Four Russian officials were assigned the task of regulating the Eurasian Fight Nights 50 main event between Fedor Emelianenko and Fabio Maldonado. At a glance, it appeared to be standard practice in the Russian Federation - local referees and judges outnumber their foreign counterparts significantly.
However, on this particular occasion, the four officials were tasked with judging and referring their own boss, thus revealing a glaring conflict of interest that potentially impacted the outcome of the fight in various ways.
While many anticipated a showcase victory for the Russian heavyweight legend, who handpicked the light-heavyweight UFC veteran from a list of potential opponents, it turned out to be one of Fedor's most difficult fights in recent memory. The 'Last Emperor' received a vicious beating from his Brazilian foe in the opening round and was dropped on various occasions. It was a baffling sight for the crowd in attendance and many believed that it should have been stopped in the opening round of the contest. Instead, however, referee Victor Korneev allowed Fedor ample time to survive until he was eventually saved by the bell.
Fedor later mounted a comeback and won the following two rounds of the fight with increased output against a seemingly gassed Maldonado. Despite Fedor's courageous turnaround, fans and pundits alike suggested that a fair score would be a draw based on a 10-8 opening round for Maldonado and two 10-9 scores for Fedor thereafter.
Instead, the fight was announced as a "majority decision" for Fedor by renowned Russian announcer Alexander Zagorsky, and the crowd was left to ponder whether they had just witnessed some predictable shenanigans in St. Petersburg.
Several days ahead of the anticipated Fedor vs. Maldonado showdown, the Russian MMA Union assigned the three judges who would be responsible for the scorecards in the main event: Evgeny Gribkov, Alexey Gorokhov, and Maria Makhmutova.
The announcement came as a surprise to many within the industry. The three officials were Russian natives for a contest that pitted a Russian against a Brazilian fighter. The shocking elements was that the Russian MMA Union was actually headed by Fedor himself. The legendary fighter is the unanimously voted president of the association several years prior and still maintained that role behind the scenes.
While reports suggested that Fedor had surrendered his position as president when he decided to return to professional competition in 2015, that was certainly not the case. Fedor was present at the MMA Championship of Russia, which took place in Orenburg. A Russian MMA Union press release on the event clearly referred to Fedor as the "President of the Union of Russian MMA."
Though this does not necessarily suggest that Fedor handpicked the officials himself, it does accentuate the conflict of interest involved in that main event. The referee and judges were assigned by the same organization that Fedor is in charge of - the only MMA federation certified by the Ministry of Sports in Russia.
This also does not suggest that the officials involved in the contest were part of a grand plan to ensure Fedor's victory. Yet it does highlight the predicament they were placed in. It cannot be too comfortable to have to analyze your boss' performance and potentially inform him that he is not the victor.
No officials should have to deal with that conflict of interest.
The majority decision in Fedor's favor was eventually revealed as a 29-28, 28-28, 29-28. The one official to score the fight a draw was also the only female assigned for the tournament: Maria Makhmutova. Unfortunately for Maria, she was later placed on national television and forced to answer questions about her "questionable" scorecard. She was the only official asked to do so.
A portion of the transcript has been attached below (via MatchTV):
The first round you have counted 10-8 or 10-9?
The rest, it turns out, Fedor?
You worry much. Your excitement due to the fact that the result has not converged with the results of the other two judges?
No, it's not because of the draw. Fedor is very close to me. Firstly, it was very difficult to look at it, almost without showing emotion. Secondly, always hard to make a decision not in favor of a person who you are close to. But the judges have to be judges, it is work. I think Fedor will understand.
With someone consulted with you about the damage Fedor took?
I looked at the general condition of Fedor and saw that the eye has been closed after the first round. As a fighter decision still takes a doctor. And if the doctor told me that the fight should be stopped, I would have stopped the fight and would not argue with the doctor.
If you were the referee, would have stopped the fight?
Yes, I would have stopped. In Russia, MMA tournaments are run by a judge from the Union of MMA in Russia, the organization created by Fedor.
Makhmutova, who later revealed that she was trained by 'Big' John McCarthy, pulled no punches during her interview, and confirmed the conflict of interest present during the main event. MatchTV, the national sports outlet that took over from Russia2 in 2015, also had a keen interest in the outcome of the fight, given that one of the network's producers, Batu Hasikov, is one of the founders of EFN.
The decision was disputed in Russia, as well as by fans who tuned in on UFC Fight Pass. Sergey Kharitonov suggested that the fight should have been deemed a draw, while Khabib Nurmagomedov's father and longtime coach explained that the concern was the idolization of Fedor in Russia.
"At home, we support our legend Fedor but in another country, this is at best a draw!!" Abdulmanap revealed on his social media accounts. "This cannot go on forever and I think we are guilty in the first place. We were spoiled by Fedor's convincing victories for many years. MMA is waiting for new heroes in the heavyweight division."
Another leading official present at the event was Radmir Gabdullin, a former M-1 Global fighter who is infamously known for being an avid supporter of Fedor. He was the official responsible for watching over the three judges who scored the bout. His name was conveniently left off the press release that announced the judges.
The Russian MMA Union, which has successfully hosted many other regional Russian events like M-1 Global and ACB (with a select amount of foreign officials), managed to mar eight years of impressive work in a matter of 15 minutes. While this article does NOT suggest that Fedor's fight was fixed, it does maintain that the conflict of interest was a significant hinderance to the officials assigned to the main event.
Take the refereeing, for example: Had Korneev stopped the fight during the opening round and Fedor had recovered shortly thereafter, he would have likely been unemployed for the remainder of his tenure in Russia because he cost Fedor a potential win -- at the very least shunned from major show in the country. That would be a sad end to an official who is considered one of the best in Russia and well respected by his peers and by the organizations that he regulates.
It is a poignant reminder that when Fedor fights in Russia, the stakes are high for all those involved, not just the 'Last Emperor' himself.