“Russian soil/ Loves, loves blood.”— Anna Akhmatova
Looking for a quick war to distract attention from his corrupt government, Czar Nicolas II thought he had an easy mark in the Japanese and then proceeded to get his royal ass handed to him. If he had won, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 fails, Stalin dies in obscurity, and Hitler has no early eastern ally. If Japan loses, its arrogant imperial militarism is discredited, China isn’t invaded, Chairman Mao dies in obscurity, Pearl Harbor never happens, and Hitler has no Pacific ally.
On the other hand, without the outcome of that war, there would be no Sambo, a silver lining in the dark, dark clouds of gulags and Great Leaps Forward. Sambo is Russia’s national combat sport, its army’s unarmed fighting style, and a clear descendant of traditional Japanese judo—a case of the defeated learning from the victor,
Sambo was why I endured the gray days and frigid nights of St. Petersburg’s winter when the only sane time to visit is during its summer’s White Nights. The World Sambo Championships were happening, and I wanted to meet and see in action Russia’s greatest Sambo champion, Fedor Emelianenko.
So great has been Fedor’s dominance—three championships in the last three years—that the Soviet-style opening ceremony was dedicated to awarding him a Russia Sportsman gold medal. So great has been his dominance that the wags at fightlinker.com (Canadians, of course) compared his continued participation in this event to Barry Bonds at a T-ball tournament.
While that is nothing to sneeze at, Fedor is also the world’s best mixed martial artist, a sport that invites fighters of various styles to compete against one another with very limited rules. In other words, Fedor is the most dominant fighter in the world: hitting like a Mack truck, kicking like a mule, and having the balance of a Weeble—”Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” (See here, here, and here for proof.) And he does all this in a relatively short (for a heavyweight) 6-foot-tall frame that, while thick, is by no means ripped, making him look more like a Brooklyn corner-store butcher than a slaughterer of giants. (Fedor on right; the opponent he most recently crushed on left.)
Fedor is also everything sportswriters say they want in their champions. While absolutely dominant, he’s also humble, modest, and polite. He never trash-talks or gets into trouble with the law. He’s a patriot who fights for the honor of his country. And his hobbies are watercolor painting and Dostoyevsky scholarship. America hasn’t had a champion who would even know who Dostoyevsky was, let alone read him, since Gene Tunney. Fedor is a credit to his sport, his country—heck, the human race.
But, of course, that’s not what sportswriters really want in our athletes. We want quote-spewing narcissists who attend nightclubs packing loaded guns and shoot themselves in the leg. Writing nice things about good people doesn’t sell as well as writing mean things about assholes. And from a sales perspective, Fedor is the worst of the nice guys—not only is he bland, he’s almost Terminator blank. He enters the ring, destroys his opponents, and leaves as if he were simply picking the newspaper off the lawn. And in interviews, he is almost, if this is possible, more vacant—a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
However, there are rare moments when Fedor flashes a bemused smirk as though he recognizes the absurdity of his occupation. It is a sign of a hidden vein of humor, which, since I didn’t expect to get much out of our scheduled interview, I decided to mine. My goal was to make Fedor laugh.
Our interview was scheduled to happen after his last fight of the day, which everyone assumed would be for the gold. Fedor entered the half-full arena for a semifinal match against Bulgaria’s best. In the opening moments of the 10-minute contest, it was tight, but halfway through the round, the Bulgarian tossed and pinned Fedor. Despite the best efforts of the hometown ref, Fedor couldn’t make up the point differential. (You can see the highlights here; Fedor is in blue.)
The Bulgarian team went absolutely nuts. The rest of the audience was in a state of total shock and disbelief. “Did Fedor really just lose?” asked one member of the USA team. We would have been less surprised if a lone gunman had shot Fedor from the stands.
“Cancel the interview,” I told Ivana, my frazzled, chain-smoking interpreter.
“Why?” she asked. “He lost. It’s a good story.”
“How am I going to make him laugh?” I asked. “It’d be like doing stand-up at a funeral.”
“What?” she asked, confused. “You’ve come all this way.”
A good point.
“OK, OK. … Let me think. … Confirm it.”
Outside the Russian team’s locker room was a line of young boys, Fedor photos in hand, waiting for autographs. It took several knocks before we were admitted. The room was filled with burly, half-dressed Russian fighters. Fedor was in the corner in nothing but his jockey shorts. I wasn’t shocked, because in his MMA fights he doesn’t wear much more, but Ivana, who had no idea who Fedor was, begged out of the room.
“Tell me when he is ready for interview.”
Eventually, Fedor finished his shower and dressed in jeans and an Affliction T-shirt, a major MMA sponsor whose aesthetic style is Goth Barf. I went to find Ivana, who was on her umpteenth smoke break of the day.
I started with easy questions expecting easy answers. After three victories in the last three years, why did he want to fight at the Sambo championships again? “I represent Russia.” Why is it important to represent Russia? “Because I’m a patriot.” What does patriotism mean to you? “Love of the motherland.” How do you feel about your first genuine loss in your professional career? “Not too bad. I made a small mistake, and my opponent used it against me.”
Regardless of Fedor’s insistence on having a translator present, his grasp of English is remarkably solid. I know, because I talked to fellow journalists like Loretta Hunt (on right), who is the sport’s best reporter, about him. I know because at about this point his cell phone started buzzing with incoming text messages. When I’d ask a question, he’d nod, clearly understanding what I was saying, and then check his Cyrillic texts as Ivana translated my questions.
I was running out of time.
I took my first stab at making him laugh with a question about his younger brother, Aleksander, who suffers from second-son syndrome. He has recently been telling gullible foreign journalists about hunting bears in the traditional Russian manner. (When the provoked bear rises on its hind legs, you stick a staff with a U-shaped prong into its neck to keep it upright, and then you stab it to death with a knife.) While certainly more sporting than aerial wolf hunting, the story struck me as the kind of rural legend locals like to feed city-slicker outsiders.
Have you ever hunted a bear? “No.” But your brother has, yes? “I don’t know about my brother,” he replied, and his head dropped in shame. “But I have never hunted a bear.”
It was at this moment that I realized I had tapped into a family dynamic that Fedor found embarrassing. I also knew I had little time left, because the pace of the text messages was increasing, and Fedor was increasingly focused on them.
I had one arrow left in my quiver: Vladimir Putin, who idolizes and identifies with Fedor in the same way Teddy Roosevelt did John L. Sullivan. Both Fedor and Putin are Russian nationalists, painters, experts in Sambo and judo, and stars of martial arts instructional videos. (Putin’s is called Let’s Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin.) Fedor’s nickname is “The Last Emperor” while Putin is Russia’s latest emperor.
“I saw Vladimir Putin’s judo video,” I said. “What do you think of his skill level?”
“When he was young, he was on the Russian team,” Fedor replied. “And I admire his talent.”
“How would he do against you?”
“I am an active sportsman, a practicing sportsman. I don’t know whether he is practicing now.”
This was the moment I was setting him up for: “So, would you let him win?”
For a second, I could almost see his brain light up as he pondered the variety of potential answers to this question and their various implications.
“I don’t think it would be like competing, just practicing, just enjoying.”
As he finished his sentence, he looked at me with a hand-in-the-cookie-jar expression. I smiled wide and patted him on the shoulder.
“You are very careful, very careful.”
Without need of translation, he dropped his head and his shoulders started to heave up and down. Unable to hold back his delight in his artful dodge, he finally let go.
“Heh, heh, heh, heh … heh.”