Commentary

Emelianenko learning the ropes -- outside the ring

Fedor Emelianenko might be the best fighter in mixed martial arts today. If he's to become the most marketable fighter and cross into the mainstream though, he'll need more than fast hands and a killer instinct. That's where his management team comes in.

Originally Published: August 30, 2008
By Loretta Hunt | Sherdog.com

Fedor EmelianenkoDave Mandel/Sherdog.comFedor Emelianenko, top, might be on top of the MMA world, but if he's to become a household name, he'll need to brush up on his English.
LOS ANGELES -- "Happy Secretary's Day."

Fedor Emelianenko repeats the words into a portable microphone set up in a back area inside "Big" John McCarthy's gym in Valencia, Calif.

A sound recordist enunciates each syllable again, hoping the soft-spoken Russian will pick up on the subtle corrections. Emelianenko recites the telephone greeting again thoughtfully, struggling to mimic what he's just heard to make the technician happy.

It's a rare moment in which the world's greatest fighter seems almost … vulnerable. It only lasts for a moment.

Ten minutes later, Emelianenko is back in the gym, standing inside a boxing ring raised a few feet off the floor. A camera crane hovers over the grinning fighter's head, while a staff of 30 people congregates around TV screens and more cameras that peek between the ropes from all different angles.

Today the gym has become the set for an episode of Fox Sport Network's "Sports Science," which has enlisted the master grappler to demonstrate the finer points of chokes and holds.

The director yells "Action!" and Emelianenko takes McCarthy's back in the blink of an eye, clutching the 6-foot-4, 280-pound retired referee like a koala bear hugging a thick tree trunk. A 15-year fixture around the sport, McCarthy has grappled with the greats, from the infamous Rickson Gracie to the cunning Randy Couture to the incredibly flexible B.J. Penn.

Still, McCarthy doesn't seem quite ready for the fluidity and speed with which this pudgy, unassuming-looking man moves. Nobody in the room does really, and that is part of what makes Fedor, well, Fedor.

"He's very explosive in his hips with very fast movements," McCarthy says afterward. "He's very quick in trying to move to those positions that he wants to get to with that explosiveness. He's just a phenomenal athlete."

Is Emelianenko as good as his 28-1 record suggests?

[+] EnlargeFedor Emelianenko and Tim Sylvia
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMITim Sylvia, bottom, knows Emelianenko is that good.
Just ask Tim Sylvia, who fought "The Last Emperor" at Affliction "Banned" on July 19 and questioned if Emelianenko was human after the 6-foot-8 Sylvia crumbled to a short series of punches that lasted all of 36 seconds.

Ask the 15,000 raucous spectators who witnessed the fight in Anaheim, Calif., their mouths dropped open, astonished that the two-time former UFC heavyweight champion could be folded with such efficiency.

William Lamb, of Blue Entertainment Sports Television (BEST), which has handled Emelianenko's endorsement deals in the U.S. and beyond for more than a year, believes the Sylvia fight answered a lot of questions among potential sponsors who hadn't seen the fighter ply his trade before.

"There was such an unknown quantity about Fedor," Lamb says. "Was he going to be like the former Pride guys that went to the UFC and maybe lost or had some vulnerability? There were all these questions about his striking ability, different aspects of his game, and I think he answered all those critics."

In Japan during the earlier part of the decade, Emelianenko's talents knew no rival. The sambo world champion debuted for Pride Fighting Championships in 2002 and never looked back as he cleared through a colorful division that included a handful of the world's elite specimens.

But when Pride closed up shop in March 2007, its undisputed heavyweight champion was forced to fend for himself like all the rest. The U.S. MMA market was on an upswing with the UFC and "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV show in the driver's seat, so many fighters migrated there. But Emelianenko's management wouldn't succumb to the promotion's stringent contractual obligations, so Emelianenko has floated between other organizations, agreeing to one fight at a time.

In a market dominated by all things UFC, BEST's challenge has been to educate sponsors, media, and fans to the fact that the world's No. 1 fighter competes outside of the world's No. 1 promotion.

