The Russian town of Kislovodsk, nestled next to the Black Sea, is famous for cuddling lovers, beautiful gardens, and amazing views of the Caucasus Mountains. It's a great place to relax and take in nature - but M-1 Global fighter Fedor Emelianenko didn't have relaxation in mind when he traveled to the resort community to train for a chance at redemption.
Emelianenko, once so famous for his undefeated streak, has now lost two in a row. He was choked out by Fabricio Werdum and beaten to a pulp by Antonio Silva, both on national television in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. The once great champion looked older, slower, and maybe a little like a fighter who had lost his way.
Many fighters would greet defeat with a defiant snarl. Emelianenko isn't built that way. Instead of moving to a new team and searching for new mentors, he circled the wagons with the group of men who have guided him to where he stands - the top of the fight game.
"We have a saying in Russian," coach Vladimir Voronov says. "When you're at home even walls are helping you."
Voronov has been Fedor's rock since the Russian fighter was barely more than a boy. His credentials are impeccable. Voronov's name is followed by a litany of titles-Master of Sports of the USSR in Judo, Honoured Coach of Russia in Sambo, Honoured Worker of Physical Culture of the Russian Federation. He's a coach for the Russian national team in both Judo and Sambo.
But it's not just his technical expertise that makes him such a valuable commodity. Voronov and Fedor have the kind of comfortable relationship that allows them to look past the day to day hassles of life and concentrate on the important training in front of them.
"A good atmosphere within the team always help to work and to train. It keeps us grounded and focused," Emelianenko told me. The Russian fighter, who rarely cracks a smile in public then attempted a joke. I asked him if he was still learning from Voronov. "He controls my diet. And sometimes he shows me throws." Then silence. It seemed a damning response, signs of a coach with little left to teach his famous student. Then Fedor laughs. "But really, yes. Yes, of course...He has trained so many good fighters and champions, a lot of them became Masters of Sports under his control and guidance. He trained my brother and I. He is a great coach."
Emelianenko, it turns out, likes having some fun at Voronov's expense. "They are friends. Fedor loves to make jokes on Vladimir," boxing trainer Alexander Michkov says with a laugh. "I like it when Fedor come to the training in a good mood. When he does everything works out really well."
Voronov believes his relationship, forged through years of training and stress, is no different than it was before fame and fortune found Fedor. "He is the same he was before. His character didn't change. Our relationship hasn't changed. As he grew up it just became stronger and we can understand each other at a glance."
Emelianenko has long been the template for fighters aspiring to be well rounded and multi-faceted. His mixture of power punching, standing throws, and submissions from the ground have made him perhaps the most feared fighter in the sport for almost a decade. But getting there wasn't easy, for coach or fighter.
"I learned everything while working with him. A coach has to improve together with his fighter," Voronov says. "I was training him, working with him - I had to discover it sooner or later, I'm his coach. But he can still improve and we both have to move on."
Building Fedor into a legend wasn't a one man job. Voronov recruited Michkov to help work on Emelianenko's boxing. Both Voronov and Fedor were lifelong grapplers - striking was new to them. But Michkov says natural gifts like speed and power helped fast track Emelianenko's progress.
"Fedor's coordination is really developed and he was able to master his striking skills real fast, thanks to his persistence...Speed is a natural skill which is hard to develop. But we do some extra work to improve it even more. He masters it faster than the others."
Emelianenko admits mixing grappling and striking into a cohesive package wasn't always easy. "At first it was very difficult but the consistent training has enabled it to come natural now. My coaches made the training process easier."
Michkov is joined by a bevvy of Dutch kickboxers to help Fedor perfect his standing skill. He famously outstruck K-1 star Mirko Cro Cop in their legendary bout, and has rarely lost the standup portion of the fight. For his famous opponent, Dan Henderson, the proud possessor of a powerhouse right hand, Emelianenko again traveled to the Vos Gymn in Holland to work on his technique.
"It is not like I teach Fedor something completely new," trainer Peter Teijsse says. " What we do is more of a revision of the techniques that Fedor has already known from his previous training experience. Revision always helps athletes improve...Fedor could use more training on his footwork. His biggest strength is that he is unpredictable. He is a gladiator fighting in his own typically ‘Fedor' style. His opponents never know what to expect of him next."
Emelianenko, who has taken a handful of budding Russian stars like Maxim Grishin under his wing, draws stares wherever he goes. Voronov says his young sparring partners are eager to impress him - but there is at least one man in his camp who isn't in awe of Fedor. After all, Alexander Emelianenko has known him his entire life. While no one would admit that the two brothers had a falling out at one point, Alex has been absent from Fedor's camp for many of his American fights. But he's back now, and Fedor feels stronger for it.
"I was happy my brother trained with me and went to the training camp to Kislovodsk with me. It has helped me prepare," Fedor says. "Our training camps didn't match up before. We had different training and work outs. But this time Alex found time to come and train with me and I was very glad he did."
Emelianenko, coaches and training partners contend, is still a force in the gym - but some days more than others. "It depends," Voronov admits. "Sometimes I have to push him and sometimes I have to stop him." But the coach is adamant that father time isn't a factor in an unprecedented losing streak.
"Age," Voronov says. "Age doesn't change anything."
STRIKEFORCE and M-1 GLOBAL PRESENT: FEDOR vs. HENDERSON, which is presented by Rockstar Energy Drink, airs live on Showtime July 30th at 9 PM EST.