From all appearances, Fedor Emelianenko's (Pictures) fiercest battle will come not at the dangerous hands of Mirko Filipovic (Pictures), nor the submission acumen of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures), or even the gelatinous, suffocating girth of Zulu, Jr.
Instead, the sport's pound-for-pound king is waging war at the negotiation table, leveraging his considerable status for the sweetest deal possible.
Discretion not being one of the sport's strong points, the legal jiu-jitsu has played out in the various news outlets. UFC President Dana White denounced Fedor's handlers as "crazy Russians," while said handler Vadim Finkelstein told Sherdog.com that the promotion was "very harsh" in their terms and "not that eager to communicate."
Fans have precious little patience for the maneuverings. To their collective mind, Fedor hasn't fought a ranked heavyweight in over seven months, and his conspicuous absence from substantial competition is an annoyance.
Of primary concern to Finkelstein is that Fedor's ancillary interests are protected, including opportunities for his Red Devil squad and a guarantee of his continued participation in Combat Sambo. The UFC is naturally reluctant to agree to the latter, figuring that a loss in a modified MMA bout would be damaging to their investment. (Worse, they can't even promote the winner.)
But Combat Sambo, while certainly a rough-hewn sport, doesn't present the same physical threats as full-bore MMA. Contestants wear headgear, shin pads, and fight under time restrictions: the potential for serious injury, even to Fedor's notoriously brittle hands, is mitigated.
Moreover, Fedor presents as being so far and above the standard talent level in that sport that his involvement, while a risk for a promotion banking on his "baddest man alive status," isn't likely to suffer for the concession. Watch a Sambo bout featuring him and it's little more than a glorified sparring match, televised for the whole of Russia to revel in.
Assuming the worst -- that Fedor is knocked into Belarus by a silent killer on the Sambo circuit -- is that footage any more debilitating to the show than Anderson Silva succumbing to a flying leg lock courtesy of Ryo Chonan (Pictures), or Quinton Jackson (Pictures) getting fed through the ropes after Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) was done with him?
His management's insistence on providing fights for others at the Red Devil gym is not without precedence: infamously, there was Tank Abbott's "recommendation" that the UFC employ Eddie Ruiz (Pictures) during his underwhelming comeback bid of 2003. (Ruiz, who never would've entered the Ultimate otherwise, was battered by Yves Edwards (Pictures).)
If Zuffa was willing to indulge Abbott, it doesn't seem unreasonable to slot the qualified Russian athletes in their WEC series.
Assuming White and his contractual rivals aren't able to meet halfway, it would be a serious blow to both the UFC heavyweight title (which would be rendered as hollow as a malfunctioning Twinkie) and Fedor himself, who would be faced with a serious lack of competition on top of which to construct his legacy.
K-1, while strong in the lighter weight categories, is a Ringling Bros. affair once the scale exceeds 220. If anyone would be entranced at the idea of seeing Fedor square off with genetic mutations like Hong-Man Choi or Akebono, I would suggest you practice a self-lobotomy with a power drill.
Showtime's EliteXC series, while certainly possessed of a desire to have qualified athletes, is still too diluted at this point to offer Fedor any appreciable competition. And the less said about bodogFIGHT, so starved for heavyweight talent that it enlisted a middleweight Matt Lindland (Pictures) to face Fedor, the better.
The sole salvation for a freelance athlete is Josh Barnett (Pictures), who would seemingly be in a position to follow Fedor if he were so inclined.
While Fedor has options outside of the UFC, there's virtually only that one meaningful match on the table outside of their jurisdiction. Anything else -- bouts with Antonio Silva (Pictures), Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures), Jeff Monson (Pictures) -- are novelties at best, wastes of time and money at worst.
(I'll cop to endorsing one perverse bout: seeing Fedor square off with K-1's Melvin Manhoef (Pictures), just for the sheer hell of it.)
Though fans throw tantrums at the UFC's seemingly obstinate demands, they're not without merit. To play Dana's advocate: imagine rewarding an athlete with one of the richest contracts in the promotion's history, scheduling a historic bout with the champion, and then watching it fall apart as Fedor limps off a Sambo mat.
Worse, Finkelstein seems concrete in his demand to pair with the UFC to promote events in Russia. Perhaps that's simply not in their plans right now, or perhaps they'd prefer to do business without being coerced into a partnership. That kind of fine print smacks of unreasonable strong-arming.
At 26-1, with a mythology surrounding him that may even exceed his actual ability, the Russian has incredible bargaining power, and he appears to be exercising it with a sense of infallibility.
Here's hoping he doesn't bargain himself right into obscurity.
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