The company has had to take it one step at a time. Even purchasing a piece of real estate on Emelianenko's shorts for his July 19 fight was met with hesitation at first from some traditional MMA companies.

"Prior to the fight, no one wanted to take a chance, no one wanted to sign up because they didn't know what they were going to get," Lamb says.

Thirty-six seconds and a few hours later, however, the same companies called back offering twice the asking price to place their logos on the fighter's trunks in his next bout.

The goal now is to reach beyond the usual suspects who advertise in MMA.

"It's more associating him with winning and mainstream brands. Fedor can take the sport to another level and that's what we're trying to pursue," Lamb says. "We're looking for the Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Reebok, Puma company to take the sport to the next level, that sees the passion of the sport and why Fedor is different than any other fighter."

Lamb and BEST -- which juggles everything from sponsorships and endorsements, press, strategic partnerships and television deals for its clients -- believe Emelianenko's uniqueness could earn him the same notoriety of fellow clients like Andy Roddick and Reggie Bush.

"Fedor is a remarkable fighter. He's the Mike Tyson of MMA, that guy that is so explosive and so dominant in this sport," McCarthy says. "The biggest problem is he's Russian and a lot of people here in North America don't know him. The hardcore people know him, but the average fans don't really know how good he is."

Four trips away from his Russian homeland in the past year have served to saturate the Fedor brand into U.S. consciousness. Emelianenko has been up to the task, though his inability to speak fluid English has slowed down the process.

"He will work at doing press, at doing photo shoots like it's his training, like it's his job. He takes it very seriously," Lamb says. "The second he gets off the airplane to the second he leaves, he's doing something. Whether it's an interview or a dinner with potential sponsors or a photo shoot, it's all in a row. He doesn't get a break."

Virtually all of Emelianenko's interviews are conducted through a translator, which makes it difficult for the media to ascertain the man behind the impish grin and relaxed demeanor.

BEST, perhaps wisely, has chosen not to pressure Emelianenko to speed up his foreign language studies at this time. For those that dig a little, the quiet 31-year-old is a fascinating dichotomy of character -- a calculated killer in the ring and a scholar who reads Dostoevsky and paints in watercolors outside of it.

However, Lamb does understand that the time will come when Emelianenko might get the opportunity to sit across from Jay Leno or David Letterman, and it's one they don't want to pass by.

"He understands English. He speaks it," says Lamb. "What's going take some time is getting him comfortable conversing in it. Now he's at a point where everybody's listening to him, so when he speaks English maybe something doesn't translate or he makes a mistake and it's everywhere. I would be hesitant in his situation as well."

Emelianenko isn't without his charms. The "Sports Science" crew can attest to that, based on all the times Emelianenko flashed his affable smile or nodded his head gently in pleasant agreement.

The man of little words also seems to excel when he interacts with his fans, and appears truly grateful for the praise he receives from them.

"In New York, there was this huge line of people wanting Fedor to sign things and he just dug in and enjoyed meeting these people and taking photos," Lamb remembers. "Nobody was paying attention with cutting the line off and he just kept going and would have kept doing it if there had been 10,000 people in line. He really does like associating with his fans."

While Emelianenko seems more at ease snapping off a picture or signing one of his Japanese action figures than he does sitting down to a TV interview, not every fan will get the opportunity to meet him at his most approachable angle.

That's where BEST comes in. Selling a non-English-speaking athlete to the American masses has taken a year's work so far and could take another one on top of that, but it certainly doesn't hurt that this athlete is widely considered the best of his kind to ever walk the planet.

"He doesn't have that bombastic personality. He's very quiet, unassuming and humble, so it's hard to get people to know who he is," McCarthy says. "But he is the best heavyweight fighter out there and people need to know how good he is because they should want to see him fight."

When Emelianenko returns to the states in October to watch Affliction's second event in Las Vegas, that's just what BEST will try and convince people of.

Loretta Hunt is a contributor to Sherdog.com.