Vladimir Putin loves Fedor Emelianenko. Possibly more than he loves anyone or anything in the world: his wife, Crimea, judo, even Steven Seagal. And people who love Fedor Emelianenko (count me among them) are worried about Fedor Emelianenko. The 39-year-old MMA legend is insisting on coming back to the ring on New Year’s Eve after three years of retirement (a lifetime in a sport evolving at the pace MMA is), and as thrilling as it was when Emelianenko made the announcement back in July, soon thoughts of harsh possibility (the onetime pound-for-pound king getting beaten around and humiliated by a younger, more able opponent) and the realization of cold reality (Emelianenko would not being fighting in the UFC but in a brand-new Japanese promotion, possibly against an unknown kickboxer with almost no MMA experience) conspired to put a damper on the whole affair. Suddenly Fedor making a comeback didn’t seem like such a great idea. Whether the victim turned out to be his body, his mind, his legacy, or some disheartening combination of all three, the possibility for real damage being done started to loom large. And people who love Fedor (including me) started worrying.
And that group includes Vladimir Putin, who I knew loved Fedor but I was surprised to hear was capable of expressing human concern for him, or for anyone. But in a recent interview about how people in his life are responding to his upcoming fight, Emelianenko told Rsport.ru, “Yes [Putin and I] talked. He said he would be very worried and he wished me luck.”
Just how dire and dangerous do things have to look for Fedor Emelianenko, the hero of Russian masculinity, for Vladimir Putin, the world’s greatest aficionado of Russian masculinity, to be concerned about him? And to admit that concern? And at a time like this, when his country’s at war in at least two places? How dark does it have to be for Putin, the conceptual artist and architect and philosopher behind those two wars, to concede that any Russian, much less the manliest and greatest Russian, is capable of being defeated in battle? Concern from Vladimir Putin must be as damning as a curse from a witch, a less-than-ringing endorsement that might as well be unconditional surrender. Maybe Putin, the master of political PR, is softening up the world for what he knows is coming, which is most likely quagmire followed by bruising, protracted defeat, either in eastern Europe or the Middle East or both. Or maybe, just maybe, Putin admitting to being worried about Fedor Emelianenko is proof at last that Putin is actually, deep down, a decent guy, a mensch, a human being with a beating heart and a true and abiding love for his best guy friend.
Then again, maybe we’re giving Putin too much credit for compassion and human concern. Russia is still bogged down in Ukraine, and now it’s bogged down in Syria. So it’s possible the Russian president is just worried that a loss for Fedor Emelianenko would do catastrophic harm to Russia’s notion of itself as a strong and undefeatable power just when Russia needs that notion most. Maybe he’s worried that all those years of throwing his arm around Fedor’s shoulder and honoring him as the embodiment of the indomitable Russian fighting spirit will blow up in his face at this most crucial of historical moments if Fedor gets beaten and that Isis and Ukrainian nationalists will see the loss as a sign of weakness or, worse, that the Russian people will. Maybe Putin worries it will be a blow to their collective confidence.
Most likely this is all nonsense, of course. Probably very few members of ISIS have heard of Fedor Emelianenko and those who have probably won’t be concerning themselves with his win-loss record when strategizing against the Russians, but Putin is a man in love with perception and the pageantry of masculinity—with the display of barrel-chested machismo and physical rigor: with the belief that what you show to the world, no matter how delusional, is the way the world will see you. And they will cower in fear. Just like Fedor Emelianenko’s opponents used to do. Many, many years ago.
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