The UFC’s courtship of Fedor Emelianenko, the man often considered the greatest heavyweight fighter in the world, has been ongoing for nearly two years. To die-hard MMA fans, the past two years have seemed like an eternity. Ever since Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, purchased the Japanese fighting organization Pride FC in March 2007, the UFC has been in hot pursuit of Fedor.
Emelianenko is often referred to as “the Last Emperor” but most fans simply know him as “Fedor”. Fedor rose to prominence in the past decade by defeating every opponent that has ever set foot in the ring with him. During and after his Pride FC career, Fedor defeated 5 of the 12 men that have held the UFC’s heavyweight title. Josh Barnett could have been the sixth former UFC champion defeated by Fedor, but that fight was canceled after Barnett tested positive for a banned substance. His lone loss in 32 professional fights was to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka when he was cut and unable to continue in the first round of a fight back in December of 2000. He later went on to avenge that loss by defeating Kohsaka at Pride Bushido 6 in 2005.
Fedor had a non-exclusive, non-transferable contract with the owners of Pride FC so that when the organization was purchased by Zuffa, the contract Fedor signed was nullified leaving him as a free agent. Early in their pursuit, the UFC seemed close to signing Fedor to a deal in September of 2007. One point of contention that arose was Fedor’s insistence that he be allowed to compete in Sambo competitions. Sambo is a Russian martial art that stands for “self-defense without weapons” and is similar to today’s mixed martial arts. The UFC’s firm stance on an exclusive deal with Fedor was seen as a primary reason that the deal ultimately unraveled.
Shortly after the UFC deal failed, it was announced that Fedor had signed an exclusive deal with M-1 Global. At the time, M-1 had just been purchased by an American entertainment company but the company was formerly owned and managed by Fedor’s manager, Vadim Finkelstein. Finkelstein still owns Red Devil Sports Club, the facility that Fedor and other Russian fighters train at, and continues to serve in the role of CEO of M-1 Global.
In addition to the missed opportunity of signing Fedor, the UFC suffered another major setback when at-the-time UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture unexpectedly resigned from the UFC, citing the UFC’s inability to sign Fedor to a fight with Couture as one of the primary reasons. Couture also felt he was treated unfairly by the organization with regards to compensation and how he was being promoted. Other fighters, most notably Tito Ortiz and Roger Huerta, have been critical of the UFC’s compensation practices in the past. After a long, drawn out court battle, Couture eventually rejoined the UFC after finding it too difficult to get out of his UFC contract.
Meanwhile, Fedor fought two times in 2007 against suspect competition since leaving Pride FC. His first fight was against Matt Lindland in St. Petersburg, Russia in April that year. While Lindland was considered a top middleweight fighter and highly regarded in the MMA community, he was fighting against an opponent that weighed nearly fifty pounds more than Lindland’s normal fighting weight of 185 pounds. Fedor submitted Lindland with an armbar in just under three minutes. Fedor’s next fight was on New Year’s Eve in Japan against Hong Man Choi, a 7’2” giant with only one professional MMA fight. Fedor submitted Choi in just under two minutes with an armbar.
Fedor’s lack of competition drew criticism from Dana White, the outspoken president of the UFC. White often claimed that Fedor had not been facing top competition and should not be considered among the heavyweight division’s elite fighters. The fiery White also frequently referred to Fedor’s management team as “the crazy Russians” and was clearly out to tarnish the elite status of the fighter that got away. Rumors circulated that M-1 and Fedor were demanding that the UFC build a stadium in Russia as a condition for signing Fedor. Barbs were traded in the media between White and M-1’s management with an array of unanswered challenges issued by both sides. A one fight contract was proposed by M-1 Global but was promptly shot down by the UFC. The UFC was unwilling to market Fedor for one fight when he could then promptly leave with the recognition and accolades that a UFC victory and their marketing machine would provide.
M-1 Global ended up partnering with MMA apparel company Affliction to promote a fight between their prized asset Fedor Emelianenko and the former UFC champion Tim Sylvia. The Affliction promotion’s inaugural fight took place in Anaheim, California in July of 2008 and featured a host of other top fighters including Vitor Belfort, Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett. In the main event, Fedor promptly dropped Sylvia with a flurry punches and hopped on his back to sink in a rear naked choke in just 36 seconds. Affliction and M-1 claimed the event was a success and they had clearly built some momentum with the show. However, it was estimated that an inflated payroll and modest pay-per-view buys failed to produce any profit for the show’s promoters.
Dana White was critical of Affliction and their attempt at competing against the UFC. He banned UFC fighters from wearing Affliction clothing or promoting them in anyway inside the Octagon or cageside. White predicted their demise due to their inexperience in promoting fights and lack of depth and talent in their roster of fighters.
The next Affliction event featured Fedor again in the main event against another former UFC champion, Andrei Arlovski, in January of 2009. Fedor triumphed again knocking Arlovski out with a big right hand just over three minutes into the first round.
The next step for Fedor would be a 2009 matchup against Josh Barnett, another former UFC champion. Affliction had sunk a lot of money into the first two fights and the pressure was on to make this fight a successful one. In a devastating turn of events, less than two weeks before the fight between Barnett and Fedor, Barnett was denied a license by the California State Athletic Commission because he tested positive for steroids in a pre-fight drug test. Affliction scrambled to find a replacement for Barnett so the fight could go on but they were ultimately forced to cancel the fight because they were unable to find a suitable replacement and promote the fight in such a short period of time. Shortly after the cancellation, Affliction announced they would no longer promote MMA events and would renew a sponsorship with the UFC.
This turn of events left many MMA fans hopeful that a deal could be struck between the UFC and Fedor as the number of organizations left for Fedor to fight in was diminishing quickly. In the fall of 2008, EliteXC was forced to close down after their heavily-promoted, popular fighter Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson was knocked out by a last-minute replacement for Ken Shamrock, Seth Petruzelli. Now, Affliction was suffering a similar fate to EliteXC leaving the UFC and Strikeforce as the only major American promotions for Fedor to sign with. Earlier this week, with Fedor and M-1’s management team in the United States, meetings were set up to discuss a possible contract signing with the UFC. Several rumors of an imminent contract signing between the two parties were buzzing through the MMA community only to leave fans once again disappointed. On Wednesday, M-1 Global held a press conference to inform the media that a deal was not close and that terms were unacceptable. The main point of contention between the two parties centered around M-1’s insistence that they be permitted to co-promote the event. The UFC was understandably against these terms. As the top fight promoters in the world, they would gain nothing from such an agreement except the services of M-1’s top asset, Fedor. Additionally, they would be putting M-1 on the map as a legitimate MMA promoter which they currently are not.
At this point, Fedor’s options are limited. He had a meeting with the Strikeforce promotion to discuss a potential contract. But signing with Strikeforce would be a limiting option because they have few top heavyweight fighters to face Fedor. Brett Rogers and Alistair Overeem are the top heavyweights in the promotion, but neither is widely known to a mainstream audience. The other possibility for Fedor’s next move is to fight in Japan. While MMA is immensely popular in Japan, the organizations based in Japan (DREAM, Sengoku and others) don’t have the global reach or lucrative financial opportunities that the UFC could potentially bestow on a champion fighter. There also aren’t many high caliber heavyweight fighters in Japan for Fedor to fight against.
The only thing that the UFC and Fedor’s camp can agree on is that they are far apart in reaching a deal. The UFC has already started to build hype between a blockbuster fight between current heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and Fedor. A fight between these two superstars would almost definitely be the biggest fight in the history of mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, for the fans this dream matchup is looking more and more like it will never pass beyond the stage of hype.