"It`s possible to win even lying on your back" â€” Interview by the National Newspaper "Rossiya", February 15-21, 2007.
Q: How were the Russian athletes able to succeed in a sport that is still largely unknown to many sports fans? Perhaps you are the best person to answer this question, since you were the trailblazer, and the first Russian champion.
A: I really was the first athlete from Russia to become the champion of the world in mixed martial arts. However, my success did not come from nowhere. The traditions and schools of similar fighting styles were founded back in the Soviet times, but they were, as they used to say in those days, "on the need to know basis" â€”Â meaning only for the special forces. The history of no holds barred fighting in Russia really started in 1979. At that time, the Russian Airborne Troops (VDV) started holding tournaments in hand-to-hand combat. These were closed to the general public.
In those days, as well as today, the term "no holds barred fighting" was not quite correct. It really should be called Mixed Martial Arts, where the rules allow both grappling and striking techniques from various martial arts. The only prohibited moves are the ones that can damage the health of the participants or are unethical. Athletes under 18 are not allowed to compete either. In the octagon, a fighter has only two pieces of protective gear: a cup and a mouthpiece. Different variations of mixed martial arts have slightly different rules. Some do not allow hitting a grounded opponent; some allow it, but only when it comes to punches and not kicks. In all of the different versions of these tough competitions, a referee closely watches the fighter`s conditions, and if he feels that the health of one of the fighters is in danger he immediately stops the fight. Sometimes that causes a fury of complaints from the team of the losing fighter.
Q: One thing that surprises people when they watch the no holds barred fights for the first time is that one is allowed to hit an opponent who is lying down!
A: The style is a close simulation of street fight conditions. One interesting point is that if the athlete is on his back during the fight, it does not mean that he is losing. For a long time, the Brazilian fighters have shown an ability to defend, counterattack and win on the ground. As our sport becomes more widespread geographically, representatives of many countries learn this art as well.
Q: You compete in trunks, as do other European fighters. The Japanese compete in kimono. Are there any regulations on fighter clothing?
A: Kimonos are not formally prohibited, but they are easier to grab, so the majority of fighters prefer to fight with a bare torso. Japanese wear them, most likely, as an old habit. Other MMA versions also use hand protection, gloves, headgear, groin protectors, shin guards, and mouthpieces. Some versions use quite a variety of protective gear, and some use the very minimum possible.
Q: However, it is common to see blood on the ring in your sport, and it happens even more frequently than in professional boxing. Do fighters have someone similar to a boxing cutman in their team, someone responsible for preventing and treating eyebrow cuts?
A: Someone unfamiliar with MMA might get the impression that the fight organizers truly are interested in fighters getting their faces bloodied. This impression on the part of Pride novices is just an [incorrect] opinion. First, the fight goes ten minutes without a break. Second, it is prohibited to put Vaseline on the eyebrows, since Vaseline can get smeared on the body and make it slippery in grappling holds.
Q: Based on your observations and your personal experience, what is the best age to start studying mixed martial arts?
A: Some elements of mixed martial arts can be learned in supplemental training even in middle school. However, the best option is to start training in our sport after mastering boxing, kickboxing, judo or wrestling. An even better option is to study both a striking and a grappling martial art. There was a guy from Holland who became a champion when he was 17, but such success is rather an exception among the young. I became an International Master of Sports in SAMBO and Judo when I was 22 (International Master of Sport is one of the highest official ranks for athletes in Russia and former USSR. The criteria include placing 1st-5th in the Olympics or the equivalent.Â â€” CF)
However, I left that sport soon after. It was mainly for two reasons. The first one was that I encountered the same unfairness in judging and team selection as Sasha Mikhaylin, our most successful judoka. High praise goes out to him for being able not only to survive, but also for being able to keep proving again and again that he deserved the shot at the championship title. The second reason was that at that time I already had a family, and the sponsorship money from the regional sports organizations wasn`t enough.
Q: They say that you started training Judo rather late.
A: Not really. I studied Sambo and Judo since childhood. I didn`t have enough time to complete the requirements for the title of a Master of Sport before being drafted. Perhaps the draft committee did not look at my file closely enough. Here or there, I was sent to regular army forces. I served in a military firefighter`s brigade. (Fedor is referring to the fact that promising athletes in Soviet Army were often sent to "sports forces", where they could keep studying their sport instead of carrying regular army duty. â€” CF)
Q: Was that more dangerous than no holds barred fighting?
A: If you act according to the rules and listen to qualified professionals, you can avoid getting hurt in either profession. When we put out fires, no one asked us regular soldiers to climb on roofs that were about to implode. However, some guys wanted to show off their bravery and crossed the line.
