The Fedor Conundrum

Fedor Emelianenko is the best fighter in the world.

I wanted to be clear about that out of the gate. From a purely sporting aspect, there is no one greater in Mixed Martial Arts at this moment in time, nor has there been since Fedor Emelianenko beat then PRIDE Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

In fact, when I went to verify the date that Fedor first beat Nogueira, I noticed that there was a second Fedor listed in the fight finder. Another Fedor? This lesser Fedor must change his name or be removed from the database immediately.

There are just some things you don’t mess with, even if they happen by pure coincidence.

Yes, Fedor is the best. Yet, despite a long an incredibly successful career to this point, Fedor is not even in the discussion of the biggest stars in MMA. It’s that fact makes his relationship with promoters M-1 and Strikeforce a little strange.

There are certainly worse ways to go than hitching your little red wagon to the best fighter in world, so I have to give M-1 credit for at least having sense enough to make that move. Still, M-1 is known less for the promotion of their own MMA events, on which Fedor has never fought, and more for their pimping of Fedor to other promoters. M-1’s go-to move seems to be bringing Fedor to whichever promoter has more dollars than promotional sense, then making a deal with said promoter in which Fedor earns, conservatively, several hundred thousand dollars and M-1 gets half of the event revenue. That’s a formula that makes nothing but sense to M-1, but long is the list of promoters who have gotten in bed with Fedor’s management team only to wake up and find – surprise! – their promotion is out of money.

It makes Fedor’s relationship with Strikeforce particularly compelling. They are the latest promotion to wind up in bed with M-1, on the hook for similar financial considerations as previous promoters who’ve worked with Fedor. There are a variety of reasons why the move makes more sense for Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, and to be brief, the decision has a greater potential for reward than it carried in the past. Still, we’re talking about a high-priced fighter with limited appeal being used as an international star for a promotion that has only just taken their business national. Calling it a recipe for disaster wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable.

To Strikeforce’s credit, they’ve embraced Fedor’s lack of charisma as part of his charm, calling him the most “elusive personality” in MMA in a recent radio spot. The chances of that promotional strategy working are slim, but at least it shows that the involved parties have learned from past mistakes. They’ve learned that promoting Fedor strictly as the world’s best fighter, though true, does not work. Rather, it has not worked yet.

Still, Strikeforce is in a position in which they must rely heavily on Fedor as an successful athlete in a sport that is still more about celebrity than athletic achievement. To make matters worse, I don’t think Strikeforce is in a position to effectively market Fedor as the best the sport has to offer. They can tell their audience time after time how he’s beaten every person he’s ever fought. They can cite his undefeated reign in PRIDE and how he crushed former UFC champions in back-to-back fights. Still, in the sports world in 2009, the call is the same across all sports: “what have you done for me lately?”

The shame of it for Strikeforce is that they don’t have the name brand of the UFC with which to convince the audience that their prized fighter is standing off against the best. Even if they did, their talent pool at Heavyweight is not deep enough to present Fedor with legitimate challengers. Strikeforce gets off to a good start by pitting Fedor against undefeated Brett Rogers, who himself is coming off a dominant victory over former UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei Arlovski.

If Fedor beats Rogers, which he is heavily favored to do, the legitimate contenders to Fedor are thin. Saturday’s Strikeforce event on CBS will feature a show opening bout between Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva, presumably designed to set the winner up as the next fighter to face Fedor. The problem is that neither man has a particularly distinguished career to this point, which makes it difficult to promote a match as a great athletic contest between the greatest there is an a guy who isn’t really the next best, but hey, he’s willing to fight.

Let’s not forget the issue that looms over the entire Fedor circumstance: He’s not fighting the champ. Certainly the champ he should be fighting is Brock Lesnar, the sports biggest star and rightful challenger to Fedor’s proverbial throne, but it’s well documented that the fight won’t be happening. And yet, Fedor can’t even get a fight with Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem, who is unavailable due to commitments in kickboxing and with other MMA promotions. That would be fine if Overeem had defended his title, oh, say, at any point ever, but he has yet to do so in his more than two years as champion. Overeem has mentioned that he’d like to fight Fedor in the first half of 2010, but you’ll forgive if I don’t hold my breath for that one.

In the meantime, Strikeforce needs Fedor to be recognized as the best fighter in the world, but by having him fight in a non-title match, Strikeforce is implying that Fedor is not even the best fighter in their ranks, which is a terrible contradiction to how he’s being promoted. It also begs the question: why isn’t his fight with the undefeated Brett Rogers for the interim Heavyweight Championship of Strikeforce? It’s not as though Strikeforce has shied away from creating interim titles or even stripping their champions due to inactivity. They’ve set the precedent to do the very thing that would help legitimize their biggest acquisition in the context of their promotion and they’ve instead decided not to do that thing.

The shame of it is that by all rights Fedor should be the biggest star in the sport based on merrit in a division that, historically, has earned the most attention in combat sports. It would be great to live in a world in which MMA fighter were followed on their merrits as a athletes; a world in which third-party rankings were worth the server space on which they are stored, or where the best fighter in the world was treated with the reverence that one would expect should go along with the distinction.

That’s not reality. Instead, athletic acheivement remains a supplement to the compelling stories and personalities that draw an audience to an MMA event. That’s the burden that Fedor’s promoters must bear. Saturday’s Strikeforce event on CBS will show the heft of that burden.