They say iron sharpens iron. It's become an MMA truism, a handy quote tossed out by fighters at Xtreme Couture, the American Kickboxing Academy, and beyond. But before iron can be sharpened it must first be discovered and brought up from the ground - and no place is doing that hard and dirty work better than Stary Oskol, Russia. Iron ore reserves of more than 55 billion tons can be found just outside of town in the open pit mines of the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly. Iron is also being forged daily at a small gym near where the great Russian champion Fedor Emelianenko grew up.
It's there, as well as at Red Devil headquarters in St. Petersburg, that Emelianenko helps build the MMA stars of tomorrow. The best developing talent in Russia has flocked to the team, long the main source of fighters for Europe's leading MMA promotion M-1 Global. As a minority owner, Fedor is the promotion's number one recruiter. After all, it's easy to pitch a young star on your team when you can count the top fighter in the sport's history among your client list. His presence and legacy adds much needed confidence - this is the organization that has guided the greatest fighter of all time to worldwide success. As a young Russian fighter, what could be better?
"The ultimate goal of the promotion is to continue finding new talented fighters and putting on exciting, entertaining events - having Fedor on board definitely adds credibility to the organization when signing new athletes to the roster," M-1 Global head Vadim Finkelstein said, emphasizing to Bloody Elbow that M-1 the promotion is distinct from M-1 the management team. "For Fedor, M-1 is the agent that works together with other established promotions and assists in setting up his fights. Figuratively speaking, I compare M-1 Global to Fedorâ€™s shield, an entity that stands up for and protects his interests."
While the Red Devil "Olympic Dreams" headquarters in St. Petersburg is state of the art, in Stary Oskol the legendary Fedor trains among the men and boys of the town. The fighters put in work at Palace of Sport in a huge open space, originally a basketball court covered with mats. The prospects grapple and strike, learning their craft from Fedor and his coaches. It hardly compares to the amazing gyms you'll find scattered across the United States - but no one is there for the ambience or the perks. They are there to learn from the best.
"Training with Fedor is unbelievable. It's awesome when you get a chance to train with somebody who is way better than you are, who trains on a different and much higher level," M-1 star Mikhail Zayats said. "Fedor taught me how to live as a good man. When you see him train, you realize that in order to be like him and reach his level, you need to work even harder than you ever imagined; and Fedor shows you how to do it."
To a man, his young proteges talk more about how Emelianenko has helped them develop as people than they do about his role in developing their fight game. A new found convert to the Russian Orthodox church, Fedor's approach to life resonates with his charges.
"In training sessions the main thing I take away is learning how he trains," Maxim Grishin said. Like Fedor, Grishin is a small heavyweight, barely tipping the scales at 225 pounds. For him, Fedor is the perfect template. "When you see him training, you're in awe and want to soak up as much as you can to inherit his technique and demeanor. But the thing I admire about him the most are his qualities as a person â€“ to be honest, open and kind."
Kirill Sidelnikov, a 22 year old fighter known as "Baby Fedor" agrees. "For me itâ€™s a huge experience to train with Fedor. He helps me with everything, not only with training but with life in general," he says. "For me Fedor is a man with a big heart. It is a great honor to be able to train with him. I think the main thing I learned from him, is a sense of purpose in my fighting and in life."
Emelianenko's presence has been a boon for M-1 outside the ring as well. Negotiating his contract with Strikeforce and Showtime helped the promotion get in the same room as the decision makers at the premium cable network, eventually leading to a four event contract. The M-1 brass, although proud of their relationship with Fedor, insist that their deal with Showtime wasn't part of a quid pro quo to deliver Emelianenko to the network.
"In terms of leveraging Fedor, we had worked together with Showtime previously and based on Ken Hershmanâ€™s desire to have Showtime televise quality cards showcasing top prospects and lesser known international stars, we certainly broached the topic of incorporating our product into their mix," M-1 Director of Operations Evgeni Kogan said. "We leveraged our existing relationship but the general public should understand that Fedorâ€™s contract and the M-1 Challenge events are separate agreements."
At 34 Emelianenko is already eying life after his competitive career in the cage ends. Fedor has 2 fights left on his current contract and Showtime has an option to offer 1 further fight at the conclusion of the deal. By the end of the year we should know whether the deal has been extended as Fedor is contractually obligated to fight every six months.
His deal with M-1 Global should secure his legacy no matter what he decides to do with his own career. His legacy doesn't exist on old fight tapes, merely as a memory on a fading photograph in a Russian gym. Fedor Emelianenko is building his legacy every day with the fighters he trains and mentors. Their success is his success - figuratively, and as an M-1 owner, literally.
"As part owner of M-1, Fedor has a vested interest to see the brand succeed," Kogan said. "His fighting career has secured him financially but there will come a day when he retires, when this will happen only he can say. But when this day comes, Fedor will always continue to be involved in the sport and having a share in Europe's leading mixed martial arts promotion will not only provide financial benefits but will also ensure his legacy lives on."
The champion himself puts it simply. "I hope that the stars of tomorrow will always have a platform to showcase their skills," the legendary Emelianenko told Bloody Elbow. "Iâ€™m proud that I can contribute to the sport after I move past competing."
by Jonathan Snowden