CHICAGO – Fedor Emelianenko is the guy Americans thought of when they talked about KGB agents in the 1970s: quiet, almost invisible but oh-so-lethal.
The native of Stary Oskol, Russia, is arguably the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in history – unbeaten in almost nine years – yet reporters have been clawing to learn anything about him. Fighters who have accomplished far less have written books and are hosting television shows.
No one is certain how to pronounce his first name. Some call him FAY-door. Others call him FEE-door. And there are those who call him Fuh-door.
Despite a 30-1 (one no-contest) record and a list of victims who themselves will fill a Hall of Fame one day, Emelianenko is largely unknown to the American public outside of the hard-core MMA fan base.
Reporters have had little luck learning much interesting about him, as have the fighters who have been thrashed by him over the years as he prepares to meet unbeaten slugger Brett Rogers on a Strikeforce/M-1 Global card Saturday at the Sears Centre in a fight that will be televised on CBS.
The media has been so starved for insights into his personality and character that the striped sweater he so frequently wears has become a hot topic of conversation. We've learned he's a devout Russian Orthodox who frequently travels with his priest, Father Andrei Zinoviev, and that he married his second wife, Marina, last month.
And yet much of his appeal is his mystery. It's hard to separate legend from reality because he offers so little and is so frequently expressionless. Asked on a conference call if it were true that his brother, Aleksander, once killed a bear with a knife and a fork, Emelianenko stoically gave an answer instead of laughingly dismissing the question. "I met a bear in the zoo," he said. "A bear is very strong; very hard for a human to kill a bear with simple methods."
Watching his fight tapes, you get the impression that if anyone could kill a bear with his bare hands, however, it would be Emelianenko.
Though top boxing trainer Freddie Roach calls his technique sloppy, there is little doubt about his power. Emelianenko is one of the hardest punchers in combat sports. His ground skills are equal to his punching power, though, and there is no obvious weakness in his game.
Emelianenko is a guy who maintains control of every situation, whether it's keeping reporters at bay or fending off the attacks of the world's finest heavyweight fighters.
At Thursday's news conference, he sat inches away from Strikeforce middleweight Jason Miller, who was wearing a knit aviator's hat and a gray, white and black Chinchilla coat.
Miller, the host of MTV's "Bully Beatdown" show, kept mugging for the camera and making odd sounds into the microphone while Emelianenko sat impassively next to him, hands folded in front of him on the table.
Later, asked what he thought of Miller's antics, Emelianenko shrugged.
"I wish him the best of luck in his fight," Emelianenko said.
Emelianenko, though, could use some luck himself. Despite his ability, he's never been a big draw in the United States. He headlined PRIDE 32 in Las Vegas in 2006, defeating Mark Coleman, but the show was a box-office bomb. Most of the tickets were given away and the pay-per-view drew fewer than 50,000 purchases.
He fought twice in Anaheim, Calif., for Affliction – once in 2008, the other earlier this year – and neither performed particularly well on pay-per-view.
Pay-per-view isn't the vehicle, though, for a guy like Emelianenko, who until now hasn't been mass-marketed to the American public. He's a legendary figure among the sport's hard-core fan base, but they make up a minute percentage of the population.
At 33, Emelianenko may finally have found the outlet that will best suit him. If its previous forays into the sport are an indicator, CBS should deliver at least six million viewers.
Showtime produced an excellent preview show, "Fight Camp 360: Fedor vs. Rogers," that gives viewers an insight into this most mysterious of athletes.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, who made a deal with Emelianenko when the rival Ultimate Fighting Championship was unable to do so, says the U.S. audience will fall for Emelianenko once it sees him in large numbers for the first time.
"Being on CBS doesn't hurt, does it?" Coker asked. "I think he'll resonate because when you get past the shyness, he does have a very charming personality. He'll resonate. And the beauty of fights is that once it starts, people can understand what's going on."
Emelianenko's biggest weakness as a top-level fight attraction is that the masses haven't seen him and don't know much, if anything, about him. That will change on Saturday, when he fights in front of perhaps 50 times more people in the States than ever before. And though Rogers is hardly a well-known opponent himself, he's a power-puncher who is much bigger than Emelianenko. If Emelianenko can do to Rogers what he's done to so many in the past, he may finally become the superstar that his talents long ago suggested he should be.
Emelianenko, perhaps predictably, insists he hasn't thought much about his appeal and said he doesn't feel pressure to put on a show.
"I have trained hard to do my job," he said. "I know my job and I'm ready for the fight. Everyone has their role and mine is to do the fight. I will go out there and do my best to do my job."
- Fedor Emelianenko