Sherdog.com recently caught up with Red Devil Manager Vadim Finkelstein, who oversees the M-1 Mixfight promotion and the career of PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.
Is Fedor close to signing with the UFC? What are Finkelstein's thoughts on doing business with Dana White and BodogFight?
Sherdog.com: How do you see the development of MMA in Russia, and how has your organization (M-1) contributed to this over the last 10 years and where do you see the promotion going in the future?
Vadim Finkelstein: That's a few questions; I'll try to address them one at a time. I started M-1 Mixfight here, it St. Petersburg 10 years ago. Since that time we have developed a lot, to the point of having regular television coverage on a state channel with large ratings and staging events frequently.
Sherdog.com: Please discuss the last event that you organized.
VF: That was the BodogFight event in St. Petersburg on April 14. I thought Bodog behaved very badly in regard to that event. They acted as though the whole organization of the event and everything surrounding it, the VIPs such as Jean Claude Van Damme and Vladimir Putin, was because of them. In reality I and my brother [Evgeny Finkelstein] organized 90 percent of it.
The logo for the event was also very unfortunate, Bodog Fight was very prominent and they almost hid a small M-1 logo in the corner in all marketing materials, so that it was almost impossible to see. So I am not particularly pleasantly disposed towards BodogFight at the moment.
Sherdog.com: Russian president Vladimir Putin has been recently been described as a big fan of MMA and of Russian fighters. Could you please discuss his involvement with the sport?
VF: Initially I believe Putin saw our fighters on the weekly program which has been run on NTV, one of the national channels. He is a big fan of Fedor Emelianenko, and was present at the BodogFight event on April 14 as a personal guest of Fedor's.
Sherdog.com: Please talk about the support the city of St. Petersburg has given you for putting together this event.
VF: The city and its officials have been fantastic to work with on my projects over the last 10 years. The city is helping hugely, financially, from its reserves. They paid for some of the hotels, the work on the pontoon and other aspects of the production also. As we did not sell tickets to this event and the television rights aren't paying a huge amount the help has been very welcome.
We could have of course staged it in an arena, like last time, however I wanted to show off the city I love to the rest of the world.
I've even had the Guinness Book of Records call as they want to enter the event as the first MMA tournament held on a floating pontoon.
Sherdog.com: Please discuss the perception of MMA in Russia, it is not a sport that is that well known, and what you are doing to change that.
VF: Much the same as it was in the U.S. when it first started; MMA in Russia was initially vilified as thugs brawling without rules and was very much looked down upon. Videos of street fights and such were constantly shown and the sport suffered.
We have worked very hard to legitimize MMA into a sport that is slowly becoming more and more popular and one that young people aspire to participate and compete in. We are going to show the event in the middle of the beautiful city center, with $5 million yachts anchored around the ring and 300-year-old palaces in the background. We've come a long way.
Sherdog.com: What's the next move for M-1 Mixfight?
VF: We are planning on holding an event later on in the year in Moscow, that Fedor may fight in if we have no success in signing with one of the organizations with who we are currently in negotiations with.
Sherdog.com: Please discuss how you feel about Russian fighters going overseas to fight, when the sport is developing here so fast and is soon going to be able to match the kind of money they could be getting in the US or in Japan.
VF: I have no problem with this, if it's good for my fighters, it's good for M-1 and it's good for me. I would be very happy if tomorrow Aleksander was to go fight in PRIDE or K-1. I do not see us as competing with those organizations. UFC, PRIDE and K-1 are not our competitors; rather I would be very happy to work together with any of them in developing the sport further in this country.
I am talking about collaborations similar to the one with BodogFight, except that BodogFight is not an organization that has integrity and I will not work with them again. They used us to get a foot in the door in Russia and have now started developing their own business here on their own. Last week I found out that they have landed a weekly spot on Channel One here. In fact this makes me happy when you get down to it, as it's all contributing to the development of the sport here, and I think that's the most important thing.
Sherdog.com: As Fedor's manager, can you please fill us in on the current state of his contract negotiations.
VF: At the moment we are in negotiations with a number of organizations who have put offers on the table. I'll be blunt in saying that the UFC offer is the most financially attractive one. However they are very harsh in their terms and are not very flexible in actually negotiating them.
Fedor has now been the PRIDE heavyweight champion for four years and I think we have earned the right to negotiate a contract that suits both parties. Instead we are faced with a blunt "you are either in or you're out." This does not really suit us. If the negotiations continue in a similar manner, we'll prefer to fight for less money but with an organization which is more flexible.
The problem is that Fedor is the face of Combat Sambo in Russia. His popularity is at a level where he is acquainted with president Putin himself, in part because he is so successful and well known for Combat Sambo here.
Combat Sambo is a Russian sport that's not at a level of difficulty of MMA, but is hugely popular with our public. Fedor must represent Russia in Combat Sambo and at world championships, specifically the ones coming up in September. All we want him to do is compete something like once a year in Combat Sambo. But the UFC is not happy with that.