Q: What were the most serious consequences of doing that?
A: As far as the firefighting is concerned, the most serious cases were burns on some of my colleagues. Some also got gas poisoning. They felt sick and lethargic for several days.
I tried to keep in shape as much as I could. There was no way to practice grappling on our base, so I had to settle for barbells, kettlebells, and running long distance. When I was done with military service, I was hungry for grappling, and I trained obsessively. I met the requirements for the Master of Sport in a year, and met the requirements for the International Master of Sport in two years.
Q: When did you start working in Pride, and who is your manager?
A: I signed the contract with the Japanese PRIDE representatives for the first time in 2002. Both parties were happy with each other once the contract was over, so we extended the contract every time since then. My manager since 2003 has been Vadim Finkelstein from Russia. Before him I worked with Valeriy Pogodin, who represented Russian citizens in negotiations with Japanese companies. However, I was, let`s just say, less than happy with his attitude towards conducting business, and I cancelled our partnership as soon as I could. Later he was in charge of the Sambo Federation, which caused me quite a lot of problems with that organization.
Q: That`s strange. You are a champion in a martial arts style that`s being promoted in Japan. So why do you care about the situation in Russian sport federations?
A: I kept competing for the Russian team in Combat Sambo. They created quite a lot of problems for me on that front. For example, they kept postponing giving me the official sports ranking, despite the fact that I became the three-time World champion in Combat Sambo and promoted the sport around the world.
Q: What`s the level of Combat Sambo outside of Russia and the former Soviet Union?
A: It`s pretty good in Eastern Europe. That`s the case even though the political leaders in those countries stopped being allies of the Russian leadership a long time ago. However, the sports connections and traditions turned out to be more steadfast than political regimes. There are some pretty good Sambo fighters in Greece, France, USA, and many other countries.
Q: In Pride you are smaller in size and weight than your opponents. How are you able to defeat them?
A: As a rule, the advantage in height and weight is accompanied by loss of mobility, coordination and stamina. Actually, I am not that smallÂ â€” I weigh 103 kg (227 lbs). However, most of my opponents in my weight bracket are taller and heavier. Also, in addition to the super-heavy weight bracket, that is 93 kg (205 lb) and over, there are also weight brackets under 93kg, under 82kg, and under 72 kg.
Q: How much time have you spent in Japan?
A: I only go there for the fights, and I arrive just several days in advance to get acclimated, nothing more than that. My training camps are usually held either at home in Stary Oskol (Belgorod region), or in St. Petersburg, or in the mountains of North Caucasus. I trained abroad only in Holland where I worked on my leg strikes with the famous kickboxing coach Lucien Carbine and fighter Ernesto Hoost .
Q: Why would an actively competing fighter train an opponent like you? Or was that just a question of money?
A: No, we are talking about a relatively small amount of money here. It`s mostly about good friendly relations and exchange of experience. I learned some things from the Hollander, and he learned some things from me: grappling techniques, for example.
I never learned any techniques from the Japanese. At this point in time, in my opinion, they could learn much more from me than the other way around. So, you see, one can become a champion in a Japanese martial arts promotion by learning only from Russian professionals. Actually, the same thing is happening in many different sports; the founders of the sport stop being dominant at some stage and have to learn some things from their foreign colleagues.
As a wrestler, I had the most difficulty with fixing the weak spots in my boxing, and later in my kicking technique. After that I learned the submission techniques and other elements of ground fighting. Right now I am getting up to speed on the leg lock techniques. One has to constantly improve in every single element of fighting.
Quite often we see boxers enter mixed martial arts and be helpless on the ground and in the grappling holds, or we see wrestlers who miss painful strikes. These "one-sided" fighters make the lives of their opponents quite easy.
Q: Other than athletes from Russia and Japan, what other countries lead in Pride?
A: Actually, before me the fighters from Russia did not perform that well; as a rule, they lost and got eliminated in the first rounds of the tournaments. So they were not taken seriously. I was the first to be able to win. I am not even talking winning a tournament, but about winning a fight in a major event in Japan.
Before me, the champion of the world for several years in a row was a Brazilian, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In 2003 I won against him on points. A year and a half later we fought again, and that time I was the defending champion. I got an eyebrow cut. If he punched me and cut my eyebrow, he would have won. However, since we butted heads instead, the fight was stopped and I was allowed to remain champion until I could recover. A half a year later we met again, and I won on points again. All three of our fights were very difficult.
Brazilians are very successful in Pride in general. There are others who do pretty well: Americans, Australians, Koreans, Englishmen, Hollanders, and Frenchmen.
