More than 22,000 fans packed Moscow’s Olympic Stadium last week to see the return of the great Fedor Emelianenko, selling out an arena constructed for the 1980 Olympic Games. The former champion had lost three in a row before getting back on track against Jeff Monson. Fans that followed him everywhere in his native land didn't seem to care. He returned a conquering hero, a bigger star than he had ever been when he stood atop mixed martial arts a decade ago.
But to the international media, those legions of supporters were meaningless to the narrative. Only one fan mattered - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A famous sportsman and judo blackbelt, Putin has been a staunch supporter of mixed martial arts in Russia. To assembled fans, that support didn't outweigh political negatives. The boos rained down, Putin looked shaken by the response, and media outlets from the BBC to The New York Times took note:
Convinced of the fan’s political intent, some commentators in Russia described the event as a watershed moment for public displays of anger at the prime minister, who remains popular in polls.
"Even though it is clear that a part of the audience was cheering, a significant part was no doubt jeering Putin," said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio, in an interview with the A.P. "We have never seen anything like this on this scale before. It is a symptom that some in Russian society are tired of Putin’s image."
For their part, M-1 officials were just happy to have such an august personage at their event.
"We were definitely honored and proud that Mr. Putin not only attended the event but even got in to the ring and congratulated Fedor as well as M-1 organization," M-1 President Vadim Finkelstein said. "Mr. Putin has a 6th degree black belt in judo himself, so naturally he is a fan of MMA. He was impressed by our work and congratulated us on the work well done...It means a lot. MMA is gaining popularity increasingly fast in Russia."
Emelianenko echoed those sentiments. "It's an honor."
Of more concern to M-1 was pulling off a live broadcast that aired not just on Russian network television, but around the world in multiple languages. The event drew more than nine million viewers on multiple airings over three days.
"Not an easy task, but we have proven we could pull it off," Finkelstein said. "Overall things went great; fans were overwhelmed with positive emotions."
Emelianenko's win was the icing on the cake of an event that, despite the post-fight jeering of Mr. Putin, went off without a hitch. After being criticized for his aggressive and reckless attempts to finish fights in his last several bouts, the Russian star went back to the drawing board. What emerged against Monson, a grappler known for his once-great submission wrestling prowess, was a disciplined fighter looking to score points at the expense of taking risks.
"We worked very hard during the training camp in Holland. I did not want to repeat my mistakes," Fedor said. Insiders say he was determined to win in his homecoming match and there was a palpable sense of relief emanating from all involved. "It's a unique feeling. I'm very thankful to all my fans in Russia and around the world."
Russians came out in droves to support Emelianenko, for too long a virtual unknown in his homeland despite years of celebrity in Japan and America. Traditional marketing was the key for M-1, as the company blanketed Moscow with posters and billboards and got solid support from a radio and television industry that would have ignored the event in years prior.
"Fedor has been gaining tremendous popularity in Russia in recent years despite his losses. Media covers our events pretty well. In Russia and Europe the media is not afraid that the UFC will come and slap them on their hands for doing that," Finkelstein said. "When we hosted the event at one of the busiest shopping malls in Moscow where both Fedor and Jeff came to meet the fans and sign posters several weeks before the fight, we were amazed as to how many people showed up, it was a huge line, people waited for hours."
Next for the promotion is a December 9th event on Showtime, the last show in a four-show agreement between the two companies. Whether M-1 will renew the deal for 2012 is an open question, but negotiations are ongoing.
"Time will tell where do we go from here," Finkelstein said.
Emelianenko's future seems more set in stone. M-1 officials said his next fight will be on New Year's Eve, continuing the Japanese tradition of hosting high profile MMA bouts on that day. Emelianenko's opponent will be the inexperienced but dangerous judo Olympian Satoshi Ishii.
"I prepare for each fight equally serious. God willing I will fight and win again," Emelianenko said. "I'm looking forward to it. I know there are a lot of my supporters in Japan. It will be great to do that."