Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Evening with Fedor and M-1

I showed up at the Mark Ecko headquarters in Manhattan and headed to the fifth floor, as directed. When I got there, I was notified that the Fedor press event was being held on the third floor, not the fifth. Who gave me this valuable heads-up? Mauro Ranallo himself. The man’s voice can melt chocolate.

So I ride the elevator from the fifth floor down to the third floor, and the first person I see when I get to the press conference room (other than Mauro) was Frank Trigg. Of to a good start, I told myself. I arrived about an hour ahead of time, so I strolled around, taking notice of the cool new Fedor M-1 shirts (yes, I got one), as well as some new items from the Mark Ecko line.

As I made my way around the room, I spotted ProElite/EliteXC president Gary Shaw and began chatting with him. I’m a long-time Nick Diaz fan, and anyone who embraces and appreciates Nick the way Shaw does is OK in my book. I told Gary (I called him Mr. Shaw) that I thought the November EliteXC card is looking real good, and we talked about Diaz, Jake Shields, and Kimbo Slice, of course. He also mentioned that he’s signed another big name (key word BIG) for the November card. You’ll see…

At 5:21 PM (New York time), Fedor Emelianenko entered the reception area, accompanied by several other well-dressed gentlemen and two stunningly beautiful women (whom we all later learned were the Russian interpreters for Fedor and Vadim Finkelchtein, Fedor’s manager.) Nice touch.

As expected, Fedor looked calm and almost indifferent to all the hoopla surrounding the event. He wore a navy suit, a blue shirt and a blue and black tie and looked particularly sharp. I know what you’re probably asking yourself, and yes, he still looked VERY bad-ass!

Kicking things off at the press conference was Mitchell Maxwell, the M-1 global chairman and a 34-year veteran of the entertainment business who sits on the board of Sibling Entertainment Group, Inc. (they’re the folks who bought M-1). Mitchell first thanked Fedor and Finkelchtein, without whom, he said, “We wouldn’t be here today.”

Mitchell spoke rather candidly about M-1’s objective: “to take mixed martial arts to a place where it’s respected as a sport all over the world.” Mitchell admitted M-1 is at the moment an underdog and reminded us all of other great sports underdog triumphs, such as the 1969 Mets (I’m a Mets fan, so he won me over with this one) winning the World Series, this year’s Stanford football team that beat USC, Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, and finally the 1980 US hockey team that stunned the mighty Soviet squad. “We’re here to play,” Mitchell declared.

Despite M-1’s burgeoning underdog status, Mitchell explained that M-1 endeavors to accomplish great things. How great? “Bob Gibson in September,” “Mantle in ’56,” “the ’72 Dolphins,” and “Magic Johnson every night,” he cited. Mitchell said he hopes to bring “entertainment and theatricality” to the world-class athletes of MMA, and based on the information in the press kits given out, he’s got the track record to do just that.

Later on, Mitchell said that M-1 will work to make MMA more “fan friendly.” This includes “more pomp and circumstance and theatricality” (translation: PRIDE!), fights with champion vs. champion, and an emphasis on “a respect for fighters, their well being, and their health.” So far, this guy’s saying all the right things as far as I’m concerned.

Mitchell then introduced the legendary Monte Cox, who will serve as M-1’s President and CEO. Not bad. Monte, donning a suit and tie for the occasion, started off with the following: “If you don’t think this is a big deal, look at what I’m wearing.” He said that M-1 is “looking for the best opponents” for Fedor. “We want to do something special,” he added.

Cox explained that he’d received several offers from other MMA promotions, none of which he accepted, and when M-1 approached him, the first thing he told them was “Get Fedor.” Ten weeks later, they got Fedor and Cox became president/CEO. Cox expressed what seemed to be a genuine desire “to work with other organizations,” and Maxwell and Finkelchtein made similar statements throughout the evening.

Vadim Finkelchtein spoke next (through an interpreter, of course) and didn’t have too much to say. He reminded us all that M-1 has been around since 1997 and said that it’s as big in Europe as the UFC is in the US.

And then came Fedor, the man of the hour. He expressed satisfaction with the M-1 team, whom he said “are the best at what they do.” It was then time for a little Q&A. Here are some of the highlights:

Why M-1 and not UFC?:

Fedor explained that M-1 is a “global company” that will allow its champions “to meet with different champions.” Fedor feels that M-1 will have the strongest fighters, and that M-1 fighters will be treated the “most respectful way.” Take that as you will, folks. Finkelchtein added: “We don’t think today that the UFC is a global organization.”

Fedor’s M-1 debut?:

Cox said that M-1 is looking for a TV partner, “which will let us know where and when we’ll go.” An opponent and a date for Fedor’s first fight under the new M-1 banner will be announced “soon.”

A fight with Randy Couture?:

“I’m very pleased to hear Randy spoke so higly of me,” Fedor admitted after being told that Randy said there’s nothing left to prove if he cannot fight Fedor. According to Fedor, he met Randy in Prague and that Randy expressed “warm feelings.” Fedor concluded, “Nowadays, he is the strongest fighter, and it would be an honor to fight him.”