Q: Is it true that the most important fights are held on the New Years Eve?
A: The most well-known Pride competition in Japan is held every year on the eve of December 31st, and it gathers around 50-60 thousand spectators. That`s not counting the TV audience, who watch it live on several TV channels. The competition starts at 4 PM local time. My fights in the heavyweight division for several years now have been the last fights of the evening, and they usually start around 8 PM.
Q: Do you have any energy or desire to celebrate the New Year once it the competition is over?
A: I do, and so do my defeated opponents. Nogueira had some defeats, but he always walked off the ring on his own. I also never saw any reason to stay away from the celebration. In general, I noticed that after a victory any injuries heal up much faster and seem less painful than after a defeat.
Q: As a champion, you have rather long breaks between fights. As I understand, you don`t rest much in between fights. What do you do besides training and competing? Do you work as a coach, or a fight instructor for bodyguards, perhaps? Maybe you work as a bodyguard yourself?
A: No, I have no right to loose my focus on training. When I train, I sometimes do teach some things to less experienced fighters, but it is not my main job function. I did graduate with a major in physical training, but I will be able to become a real trainer only after I am done competing on the international arena. I will probably have to combine coaching with some other job, since even well-established coaches do not earn very much. Many of them also manage fighters or work as promoters, or in other words, tournament organizers. It`s a very common situation.
Q: What were the most serious injuries in your career?
A: A broken rib. I broke an index finger once and a thumb the other time. The thumb injury caused me quite a lot of problems, and not just the physical discomfort. It wouldn`t knit well, and the doctors had to work on it for a long time.
Q: Have you ever been knocked out?
A: No, but I`ve been in a knockdown once.
Q: I thought there were no knockdowns in no-holds-barred fighting.
A: It felt like a knockdown. We were exchanging punches, and my opponent covered well and hit me with a wide punch right in the temple. I was rocked. Luckily, he didn` notice it and didn`t rush to take advantage of the situation and finish me off. Soon after, I recovered from the knockdown and won. (It seems that Fedor uses the word "knockdown" to mean "a situation close to a knockout"Â â€” CF)
Q: Some newspapers, including several foreign ones, reported about a joint venture between Van Damme and you.
A: We are not working together yet. So far we`ve had some negotiations and just talked to each other. An interpreter helped us during the first day, but by the second day it turned out that my knowledge of English is enough for a conversation between friends. We weren`t able to train together, since I was tired after the flight. Van Damme was planning to make a sequel to the famous "Bloodsport-2". He wanted me to playâ”˜ Emelianenko, the champion of the world in Pride Fighting Championship. It`s been almost a year since our last meeting. I don`t know what his plans are right now, but our managers keep in touch with each other.
Q: Your younger brothers followed in your footsteps, right?
A: You can say that about Aleksander, the oldest of the two. He is 26, and he is already an M-1 champion. The rules of M-1 are very similar to Pride. It`s a Russian promotion, but a lot of foreigners compete in it as well.
Ivan is 18, and though he has a lot of talent, he does not have enough drive and ambition. However, he is not shooting for huge success either. At the very least, he is not ready for any sacrifices in order to reach certain results, unlike me, for example. And that`s normal. For each his own. Sport, especially martial arts, is not something people should be forced to do.
Notes by Alexander Mikhaylin, a three time Champion of the World in Judo:
I remember Fedor Emelianenko as a very strong judoka. We constantly sparred with each other in training, and both of us held the upper hand at one time or another. We fought in a major competition only once, about seven years ago. I won against him in the final match of some international tournament then. However, right after that I won two gold medals in the world championships, one in the super heavyweight division and the other one in the absolute. My victory over Fedor Emelianenko was not easy, and that`s understandable. He was a very tough opponent for anyone.
Today, I can`t really evaluate all of the pluses and minuses of him as a candidate for the national team back then. I have also changed a lot since that time. However, his distinctive characteristic has always been the untamed desire to fight. Even when he lost the match, he fought until the very end, trying to use even the smallest opportunity to win. Many major sport teams would have wanted to have a strong heavyweight judoka like Emelianenko on the roster. However, the competition among the super heavyweights in the Russian national team has always been exceptionally strong. It would have been very hard for him to overcome it, especially when it was combined with sports politics. In that situation, Fedor, to put it bluntly, got fed up and transitioned to a different sport where he now has no equals.
Thanks to Fedor, the Russian fighting school has improved its reputation among martial arts fans in Japan and, actually, in other countries. I wholeheartedly wish him new victories, and I will root for him in all of his fights.
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