MMA's newest entry signs Fedor

The latest entry into the crowded world of mixed martial arts promotion had its official launch this afternoon, but plans on a different twist.

Sibling Sports, LLC, formed theatrical company Sibling Entertainment Group Holdings, Inc., announced on Monday the signing of a two-year contract with Fedor Emelianenko, the consensus top heavyweight in the world and No. 1 ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the Yahoo! sports rankings.

In addition, Monte Cox, the longtime promoter of Extreme Challenge, an Iowa-based regional promotion and agent for many of the sport's big names, was named President and CEO of the group. Bob Clark, the president of Sibling Theatrical, will be the Chief Operating Officer. Cox said Monday that while the parent is a public company, the fight promotion, which will use the name M-1 Global, will be a private company.

M-1 Global comes from the Russian based M-1 promotion headed by Vadim Finkelchtein, Emelianenko's business manager, that has run shows for years in that country. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended Emelianenko's April 14 win in St. Petersburg, Russia over Matt Lindland.

Mitchell Maxwell, 54, the chairman of the board and CEO of Sibling, said at the press conference that he was the leading shareholder in the new company. He noted this was all put together over the past 10 weeks when he had a meeting with management of Emelianenko, who were unhappy with how negotiations were going with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

While the press conference was filled with somewhat negative remarks about UFC, how it allegedly treats fighters and trying to portray them as not being an international organization, Cox himself said the goal is not to compete with UFC.

Cox said the reality is UFC is the powerhouse of the industry. He said their group is currently planning on running six events around the world in 2008, with a first show in February headlined by Emelianenko. He talked of three major events headlined by Emelianenko, two in the U.S. and a summer event in Tokyo.

Three other shows, at least two of which would be held outside the U.S., would be smaller in scope. Emelianenko's first opponent wasn't named. Cox talked of having to make a television deal for live coverage prior to finalizing the date and time of the first event.

"Absolutely, Showtime, HBO, HD-Net (the station owned by Mark Cuban which airs MMA shows on Friday nights), we're looking at broadcast partners to televise live," he said.

Cox said the eventual goal was to do pay-per-view, but not until they have established Emelianenko’s name in the U.S. If the much-talked about Emelianenko vs. UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture fight can legally take place, it would be an obvious choice for the company’s first pay-per-view event.

At the press conference, company representatives claimed they would offer Couture $1 million more than he currently makes per fight in UFC for what would be the dream fight against Emelianenko. They also said they would add a $1 million bonus to the winner.

UFC attempted to put the same fight together for Super Bowl weekend. While such a fight would be the strongest drawing non-UFC fight in the history of American. MMA, without a strong television platform to build the fight, offering those kind of numbers to fighters would at best be a major loss leader to helped build a brand name.

As great as Emelianenko is, his April 14 pay-per-view fight with Matt Lindland, promoted by the Bodog Fight organization, only drew 13,000 buys, and Bodog hasn't done a PPV show since.

Where M-1 Global is different from the multitude of attempted bridesmaid promotions that all but the most ardent fan wouldn't be able to keep straight, is they don't want to sign a huge roster of fighters. They want to work with all companies and exchange talent. Cox said they would offer their own talent to other promotions, with a specific mention they would offer Emelianenko to UFC. Cox said they were looking at signing a half dozen or so top names, and augment their events with big names from other promotions.

"I don't want to be the scarp yard of MMA," he said in reference to putting together a huge stable of fighters. "I don't want to be using guys the other companies let go. We're looking at picking up the right guys."

No other fighter names were announced, with the group claiming it wanted the spotlight on Emelianenko, and would announce more names in a week to 10 days. Through an interpreter, Finkelchtein, who ran the M-1 promotion for 10 years, hinted at least some would be foreign names whose names wouldn't be familiar right away to the U.S. audience.

UFC’s business model keeps a large stable of fighters under contract. Because they offer the only U.S. television platform that has been successful up to this point at creating new marketable stars, they haven't shown any interest in promoting fighters that aren't under long-term contract to the company.

