St. Petersburg Times
Russian Mixed Martial Arts Fighter Wins Fame and Fortune in the Caged Rings of Japan
By Yuriy Humber
Staff Writer, St. Petersburg Times
He is one of Japan’s most famous sporting heroes. Fans beg to know the smallest details of his diet, or how he met his wife. For millions, he is the modern embodiment of a samurai: strong, faithful, skilled, and contained. And he’s Russian.
Fyodor Yemelyanenko, 29, has ruled the mixed martial arts cage of PRIDE, Japan’s most popular combat tournament, for the last two years — its reigning champion since March 16, 2003. Yet, the man nicknamed “The Last Emperor,” for he leaves the ring last — its ruler and its champion — is virtually unknown in his native country, though he says citizens of Stary Oskol, a town of some 200,000 people in central Russia where he was born, often stop him to shake hands.
In the PRIDE tournament, where bleeding noses are as regular inside the ring as popcorn is in the stands, the mere addition of Yemelyanenko’s name to a fighting bill can guarantee crowds of over 50,000 people at the Tokyo Dome, even if entrance tickets start at $65 and cost up to $900 for VIP seats. Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi counts himself a fan. And the country’s young businessmen turn woozy and girly in Yemelyanenko’s presence and beg for his autograph.
When Yemelyanenko walks down Nevsky Prospekt he can relax. The fighter, 1.83 meters tall, weighing 106 kilograms and wearing a navy-blue tracksuit, is unlikely to draw much attention on the main street of St. Petersburg, a city the champion is about to move to from Stary Oskol.
“I don’t mind that,” Yemelyanenko said in an interview. “It makes life easier.”
After all, his entry to the mixed fighting arena was not motivated by a search for fame, Yemelyanenko says. His motivation was far more basic.
“I had financial problems. I was in the Russian national squad for sambo and judo. But, we were facing severe financial restrictions; professional sport had absolutely no backing in terms of money,” he said.
Years of training in self-defense and judo as a teenager, then weights, cross-country runs and extra workouts on top of army exercises during the obligatory two years of service, had molded Yemelyanenko into a top national athlete, winner of the European Sambo Championship in 1997, a runner-up and bronze medalist at three international judo tournaments in 1999.
“I entered my first competition, literally, a week out of the army,” the fighter said. Within a couple of years Yemelyanenko earned the official Master of Sport qualification in judo and sambo, a Russian martial art that is close to judo.
“But after three years competing at the top level, the financial rewards were nothing to speak of. So, I had to search a little.”
By then, Yemelyanenko had an extra motivation to spur on the search. In 1999, the athlete had decided to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oksana, and later in the same year became a dad, nursing a baby girl, which the couple named Maria. The fighter’s personal story — tying the knot with a girl he met during a Pioneer summer camp, where Oksana acted as brigade leader and the teenage Yemelyanenko competed in a sports event — had much to do with propelling the fighter to celebrity status in Japan.
“The image of a caring father, which sometimes runs contrary to the traditional idea of a Japanese salaryman who is forever at work or at meetings with clients until late into the night, has been very important in capturing Asian audiences,” said Yekaterina Korsakova, the Russian representative of Dream Stage Entertainment, or DSE, the company that has organized PRIDE since 1997.
“Japanese viewers see Fyodor [Yemelyanenko], watch the way PRIDE’s combatants express their emotional side in the ring, and it fascinates them,” she said.
“It’s not just a fight pure and simple. The fighters’ backgrounds play a vital role in telling the audience who it is that they are watching. Then, what unfolds in the huge arenas is an entertainment of a very high level, with multimedia, a wind-up of emotions, and of course the showdown. And that last part is definitely real. Just look at the blood,” Korsakova said, pointing to one the magazines DSE publishes to promote the tournament in Japan and abroad.
Contrary to the barbaric image mixed ¸ghting has inadvertently attracted, PRIDE maintains that their tournament has strict rules, “attempting to mimic the realities of an actual ¸ght in the form of a legitimate and honorable sport,” DSE says on its of¸cial web site.
The tournament, the most popular of several similar competitions running in Japan, presents fighters of mixed national and sports backgrounds, practicing a variety of styles from jujitsu to wrestling, in “a match that is still ultimately a sport.”
Fighters ranging from the 2000 gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, Rulon Gardner, to Brazilian Muay Thai champion Wanderloi Da Silva compete for three rounds, the ¸rst lasting 10 minutes, the last two 5 minutes, attempting to win with a technical knockout, through a judges’ decision or an opponent’s submission.
According to PRIDE rules, punching, kicking, wrestling, grappling, and choking are in. Biting, eye thumbing, head butting, attacking the groin, elbows to the head, pulling hair and attacking the back of the head are out.
In practice, Yemelyanenko said the rules are prone to “some digressions.” After a pause, he adds, “in fact, quite often.”
“There are some contestants that fight dirty, even attracting attention to themselves on this very basis,” he said.
For fighters and wrestlers of traditional Olympic sports, in which illegal moves are strictly controlled and mean automatic disqualification, the biggest challenge in the caged ring is confidence, Yemelyanenko said. “Coming over to mixed fighting means starting from zero, means learning attacks and how to deliver blows,” he said.
In 2000, after being spotted by Japanese scouts at a judo championship in Tula, which Yemelyanenko won, he was invited to take his wrestling skill to a Tokyo-based mixed fight tournament called RINGS, also managed by DSE. The RINGS event allows younger fighters and those with less experience to test their prowess in “a more sporty mixed martial arts tournament, [in which] you can’t hit the opponent in the face,” Yemelyanenko said.
