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 impossible.
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 financially attractive."
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 power.
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 evening.
"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 garden.
"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.