It was notable at Saturday night’s UFC 77 that the biggest story in months in the MMA world, Couture’s resignation from the organization, was never acknowledged by the announcers on the broadcast. Even though Couture was all over the taped pre-game show building up the matches, not only was the story never mentioned, but his name was never mentioned. There weren't even any direct references to the state of the heavyweight championship, even though an important contenders match with Tim Sylvia vs. Brandon Vera took place on the show.

It was only when Sylvia made a passing remark to Couture being in limbo, and Stephan Bonnar mentioned training at Couture's gym, that the name was mentioned.

Emelianenko, 31, is listed at 5-11 1/2 and 230 pounds in his Japanese bios, where he spent most of his career fighting. He's 26-1, and the lone loss, to Tsuyoshi Kosaka in 2000, was based on a cut stoppage from an illegal elbow.

Coming from a background in Sambo, a Russian submission style of fighting, and judo, where he was one of the top competitors in Europe, he broke into MMA in 2000 with the RINGS organization. RINGS was actually a pro wrestling company in Japan which later evolved into having all real fights shortly before Emelianenko started. He captured that group's annual World title tournament in 2002, and was immediately signed by the financially stronger Pride promotion.

He looked dominant in Pride, in particular developing a reputation that he was most dangerous when seemingly in trouble. While his highest-profile match was a decision win over Mirko Cro Cop on August 28, 2005, his most memorable moments in his Japanese career were coming back from near defeat. In a 2003 match with Kazuyuki Fujita, Fujita caught him with a punch and had him staggered and seemingly one shot away from an upset loss. Within seconds, Fedor regained his composure and had choked Fujita out.

In 2004, he was suplexed nearly on the top of his head by Kevin Randleman, got up like it never happened, and seconds later Randleman had submitted to a Kimura. In recent years, he's been bothered by a broken finger, which needed surgery, and it's been two years since he's faced a bona fide top contender in the Cro Cop fight.

Emelianenko is also indirectly responsible for the death of Pride. On December 31, 2003, three major Japanese television networks wanted to hold MMA events head-to-head during the height of the sport's popularity in Japan. A rival promotion headed by pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki lured Emelianenko to fight a pro wrestler, Yuji Nagata.

Allegations that Pride used Yakuza influence to pressure the rival promotion both before and after the event came out in a Japanese publication years later. The result was the Fuji Network, which had broadcast Pride in Japan, canceled its contract with the organization in 2006. Officially the network did not give the alleged mob connection as the reason, but the timing made it obvious.

Even though Pride ratings in prime time were strong, the taint in Japan meant no other network would touch the product. Without television money and exposure, the organization collapsed under the weight of massive debt, and was sold earlier this year to UFC.

At the time, UFC talked about making all the dream matches, with Couture vs. Emelianenko as the obvious biggest heavyweight match possible. But negotiations between Emelianenko and UFC fell apart in recent weeks, confirmed when word got out on Oct. 10 of Emelianenko signing with M-1, that would move its base to the U.S. and be under American management.

Maxwell categorized this company and its goals as an uphill struggle, making sports analogies to the 1969 New York Mets and the 1980 U.S. Hockey team which beat the Soviet Union, which caused some laughs with their Russian business partners.

"A big part of the success of M-1 Global is that we've signed the No. 1 fighter in the world in Fedor," Maxwell said. "Our goal is to make him a household name (in the U.S.). It doesn't take long to watch Fedor to see he's the real deal. Our job is to take this star and make him as well known (in the U.S.) as he is in Europe and Asia."

The subject of Couture was one of the first things Emelianenko was asked about. When it was noted Couture had mentioned in leaving UFC that one of the reasons was he wanted to fight Emelianenko to determine who was the best in the world, Emelianenko said, "I am very pleased to hear that Randy Couture thinks so highly of me. I deeply respect him and have been watching him since his first fight. I admire him greatly. Once in Prague (Czech Republic), he saw me and I came away with a warm feeling, and it will be an honor for me to fight him."