you at all?”
He scratches the back of his head and, still standing, closes the interview:
“No. I suffer takedowns like that training judo and sambo all the time, so I am used to reacting. At that moment, there is no way to feel pain. Your body needs to react.”
After the conversation, which, although rare for a western reporter – maybe even a first, – was a bit frustrating, I take consolation in reading the following text:
At a dinner at “21” hosted by Tom Brokaw a few years ago, I sat with Putin, his translator, and some other media guests. Putin spoke only when addressed. He parried our questions with reluctant, cursory answers and even an occasional charmless roll of his eyes. In the interviews he has granted to Western outlets [...], he seems to go out of his way to be as boring as possible. [...] With time, it’s become clear that Putin’s blandness and reserve are only part or an innate character and professional posture; they are also a tactical choice [...].
The excerpt is from the story “Post-imperial blues: Vladimir Putin,” published in The New Yorker magazine in 2003 and written by journalist David Remnick, renowned not only for being a specialist in Russia, but for becoming intimate with the characters profiled by him.
He didn’t get very far when he ventured with the supreme commander of Fedor’s country. With the world’s greatest fighter, I managed to go just a tad beyond. The next day, guess what, he started the conversation:
“Where are you from in Brazil? Rio de Janeiro?”
With his face tanned from vacation, he opens a wide smile and adds: