“The Last Emperor” is sharing his presence in the Holy Land right now, where he arrived as ambassador for Bellator MMA, which will stage Bellator 188 in the Menora-Mivtachim Hall in Tel-Aviv this Thursday. (Noad Lahat versus Jeremiah Labiano is the new main-event, following a last-minute cancellation of Patricio Freire versus Daniel Weichel)
I meet Fedor Emelianenko in the Leonardo City Tower Hotel near Tel-Aviv conference floor. He doesn’t stay here, but rather right on the beach, but he is here this noon on somewhat of a peace mission. Israelis have bought premium tickets for this event in the thousands, and now many are upset that the main event international title fight has been changed to a local fighter on a rebound, co-feature too. Royce Gracie is here on the same floor for the same reasons – the answer to the question can Royce and Fedor occupy the same space at the same time without the universe collapsing has been given. Now that the title fight has been called off, they have somewhat become the main attraction. Noad Lahat is here, too, as well as local Haim Gozali, who will take on Ukranian Arsen Faitovich in what will now be the co-main. They’re all about to go on FB Live to appeal to the ticket wielding masses. Such is the fight watching game, and Gozali and Lahat will now fight even harder for the fans, and Bellator too won’t forget it. But before that, we can get a few minutes with Mr. Emelianenko.
He is wearing a short-sleeved white with blue Russian Airborne Troops t-shirt. He sits a bit low, ankle on instep, hand in hand. His tone is flat, and his facial expressions are none. We are in a small business room, with Mike Kogan of Bellator acting as translator from Russian to English.
Mr. Emelianenko, thank you for the meeting. I’m a long time fan, and it’s an honor. (Mike Kogan says ‘He got it.’). You’re widely regarded as the best heavyweight of all-time, I want to hear from you, what do you believe was your greatest fight of all-time? (I pick out the names ‘Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’, and ‘Cro-Cop’, from Emelianenko answer in Russian. As he finishes Kogan begins to translate).
Fedor: I actually have two fights that stand out for me. The first one was against Nogueira, when I won the title, and the second fight was against Mirko.
Why these fights in particular?
Fedor: At the time when I fought them they were both considered the greatest heavyweights in the world. Nogueira was at the time revered as the best ground fighter, and Mirko Cro Cop at the time was considered the best stand-up fighter; he actually went to the finals of the K-1 Grand Prix. So for me, I had to improve both these aspects of my training, and really kind of dig deep. So it was a big accomplishment to be able to beat both of them.
A lot of people want to know, is Frank Mir the next opponent for Fedor Emelianenko?
(Fedor in English, no need for a translation): Not for me, question.
You’ve had a long career in Mixed Martial Arts, and you’re still fighting at the highest levels, how do you see the difference between training and fighting right now in 2017, and fifteen years ago?
Fedor: I do a lot less unnecessary training. It’s a lot more focused. Because I have a lot more experience now, so I can do targeted training, as opposed to before, where you just kind of did everything.
But at the same time, I understand that as long as my career has been, my opponents also have an ability to study my style, because there’s so much footage, so I have to adapt, and I have to change it and constantly learn new things and try to come with a different look.
How do you describe your current fighting shape right now?
Fedor: I’m off season right now. I’m just here on vacation with my family. [Wife Oksana and baby girl. R. G.]
Do you enjoy it so far?
You’ve been to Eilat, and Jerusalem?
Fedor: Yes. Jerusalem, and Eilat.
It’s your first time here?
You’ve probably been asked this before, about who do you think is the greatest fighter of all time, and who do you think is the greatest heavyweight of all time?
Fedor: I’ve never been asked that before.
Fedor: Yes. There’s a lot of good fighters.
Do you watch a lot of MMA?
Fedor (In English): Sometimes. (And in Russian): When I come to Bellator.
How do you describe working for Bellator?
Fedor: I like it. Scott [Coker] is an honorable man, always keeps his word. The staff of Bellator are very respectful for the fighters and very supportive. That’s why it’s a pleasure to do business with Bellator and to fight for Bellator.
Did you see the most talked about fight of this year, Mayweather versus McGregor?
(Emelianenko nods no).
You don’t care about this fight, it’s a show for you?
Fedor: I didn’t care.
Who do you think are the toughest guys in the heavyweight Bellator tournament? (Fedor asks the couple of managers sitting next to us in the room, apparently about who is participating in this tournament that he’s about to fight in. Between them, they list: Mir, Rampage, King Mo, Chael Sonnen, Ryan Bader, and Mitrione. There’s also Roy Nelson).
Fedor: Hmm… They’re all strong.
You didn’t know who the others are until now? (Mike Kogan says, ‘yeah, he didn’t know’).
Fedor: They’re all good. Frank Mir is good, everybody’s good.
Do you have someone especially, that you want to fight?
Fedor: If it’s god-will, I will fight three people.
One or two more questions. I’m a fan, but do you have plans for after you’re done fighting?
Fedor: Even right now, when I’m actively fighting, I’m involved in developing amateur MMA in Russia, to make it more as a sport, like Combat Sambo, or Boxing, or any other. So that everybody around the country can participate, can compete on an amateur level. But still a lot of my time right now is taken with preparations for fights. Once I retire I’ll probably continue to do that, and then I might do something else but it will always be tied-in with sports.
For a child, which martial art, or sport in general, would you recommend? You’re one of the best athletes in the world, certainly in his field of sport, so where would Fedor Emelianenko send a child to train?
Fedor: I would recommend that you have to pay attention to the child’s wishes. What sports interests that child, you can’t just force a sport onto him. You have to also look at their capabilities and their physical abilities, when considering what sports to send them to. There’s a lot of good sports. Of course I am more interested in martial arts, but it really depends on the individual child.
Again, thank you for this meeting.
Full Disclosure: Ram Gilboa will be a part of the commentary team on the Israeli broadcast of Bellator 188 on the local Ego Total channel.