Living in the shadow of a big brother isn't easy.
When you are in the same profession and he's more accomplished and better known, it's hard to stand in the spotlight unobstructed, as your own man. Side by side, the achievements that you've worked your whole life for, that you've gone through hell for in order to become a better person are less dazzling, less impressive when compared to his. You have less say in your fighting future, less media attention when he's caught in a perpetual avalanche of flash bulbs and microphones. You're fighting on the televised undercard when he's headlining the pay-per-view.
Last month I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to spend some time with Aleksander Emelianenko and his family. I wanted to get to know the man, to go beyond the reputation, the rumors. I went to see through the web of tattoos and find out who he really is and what life means to him. To observe him alone, in other words, if only fleetingly.
St. Petersburg, often called the Venice of the North, is only 600 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. Because of the tilt of the planet, during summer in the northern hemisphere, it's light here almost 24 hours a day for most of a month and a half. Celebrating warm weather and perpetual daylight -- it's the exact opposite in winter -- the people here often spend whole nights outside, taking in the atmosphere, sightseeing, partying. The center of the city is beautiful, green, airy, built almost entirely in the same style of architecture dating back to its founding just more than 300 years ago.
I like being here. It's refreshing to hear and see so many foreigners (tourism is still in embryonic stages in Russia, and it's still startling to hear other languages spoken around you). The city gives me hope for the future, glimpses of a Russia that is an inextricable part of Europe, whose citizens feel part of the world community and can come and go as they please. This freedom, what St. Petersburg represents, is perhaps part of the reason Aleksander Emelianenko chose to move here in 2003, leaving behind his home city of Stary Oskol and his past there for good.
Aleks and his family live in a pre-Stalin-era building, not far from Nevsky Prospect -- St. Petersburg's main street and the cultural and business heart of the city. The sprawling, sweeping staircase leading to their top-floor apartment is crumbling, dilapidated, looks like a movie set that had been submerged in deep water for a long time and then drained. The communal interiors of apartment buildings in almost the entire country are the same (particularly from this period or earlier): Mostly everything that didn't belong directly to someone was left to fight its own losing battle with entropy.
In contrast, their apartment is large, modern, airy and cozy. Emelianenko, with his size and ink, looks incongruous amongst the baby furniture and toys, the artwork, the office corner. We settle in on opposing armchairs, Aleksander against a window and next to a very large photograph of him and his wife and decide to let the interview run for as long as it takes. The discussion is only briefly interrupted by the arrival of Olya Emelianenko, their 10-month-old daughter, and two small dogs. Outside, it's suddenly gotten darker and is now raining. Aleks helps with the stroller and we continue, every so often accommodating the opinions of his baby daughter, who's now happily perched on his knee.
Initially I was going to write an article on Aleks based on the interview. However, back home in Moscow, going over the interview material, I quickly understood that I would never be able to fit even a small portion of everything that we talked about into a piece that wasn't the length of a New Yorker magazine article. So I think it's best to leave things as they are, and present the unabridged version of our discussion.
One final point to make. You will inevitably be looking for confirmation or denial of the rumors that Aleks spent time in prison. He steadfastly maintains that he did not. Of his tattoos, he says that they are a collection of beautiful pictures, some of which he designed himself, and that any similarities to those in "Eastern Promises" are purely coincidental.
Sherdog.com: Tell me about your very first memory. Not something that you think is important, but your very first.
Emelianenko: I don't even know. Speaking honestly, my childhood seems shrouded in fog and I really don't remember any specific moments that really stood out.
I do have, you know, fragments. I remember something here. Then when I talk about some occurrence, again I'll remember something else.
I can remember that I was forgotten in kindergarten. My parents had to pick me up, and I almost ended up staying the night with the night watchman because they forgot to. Finally my mother came at almost midnight. They forgot that I was in the kindergarten. I was around 4 or 5 years old.
My mother worked till late, so did my father. They were relying on each other to pick me up, and neither one managed it, and so they forgot about me. I waited with the night watchman, thought that I was spending the night there. She had already made a place for me to sleep, so that I would be ready for the next day. I was ready to go to sleep when they picked me up.
School. I remember school. The very first day. I left. I ran away from school. I have a buddy, a friend who had already been there for a while. We had been going to kindergarten together at one time. His parents asked -- I mean they wrote him a note excusing him after lessons. And he came up to me and dishonestly convinced me that it was OK for me, too, to leave and go home. And it was my first day of school and, I don't know, I ran away.
Then I came home to my mother and her belt. I remember we went to his house to play toy soldiers, other toys. We lived right next to each other. I came back home without a thought, thinking that there was going to be a celebration of my first day. And instead I got it really good with the belt. You can't just leave school like that.