For mixed fighting, the sambo champion studied new techniques. “I had to learn boxing, which was a completely new discipline for me. For a wrestler it is hard to accept. All life you grapple [with opponents], and then you have to switch to working in a lot of punches,” Yemelyanenko said, speaking in a soft monotone.
When the fighter arrived for his first match in Japan, in May 2000, months of learning, training, exhaustive repetition of new maneuvers culminated in just a 12-second combat appearance. The fight involved one three-blow combination.
“When I walked out onto the ring I sensed that the opponent was a worse fighter than me. He moved slowly, kept his hands on his belt like a karate kid. I went in with a first attack and it was a knockout,” he said.
Yemelyanenko went on to win the world crown of the RINGS tournament twice in 2001 and was consequently invited to join the senior-class PRIDE event. In less than five years, the Russian champion has recorded 22 wins, 1 loss, and 1 “no contest,” when a match was annulled due to an accidental cut.
Yemelyanenko won two matches despite having his finger broken during the contest. “I thought it had been only sprained, and I didn’t show it to the ring doctors,” he said. Mixed ¸ghters in the RINGS and PRIDE tournaments don’t wear gloves as in boxing, but wear pads on the outside of their arm that allow for very high-impact blows. Cuts and bleeding noses are common.
Over the last four to five years, Yemelyanenko has picked up Muay Thai, kickboxing and persevered with boxing. Nonetheless, on his ¸ghter’s card the style still reads: “judo and sambo.”
“A lot of what I learned from sambo and judo has stayed. Certainly all of the throws. [The skills] have just adapted,” Yemelyanenko explained. “The main thing is that [mixed fight tournaments] are not an arena for a street fight or a brawl. The fighters involved are specialists in their field. And what they perform is their art.”
The champion disagrees that such sporting entertainment necessarily encourages violence or inÿuences youngsters to take to street brawls. The mixed fight tournaments pit “professional fighters against each other,” Yemelyanenko said. “The contestants are thinking people with years of training behind them. They try to catch the rival out, show an audience their class, their style, and its specialty.”
“In Japan, you sometimes see people bring little two-or three-year-olds to PRIDE matches. The sport has a lot of respect,” he said.
Vadim Finkelshtein, a St. Petersburg-based entrepreneur who is the fighter’s manager, said Yemelyanenko’s success has brought recognition and respect to sambo, lifting the prestige of the Russian martial art around the world.
“Before Fyodor, who rated sambo abroad? Everyone thought jujitsu was the best martial art, because Brazilian fighters, [who regularly top PRIDE rankings] used it. Now, sambo has won respect,” Finkelshtein said.
Yemelyanenko has not abandoned practicing his original style in its pure form. The fighter plans to travel to the Sambo World Championships in Prague this month, although admittedly it could be his last appearance as an amateur sportsman.
“My schedule with PRIDE is pretty full and takes away too much energy,” Yemelyanenko said. This is also the reason the champion cites for having little to do with promoting sambo and mixed fighting tournaments in his native country.
“It’s hard for many Russian fighters to get somewhere in professional tournaments such as PRIDE at the moment, which is why Fyodor’s achievement merits him a heroic status,” said Finkelshtein. “Most of the interested fighters are dotted around the country, they have little access to proper gyms or consistent training.”
Only two mixed fight clubs operate in Russia: the St. Petersburg-based Red Devil, which Yemelyanenko belongs to and which is run by Finkelshtein, and Moscow-based Russia Top Team. Both clubs list 30 or more fighters, but very few are of tournament standard, PRIDE’s Korsakova said.
While the success of Russian tennis players abroad has sparked off mass popularity for the sport at home, combat sports, apart from boxing, have had a slow response.
“The first [problem] is Russian television,” Yemelyanenko said. “The media in Russia is not as developed as in Japan. There, the fans are very supportive. They want to know about their idols. They follow the sports very keenly — on TV, in the papers, on the Internet.
“If, in Russia, New Year is a time for broadcasting all kinds of glitz-glamour evenings or musical concerts, in Japan the majority of channels compete to show mixed martial art matches,” he said.
Korsakova notes that the slow spread of Japan-based fighting tournaments to Europe and America is in part due to the caution with which the entertainment companies behind the sport test new markets.
“With the high cost of organizing a PRIDE fighting bill, it aims at a mass audience. And, of course, our company realizes it cannot immediately pack a Russian venue with 50,000 fans. That’s if a venue that size exists in Russia,” Korsakova said.
Meanwhile, the sport has found strong backing in North America, and is broadcast on cable TV in 11 European countries, about 20 countries in the Middle East and Africa, as well as New Zealand and parts of Southeast Asia.
Recent negotiations with Eurosport have resulted in the network agreeing to cover mixed martial art tournaments co-sponsored by PRIDE, which took place in St. Petersburg on Wednesday (Oct. 4) and in Holland in November.
“Except that Eurosport asked us for the fights to be held in a normal ring, not in a cage. For them, if it’s in a ring then it’s a real sport — in a cage it’s not,” Finkelshtein said. “Well, that’s fine with us. We’ll do without the cage.”
As for Yemelyanenko, joined in the last few years in the PRIDE tournament by Alexander, the oldest of his two younger brothers, the aim is to continue competing and earn some more of the financial stability he sought at the beginning. In Japan, product endorsement and TV advertising revenues often double the wages of popular sporting heroes, and Yemelyanenko has no qualms about letting the years of tough fighting pay off handsomely.
“If people know me, they want to see products with my name on them. Globally, [Fyodor Yemelyanenko as a brand] has only started to develop as an image and an industry.”
“I always dreamed of realizing myself as a sportsman,” Yemelyanenko said. “Now, I do work that I love and it pays.”