When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cold War between the US and Russia essentially ended. Despite the cooling of political relations, in the last couple of years we have witnessed the growth of a Cold War in mixed martial arts. On one side is the UFC, the superpower of MMA organizations; on the other, stands Fedor Emelianenko, an MMA superpower in his own right. The problems between the Russian and the US-based UFC came about for many of the same reasons that the political conflict existed: a mixture of pride, misunderstandings and lack of communication.
There is a bit of confusion regarding who is to blame for the negotiation problems between the UFC and Fedor’s management. Fedor’s camp has made accusations that the UFC wants their champion to be American and that the UFC has no interest in promoting the sport in Russia. Dana White claims that Fedor’s management had outrageous demands, such as wanting the UFC to build a stadium in Russia. Of course that’s not accurate. Affliction secured Fedor on US soil and didn’t need to build a stadium. It’s just an example of the UFC using the Cold War tactics of disseminating information taken out of context in order to indoctrinate their fans.
Even though the UFC isn’t interested in building a stadium in Russia, the UFC has offered Fedor some extremely lucrative contracts. In fact, Fedor’s manager, Vadim Finkelstein once mentioned after the demise of Pride that the UFC offered Fedor the most money out of all the promotions. However, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement because Fedor wanted to compete in Sambo and the UFC wasn’t willing to allow one of their top fighters to compete in another combat sport, in case of loss or injury.
While organizations like Strikeforce, Dream, and Sengoku are able to have weight classes that are meaningful and could arguably be compared to their Zuffa counterparts, the truth is that from middleweight to heavyweight, the UFC really can claim to be the “ultimate proving ground” for fighters looking to cement their claim to greatness. In contrast to the way things were when Pride existed, the UFC has done a great job of building up their heavyweight division over the last couple of years. In my opinion Affliction hasn’t been able to offer Fedor the type of opponents that he needs to truly cement his eternal legacy. Fedor’s Affliction fights seemed impressive immediately after they happened but beating Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski has proved surprisingly unimpressive now that both of those fighters were humiliated in their last fights. One would arguably have to look back to Fedor’s fight with Cro Cop – or perhaps even further to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – in order to find a fight in which Fedor faced legitimately top-level competition. Even a win over Josh Barnett at Affliction “Trilogy,” while notable, is not particularly awe-inspiring considering the quality of opponents that Josh Barnett himself has been facing in the last few years.
In the same way that Marxism translated just as well in China as it did in Russia, MMA has recently started to experience a growth in popularity in China. The Art of War Fighting Championship is hosting a huge card on July 18 at the Beijing Olympic Sports Center. The Art of War is making an aggressive move into the sport and they have put a lot of effort into promotion. Along with a heavy US press presence, the Art of War also secured the services of referee Big John McCarthy and ring announcer Michael Buffer. The Chinese organization is also hoping to appeal to hardcore fans by returning to Pride rules, using pro-wrestling theatrics and deciding that fights not finished within the allotted time are counted as a draw, in an effort to encourage fighters to be aggressive. It’s too early to tell right now whether the Art of War can offer legitimate competition with the UFC but it certainly seems like the promotion has a smart growth plan and could be around for awhile.
While there’s no denying that the UFC is the preeminent MMA organization, they are certainly aware that there is competition out there from people with deep pockets, like Affliction, Dream, and The Art of War FC. Feeling the heat and attempting to make a dent into the European market, I wouldn’t be surprised if the UFC will privately express interest in signing “The Last Emperor” to a one-fight contract, like they did recently with Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. However, just like it was with Cro Cop, Fedor wouldn’t be brought in to face a top UFC contender. The only way the UFC would cross-promote with M-1 Global is if Fedor was brought in to fight a can on one of the UFC’s European cards, or if M-1 agreed to the UFC’s terms. Fedor versus the likes of Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar would have to wait until Fedor signed the UFC’s “Champion’s Clause,” which restricts their titleholders from competing in another organization while holding the UFC belt.
There’s significant difference that exists between boxers like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, who are considered the greatest because they consistently faced top competition, and boxers like Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr, whose legacy will always be somewhat tarnished by their lack of relevant opponents. Many ardent fans argue that Fedor’s legacy does not need to end under UFC’s umbrella. Fedor fought the best in Pride and with a record of 30-0-1 (that’s right I said it) it can easily be argued that Fedor has nothing to prove. I disagree. The UFC is by far the most prestigious MMA organization…ever. Unless he steps inside the Octagon, it will be unfortunate, but Fedor’s legacy will be tarnished. Instead of being the Muhammad Ali of MMA, it would be tragic if, fifty years from now, Fedor became like Archie Moore, the greatest boxer that no one has ever heard of.
If Fedor wants to go down in history as the greatest heavyweight fighter ever, he needs to make a run at the UFC belt and take out the behemoth Brock Lesnar. If Fedor beats Barnett, the UFC, for their part, should make Fedor a one-fight deal against a non-contender so that his manager can see that the benefits that the exposure of the UFC can bring. At this point, the idea of both sides coming together seems like a long shot but then again I never thought we’d see Kimbo enter the Octagon. Recently, Dana White suggested that, “Eventually, Fedor’s going to be here. I want Fedor.” White’s comments after UFC 100 seem to offer some hope that a Fedor deal could be close, although as a promoter, everything that White says needs to be taken with a grain of salt.