STARY OSKOL, Russia -- To really understand a man and the choices
that he makes, you have to know where he comes from.
Beyond his public image, beyond your own projecting, you have to
understand his place in the world. You have to understand how he
has been influenced by the physical and psychological
manifestations of his country's politics. Most importantly, you
have to know his outlook on life.
It's easier said than done. Real understanding is often all but
In March, Dream Stage Entertainment sold the PRIDE Fighting
Championships to Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. The Zuffa co-owners
gained rights to PRIDE's fighter contracts, but the most important
contract had expired. Fedor Emelianenko(Pictures), the top heavyweight in
mixed martial arts, was a free agent.
A bidding war ensued. There was strong speculation that Fedor would
sign a multi-fight deal with Bodog. Vadim Finkelchtein, Fedor's
manager, said later that a number of organizations had made offers.
He said K-1's bid was good, but he called the UFC's offer "the most
The UFC's negotiations for Fedor were one of the most discussed
subjects of the year in MMA. In the end, the fighter passed on the
sport's biggest promotion and instead chose to sign a two-year deal
with the newly established M-1 Global.
Shock and speculation, criticism and debate followed. Some of the
disapproval was aimed at the UFC, and some of it was for Fedor.
In the aftermath of Fedor's signing with M-1 Global, I traveled to
Stary Oskol, Russia -- the fighter's hometown -- in an effort to
really understand the man who many consider to be the best fighter
in the world. I went there to understand his decision.
A Fighter is Born
Stary Oskol is a small mining city in the Belgorod region. It sits
on one of the largest iron ore deposits on the planet. Getting here
requires an overnight train from Moscow to Belgorod, then a
three-hour ride through the frozen landscape in a bus that is
sometimes heated, sometimes not.
The city has a bleak, industrial and archetypal Soviet presence in
a pristine setting. It is most beautiful here right now, in the
dead of winter. The uniform concrete buildings -- built to one of
three or so designs like every other Soviet apartment building in
the whole country -- are like so many graying, moss-stained teeth
paradoxically protruding from the white of the snow.
A forest of birch borders Stary Oskol, stretching almost as far as
the eye can see, lost in the frost haze of oblivion. The air here
is pure and crisp and fills the lungs like rejuvenation. It makes
you feel as if you could run forever.
Fedor is still in awe of the nature in Stary Oskol, still struck by
its capacity to give him strength. Seeing him running past the
snow-covered trees as the sleeping forest glides on endlessly like
an ocean, his breath instant condensation in the frost, you can
start to appreciate the man through the landscape. His roots here
sip from the land's strength. This is the foundation of his
However, he was born in Rubezhnoe, Ukraine, in 1976 to Vladimir and
Olga Emelianenko. His father was a steel worker, and his mother had
been trained as a teacher. According to Communist propaganda, they
were an iconoclastic Soviet family.
Soon after Fedor's birth, his father finished compulsory service in
the Red Army and moved to Stary Oskol -- a young, bustling city
then -- to work in the production of construction materials. Left
in Ukraine with his mother and older sister, Marina, Fedor spent
the next two and a half years separated from his father. He was a
sickly child with a weak immune system and was frequently ill.
Eventually, in 1978, doctors recommended a change of climate that
allowed the family to join Fedor's father in Russia.
In Stary Oskol the Emelianenko family lived in a tiny room
originally intended for drying clothes. The room was in a communal
apartment -- a frequent arrangement during Soviet times that
typically housed a number of families in single rooms while the
kitchen and bathroom were shared.
During the weekdays, while their parents were working on the other
side of the city, 2-year-old Fedor and 5-year-old Marina were
locked in the family's tiny room. The little girl looked after her
baby brother just as her mother would have: feeding Fedor, cleaning
him and playing with him until their parents came home in the early
"My soul was torn apart," remembered Fedor's mother, Olga. "I kept
putting in requests to be moved to a different school, even as a
cleaner but closer to my home, so that I would have an opportunity
to come home during my lunch breaks. I was at the end of my tether
when I was taken on as a teacher at School #22, and my children
were given spaces in the school's kindergarten."
Fedor attributes much of what he has accomplished to his mother.
She is hardworking, smart, resourceful. She's the one who taught
his father how to ride a motorcycle. When there wasn't enough money
to feed her three growing sons, she grew vegetables in a makeshift
"My mother not only loves me as a son," Fedor has proudly said,
"but respects me as a person."
Olga Emelianenko also encouraged her son's sambo and judo training.
In fact, she was the one who took Fedor to his first practice.