Mixed martial arts spans the globe this weekend. While most of the attention will be placed on UFC cards in Atlantic City and Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Bellator also returns with the start of its seventh season in Chester, W.V.
Oh, and in St. Petersburg, Russia, Fedor Emelianenko, a man whose appearance once trumped everything else in this sport, fights in relative obscurity outside his country for M-1 Global.
Emelianenko's flagging relevance in North America is as much a result of him losing three straight fights -- shredding an enormous reputation built over seven years of dominance -- as is M-1's failure to promote and maintain interest in the former heavyweight champion outside of Russia.
Emelianenko’s contest against veteran Pedro Rizzo isn't being beamed back to the U.S. You need to be in Russia to catch the fight on sports network Russia 2 or via the promotion's geoblocked Web site.
Perhaps that's by design.
M-1 is currently focused on Russia-based projects, said Evgeni Kogan, an executive with the promotion. It’s U.S.-promoted challengers events could return in the fourth quarter of 2012, but a Russian MMA Union, which coalesced 49 regions of the country into one body, along with amateur Russian championships held in Moscow this September are taking priority.
“MMA is very popular in Russia nowadays,” Emelianenko said via translated email. “More and more kids start going to the gyms. ... We plan to acknowledge MMA as a sport discipline in the closest future.”
Asked how important the U.S. market was to M-1 at the moment, Kogan didn't respond.
This drive to propagate MMA in Russia is aided by M-1‘s relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a longtime admirer of Emelianenko who has watched bouts from ringside.
It would only help things move along if the 35-year-old heavyweight finds a spark and reminds his followers of his long-gone dominance. Leading up to this week’s fight at the sold-out Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, Emelianenko said he’ll see what happens against Rizzo and wait on God's will to know if he'll retire or not.
Rizzo, 38, used to rank among the top heavyweights in the sport, capitalizing with one of the first money-rich deals from Zuffa that delivered mixed results. However, he hasn't fought since defeating Ken Shamrock in 2010 via leg kicks. Such is the competitive territory Emelianenko is keeping these days.
If Emelianenko is troubled by this or anything else related to his MMA life, he’s not sharing.
“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “Speaking about my loses, I thank God for them. Losses teach you more than victories. They make you think, look at your mistakes.”
A loss to Rizzo would essentially serve as the final nail in his professional fighting coffin. Still, Emelianenko defended his choice of opponent, calling the former UFC contender a "champion."
"He defeated strong fighters," Emelianenko said. "He started fighting almost from the beginning of the UFC. He is very experienced. When I just came in MMA, Pedro had already become a successful fighter. I respect his achievements very much."
The respect Emelianenko maintains for Rizzo is likely the sort media and fans hold for the once great Russian heavyweight. Yet where people pined to watch him stateside, there's now barely an acknowledgment on the weekends he competes.
His most recent bout came against flop prospect Satoshi Ishii, resulting in Emelianenko's first stoppage since he stood over Brett Rogers as 5 million people watched on CBS in 2009. Sandwiched between those results, Emelianenko went 1-3, essentially losing his standing as a ranked heavyweight despite owning the top of the division from 2003-2010.
Those halcyon days are long gone. So far gone that his bouts aren’t worth showing here anymore? On Thursday, at least, the answer appears to be: yes.