Their proposal has all kinds of clauses, all kinds of fines etc. that do not suit us. The UFC is not really that eager to communicate and negotiate. The negotiations are still continuing, and we will try very hard to get our demands met, if not Fedor will simply not compete in the UFC, even though that will be unfortunate as they currently have one of the, if not the, strongest, heavyweight divisions in the world.
Sherdog.com: What do you think of the way the UFC markets itself? I am asking specifically about an interview Dana White gave recently where he mentioned that the negotiations [for getting Fedor into the UFC] were continuing, but that he was dealing with "crazy Russians," and he wasn't sure what they were going to do next.
VF: I think that first thing is that the UFC politics are that they probably want an American champion. I think it's safe to say that in America this is the case.
But in theory, if the organization is honorable, take the Japanese for example, for them the sport and integrity of the success of the fighters was most important. Their philosophy was that once at a high level the fighters were going to be matched with only the top level of the competition, and we know that eventually if you only face the best, eventually you will lose.
The UFC is slightly different. They have their own ways of doing things. For example, I suggested that they have a UFC event in Russia, which I would organize for them, including financial assistance. They said that didn't suit their current development plans.
I requested the right to show UFC content during the television slot we have with the state broadcaster in Russia. They declined and said that they had their own people who would organize this here. And today those people came to me to ask me to place the UFC content into our slot. I was fine with this, it's going ahead. I'm not a spiteful person. What matters is the exposure of the sport in Russia, UFC, or other organizations, it doesn't matter. What's important to me is my fighters getting recognition and the sport gaining popularity here.
Of course I prefer that they came to me for help in Russia, in organizing an event for them here in St. Petersburg, or in Moscow, no on else could do what I can. There is no one in Russia that can even get close to us with MMA promotion.
Sherdog.com: As Fedor's manager, how long would you like to see his career progress for, and also who would you like to see him fight before he retires?
VF: He's only 30, there is lot's of time left to fight still. The UFC is of course fighting in the cage, not in the ring. And we'd prefer that he would not fight the very strongest opponent straight away. Of course we want to fight strong fighters, but would like an opportunity to grow, get a little used to the new format.
I have absolutely no doubt that right now Fedor is the strongest heavyweight in the world, and could beat anyone they throw at him, but we would nevertheless like an opportunity to develop a little, get used to the new surroundings. There are elbows now, etc.
Of course we want to fight with them. Though there are other opportunities, other organizations. There is the offer from K-1, a good offer, though a little less in terms of finances, mostly as they do not have the kind of revenue streams that the UFC currently has today, due to PPV.
But there are other factors. The UFC is only interested in Fedor; they are not considering other Red Devil fighters. K-1 is prepared to take our boys and provide other assistance as well, in developing the team. But we're not in a huge hurry. If Fedor is not signed for a while, I will organize a match here for him.
We have the resources and audience and television rights to make a good go of it here. The first large overseas organization that properly enters into Russia will do very well. But the UFC is not interested. They are only interested in North America and a few European shows.
I've tried to explain this to Dana White, I suggested working together as I believe there is a lot of potential in this part of the world for joint ventures to be hugely successful. Apart from Russia there are other former republics of the Soviet Union which will be good sources of revenue in the future also, as there is growing interest in the sport which will only increase over time.
Sherdog.com: Could you please discuss some of the other fighters who represent Red Devil?
VF: It's hard for me to talk about any of the developing fighters specifically. Everyone is young and promising; everyone is rapidly developing and will be very strong in the future.
Of course if we are talking about Fedor's level, it has to be said initially that he is an absolutely unique individual. He is a champion inside. Quite a lot of good fighters, when they win they begin to relax a little, I call it winners disease. Fedor doesn't have this at all. He prepares for each fight like it was his first one. This trait is unique to him, that he, honestly, doesn't believe that he is the best. He's told me that he looks at his flaws, his strengths and that's all.
At the same time other teams, from the US, Japan, Holland, they are not sleeping either. They are developing their skills and levels, and we need to keep up with this.
We need to work more on tactics. I think we are currently stronger in the stand up then on the ground. Fighters like Roman [Zentsov] and Amar [Suolev] depend on their very strong striking ability to win fights. That's why they lose when fighting American wrestlers who dumbly take them down and lie on them for the duration match, winning through these tactics. Usually this doesn't make for a very beautiful fight either.
Just today I had a discussion with the trainers and we agreed that we are going to concentrate more on ground fighting going forward.
Sherdog.com: What are your plans for the next year?
VF: I'm not going to stop or slow down. I'm thinking about organizing a big event in Moscow later this year. It's also probable that I will strike a deal with a large international organization like the UFC or K-1 or someone of their stature in order to work together.
We have considerable resources in Russia, America, Korea and Japan. We can further develop television and internet coverage. We can do very well financially together.
Basically, as a last word, I am interested in helping to make MMA the number one combat sport all over the world.
Evgeni Kogan covers mixed martial arts for Sherdog.com.