A strange thing happened last night. Through some twist of fate, I found myself sitting in fashion designer Marc Ecko’s posh 23rd Street loft, surrounded by other members of the MMA media, sitting just a few feet from Fedor Emelianenko.
Now that I think about it, strange doesn’t quite explain the situation. Bizarre is a little better, or even surreal. Look to your right and there’s Jerry Millen with Frank Trigg. On the left, there’s Elite XC’s Gary Shaw and the IFL’s Gareb Shamus. And right in front, of course, Fedor sits smiling in his stylish suit and blue tie, calmly enjoying a warm reception from the adoring media.
I wasn’t expecting to end my Monday evening this way. But that morning I’d heard about a press conference to announce Fedor’s future with the M-1 Global organization, and I quickly scrambled to secure myself an invite.
The theme of the press conference, it turned out, was that M-1 would be an “open company” that would allow Fedor to fight champions from other organizations, and make it profitable for those champions to fight Fedor, whether it happened in M-1 or not. In case anyone missed this, M-1 executives rephrased and repeated it several times.
M-1, which has had a storm of rumors surrounding its recent purchase, turns out now to be owned by entertainment group Sibling Sports, LLC. If you’ve never heard of Sibling Sports, you aren’t alone. They’re a newly formed subsidiary of Sibling Entertainment, a company that produces Broadway shows. So why were we having this press conference in Marc Ecko’s office?
“He’s a friend,” said Sibling president and CEO Mitchell Maxwell.
Maxwell is something of an entertainment mogul, one of the guys who seems like he was born in a Brooks Brothers suit and who off-handedly mentions meetings he had in Sardinia, where he and someone else agreed to meet later in Amsterdam to talk further. He also admits to knowing next to nothing about MMA except that his company has signed the best fighter in the world, and he only knows that because enough people have told him.
One of those people is Monte Cox, the well-known agent to MMA stars like Tim Sylvia and Sean Sherk and Ben Rothwell and dozens of others, particularly those from the Miletich camp. Cox is now the CEO of M-1 Global, which was previously owned and operated by Fedor’s manager Vadim Finkelchtein (who was also present at the event).
Cox has put, by his own estimation, sixty or more fighters in the UFC as an agent. But now that he’s the head of a competing organization, he’ll naturally step down as a fighter representative, right? Wrong. If his fighters are dealing with M-1, Cox said, he’d step aside. But he plans to continue to represent fighters in other organizations.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much,” he said, when asked if this was a conflict of interest. “I guess we’ll see how it goes.”
Because I like to assume the best about people, I interpreted this as a deft dodge by Cox. He couldn’t possibly expect me to believe he hadn’t thought about the potential conflict his new position would create. It’s practically a text book definition of the term “conflict of interest”.
The star of this show was obviously Fedor, who spoke sparingly through an interpreter. He spoke of his respect for Randy Couture, as a person and a fighter, and said what an honor it would be to fight him. When asked about accusations that he had dodged a fight with then-UFC champion Tim Sylvia back when Pride and the UFC were trying to work out fighter exchanges, Fedor smiled and said simply, “I have never avoided any fighter.”
I was surprised how charismatic Fedor was while saying so little. He often deferred to his manager or gave very simple, short answers. When asked why he didn’t sign with the UFC he initially avoided a direct answer before finally saying, “I think the contract wasn’t that great, to tell you softly.”
Despite the repeated references to him as the “number one fighter in the world” by Cox and Maxwell, Emelianenko commented near the end of the press conference that he didn’t consider himself number one because he hadn’t faced enough competition.
M-1’s hook, aside from having Fedor, seems to be their pledge to be open and “global”. When asked if there were any restrictions in Fedor’s contract about where he could fight and under what circumstances, Maxwell said, “No. That’s the short answer.”
Matt Kaplan from Five Ounces of Pain, who was sitting next to me, whispered in my ear, “Yeah, but what’s the long answer?”
That’s what I’m wondering. M-1 seems to have a lot of great ideas about how the MMA world should work, but I have to question how they’ll be implemented. Do they really expect the UFC to share their open attitude? When I asked both Cox and Maxwell about this, as well as about where they were licensed to hold events, who else might fight in them, and how MMA fans would be able to watch them, they claimed they didn’t know yet because their company was still so new.
And yet, they said several times that they expected to have Fedor fight in February. That’s going to require some quick moving on their part to get everything in place. Maxwell said he wasn’t worried, because although he’d only seen his first MMA match on DVD about ten weeks earlier, he knew that everybody wanted to be alligned with the best, and that’s Fedor.
I politely pointed out that in fighting, having the best only means something if you have a credible opponent for him to face. Here Maxwell floated some names that he said “have been tossed around” as potential opponents for Fedor, including Josh Barnett and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou.
“We’re not going to have him fight tomato cans,” Maxwell added.
That’s reassuring. But plenty of companies begin with big announcements and swanky media receptions only to have the open bar dry up a few months down the road. I’ll be anxious to see what M-1 does to make MMA more of an open and global venture. Their first acquisition is a good one, but one man won’t make an organization. Even if it’s Fedor.