Later I remember I fought at school all the time. I even remember the first time I fought. For some reason I fought with older boys all the time -- those taller, bigger than me. And what's more, I always fought over silly, little things. First time was a week after I got to school, at the age of 6. And we fought not like kids like to -- to push each other with their shoulders or other such things. We fought for real. It was the first time I got hit in the face. I had bruises. But managed to beat my opponent who was about two years older than me. And at that age, even a year, in youth, makes a really big difference. His name was Yura, I think.
Sherdog.com: What do you remember about Yura? Why did you fight?
Emelianenko: He was in a parallel class to me. He'd been at school a long time, was much bigger than everyone else and, as follows, stronger and more arrogant than everyone else. And that's why we got into a fight. I went to try to pit my arrogance, my strength against him. And I hit and hit him, eventually winning and gaining the respect of other students.
He hit me, I hit him. We clinched. I threw him, then hit and hit him once he was on the ground. He screamed until the teachers came and pulled me away. I was one of the biggest kids in my class, which has to be said. Biggest or second biggest in my class.
Sherdog.com: School until the age of 10?
Emelianenko: Yes, I remember. I remember. Until 12 I was a really good student. Then when I transferred … I had a trainer who transferred all the kids who trained wrestling, sambo and judo. The trainer gathered all those kids, from the same age group, into one school, in one class. And so that it would be more convenient, he made arrangements with the teachers for us to go to competitions, to train etc. …
And so at the age of 13 when I moved into this new school, I started getting Cs. So I almost instantly became a straight-C student and began to take my sport more seriously. This was when I was 13. And so that was that. Finished school and went to training school. So. Well, learning came naturally and easily to me, but it was very hard for my teachers to teach me.
Sherdog.com: So why train?
Emelianenko: From the earliest age I wanted to. I wanted to train in sports. From the earliest age. Earlier, when I was little, all of our soccer grounds, hockey rinks were filled. All the kids were doing something. In every yard, in every basement there was some sport to participate in. Karate was starting to gain in popularity. In lots of martial arts schools it was starting to be taught.
But I had already chosen for myself judo from the age of 6, so I continued with it and stood my ground. Just judo and sambo and I didn't deviate away from them. Eventually, just like anyone else within a team, I started arguing with the trainers, leaving the team and dropping judo and sambo. Picking up boxing, training in boxing, then returning to wrestling again. In short, I was looking to find myself in one form of fighting art or another. I like it, I really liked it.
Sherdog.com: Did you ever try any other sports?
Emelianenko: Yes, I tried basketball and really liked it. For example, in the morning or during the day I'd complete my wrestling or boxing training, but I'd know that in the evening the guys would be training basketball. So I'd turn up to their training and tell them that I wanted to learn how to play, and so I'd train with them.
I went and played soccer. … I played many different types of sports. I just really like sports.
Sherdog.com: Which sports teams do you support?
Emelianenko: Well, I was just supporting the St. Petersburg soccer team "Zenit," which just won the UEFA cup. Great work, guys. Then I had to support the Russian national team in ice hockey in the World Cup. They did great and won. Now the Russian national football team is playing in the European championships. I am supporting them. I watch every day, think about the team. They'll win. They'll win Europe. [Russia made it to the semifinals for the first time in more than 20 years but was beaten by the eventual winner, Spain.]
Sherdog.com: I watched the football yesterday in a Russian bar for the first time, with Russian supporters. Lots of swearing. I'd never heard so much swearing in the West from the fans supporting a game, particularly not in an [upscale] bar.
Emelianenko: Is there real swearing in the West? I'm interested.
Sherdog.com: Yes, but it's not nearly as developed and used as it is here [in Russia]. But the funniest thing is that the bar was [upscale] and all the men who were swearing were with well-heeled girls who didn't know what to do at all. The whole bar is looking at their men, and they are sitting there not knowing where to look or what to do with themselves.
Emelianenko: Yeah, no. I think that at functions of this sort it is not necessary at all to take women along. It's better to leave them at home, or send them along to some other event or place. One can always relax and spend time with women, but at events like that, it's better to be among your own kind. To be able to relax completely without feeling self-conscious because of who's present. And the women are probably sitting there not knowing why they have been brought there at all. … They should have left them at home.
Sherdog.com: What kind of a teenager were you in Stary Oskol? What did you do? What were your friends like?
Emelianenko: My friends. My childhood and growing up was, a little … well, not really a little, more like completely -- completely different from what happens now. We were basically left to our own devices and to the streets. Everything took place on the street. The street, she brought us up. Made men out of us. Brought us up. We did everything. Everything that was allowed and everything that wasn't allowed.
Sherdog.com: In more detail please.
Emelianenko: In more detail. I don't even know where to start. We played football. In winter we played hockey [laughs].