Other M-1 fighters?:

Maxwell said that a stable of M-1 fighters will be revealed in the next few days. “Today is Fedor’s day,” he said.

Fedor’s contract?:
There's a clause in Fedor's contract that will pay the UFC champ an addition $1 million (on top of whatever else his pay day is) to fight Fedor, and the winner will receive a bonus of another $1 million.

Are there limitations in Fedor’s contract? “The short answer is ‘no’,” said Maxwell. I’d like to know the long answer, but this will have to do for now.
According to the press kit literature, “Fedor signed a two-year contract for six fights with a very attractive extension option,” said Finkelchtein. According to Maxwell, “Fedor is being paid commensurate with his status as the MMA greatest fighter.” No specific figures were published.

Did Fedor avoid fighting UFC heavyweights?:

Eddie Goldman asked this question and lives to see another day, so congratulations to him for that. A slightly grinning Fedor calmly answered, “I didn’t avoid any fighter,” and explained that PRIDE pushed for a fight between Fedor and Tim Sylvia (who was the champ at the time), but it was the UFC who rejected the fight.

M-1 and elbows, knees, and universal rules?:

Cox said that M-1 is looking for a set of unified rules, and that the current rules are PRIDE rules, which will have to change when M-1 hits US soil.

Other M-1 heavyweights?:

Finkelchtein named Aleksander Emelianenko, and he and Fedor both said that there are some very tough, talented up-and-coming-Russian fighters who are not yet known by the American fan base. Finkelchtein later told me, “In reality, there are a lot of fighters not in the UFC who are some of the best fighters in the world.”

If Fedor is #1, who’s #2?:

I was expecting Fedor to name Josh Barnett or Rodrigo Nogueira, but he surprised me with his response: “I don’t consider myself number 1. I haven’t fought lots of fighters, so I cannot claim that.” Wow!

That concluded the official part of the program, after which we were invited to speak one-on-one with Fedor, Cox, Finkelchtein, and Mitchell, and to enjoy the open bar and some food.

As soon as the Q&A portion of the evening concluded, everyone seemed to be scurrying over to the bar or to speak to the panel members. I noticed former PRIDE executive Jerry Millen standing idly by and headed his way. I told him that Pride 33 was the best card of 2007 – hands down! – and he explained that he helped put together Diaz vs. Gomi and Henderson vs. Wanderlei, despite some objection to Henderson getting a title shot before Rogerio Nogueira. We spoke some more about PRIDE and the UFC, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell, Big Nog, Randy, and lots more.
Suffice it to say that Millen does not like Dana White at all! As for what he’s up to in the MMA world, Millen told me that he’s received plenty of offers, but that he’s waiting for the right one. My conversation with Millen could be its own post –and a VERY interesting one at that – but overall, he was quite accommodating, and I have only good things to say about him.

Next I made my way over to where Fedor and Finkelchtein were seated. First I asked them if Fedor will be competing in the World Sambo Championships. The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ Fedor will be competing in the World Sambo Championships on November 7 in the Czek Republic and “he will be representing Russia.”

I then asked Fedor, Finkelchtein, and Cox about what whether Fedor will fight for, the M-1 heavyweight championship. All three echoed the same sentiment: nothing about weight class champions has been finalized just yet, but the emphasis seems to be on crowning a true world heavyweight champion, and not just an M-1 heavyweight champ. “He’ll fight for the world championship when he fights Randy Couture. We want to have a real, true champion of the world,” Finkelchtein said.

After that, Fedor took a picture with me and signed some stuff I brought. What a guy.

I then met Frank Trigg, whom I congratulated on his recent marriage. I asked him whether there was any truth to the “news” of him joining the WEC. “It’s all Internet hype,” he said. According to Trigg, the WEC never even made him an offer.

After that, I just kind of cruised around with my Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and got to speak with Josh Gross of Sherdog.com, IFL CEO Gareb Shamus, Ben Fowlkes of the IFL and 5 Oz of Pain, and MMA journalist Eddie Goldman. All good guys.
The end of the night came, and I didn’t really want to leave. Unfortunately, everyone else was leaving, so I grabbed my bag of complimentary goodies (a very cool Fedor M-1 t-shirt and a Fedor DVD) and rode down to the lobby with Fedor, Finkelchtein, and their lovely interpreters.

Like I said, I really didn’t want to get on the train and head home, so I kind of hung back and watched as Fedor and company waited out front for their limo to pull up. To my surprise, not one passerby noticed Fedor or seemed to know who he is! Idiots.
Maxwell joined them out front moments later, and I asked him if it was coincidence that Fedor and Finkelchtein had such attractive interpreters. “Remember,” he told me with a smile, “I come from show business.” He shook my hand, thanked me for coming out, climbed into the limo, and disappeared down 23rd Street.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I just became an M-1 fan.

Here are some photos from earlier tonight:

Me getting a laugh from Fedor and his lovely interpreter...

Me and the Fedor (yes, I am wearing a Russian Sambo t-shirt)...

Vadim Finkelchtein and his lovely interpreter...

Gorgeous George, Trigg, me...
Mauro talks with Fedor and lovely Russian interpreter...

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