Before I saw Fedor Emelianenko fight, I thought mixed martial arts was a debased and debauched distraction for frat boys and thugs, more evidence of the slow demise of civilization, as if more evidence were needed.
After I saw Fedor Emelianenko fight, however, my life was completely rearranged. Time I used to spend watching the NBA, reading books, and cultivating meaningful human relationships I started filling with sparring sessions and endless hours watching UFC fights. I used to want to write about movie directors and the creative process; these days I prefer hanging around gyms rhapsodizing about particularly clever kickboxing combinations. This is all Emelianenko’s fault. Not since John F. Kennedy squared off with Nikita Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis did so much on the influence of a pudgy, balding Russian.
Our story happened this way:
A few years ago I read an article in ESPN magazine about back-alley bareknuckle-boxing king-turned-prizefighter Kimbo Slice. Despite a lifelong aversion to violence, I was curious about the YouTube streetfights that had made Slice so famous, and after watching him pound down a rag-tag assortment of street toughs I decided (as I’m sure many did) that he must be the toughest man in the world, impervious to pain and impossible to defeat.
Then I went back to reading the ESPN profile and learned that a lot of professional MMA fighters thought Slice was a joke who wouldn’t last two minutes in a real fighting ring. I couldn’t even begin to imagine a world where that was possible, not after what I had witnessed. So I once again set my squeamishness aside and starting watching any MMA videos I could find.
It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon footage of a stone-faced Russian Everyman who, in fight after fight, did away with his opponents with a bizarre calm. This man didn’t live up to any of my preconceived notions about cage-fighters. He had no tattoos. He didn’t seem to relish causing pain. He didn’t brag, he didn’t boast, he barely even seemed to speak. He appeared to be entirely free of muscles, his body covered in a thick layer of flab. After beating former UFC champion Mark Coleman’s face into a bloody mess, he cheerfully patted Coleman’s small children on the head, as if to assure them that he wasn’t a monster but an avuncular figure in tight shorts. I read stories about this quiet family man from a frozen town somewhere in rural Russia who trained by dragging anvils around the forest and spending hours purging himself in a ramshackle homemade bathhouse, and who sought religious guidance from a Russian Orthodox priest who looked like a character from a Dostoyevsky novel. And I became fascinated by his fights: Time and again he seemed to drag himself placidly from the brink of defeat. He never lost. Not once. Opponents told tales of his superhuman strength and unexpected speed.
In short, Fedor Emelianenko was the best possible introduction to MMA for a guy like me. As long as I believed mixed martial artists were untrained, bloodthirsty, tattooed brutes turning their love of bar fighting into quick cash, I was never going to be able to stomach it. But watching Fedor fight, I realized that these guys were not thugs but finely trained athletes who view mixed martial arts as much as an opportunity to transcend themselves as cause harm to other people. Not that they don’t enjoy causing harm to other people, and not that I didn’t come to enjoy watching them do it: It’s just that there was something more to the sport than I thought was there at first. And so, a long and distracting love affair was born. Fedor, who in his day was considered by many to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time, retired a few weeks ago after knocking out an overmatched and way-past-his-prime Pedro Rizzo in an unheralded bout in Russia. Very little fanfare accompanied the announcement. Russian President Vladimir Putin shook Fedor’s hand, but otherwise, he could have been any fighter calling it quits after more than a decade spent earning a living by hurting other men.
Fedor had long before lost his air of invincibility, losing three fights in a row in Strikeforce between June 2010 and July 2011, a run that confirmed for many that he was never that good in the first place, that he had made his reputation in promotions filled with half-talents and easy marks. MMA chat rooms and blogs buzz with debates about Fedor’s place in history. Some point to his 31-fight win streak and say he’s the best ever. Others point to the fact that he never fought in the UFC (the result of longstanding contract disputes between UFC and his management company M1 Global) and say he’s overrated, that he spent as much time fighting tomato cans and carnival acts as he did real fighters (which is true), and that he never really fought the sport’s best (which is not). But that debate doesn’t mean much to me. Fedor will always be the man who introduced me to the greatest sport in the world and who convinced me that athletic genius can be found anywhere, even tucked away in what could best be described as the body of an amateur bowler—unsculpted, unchiseled, but unbowed.