Imagine a pro quarterback with Peyton Manning's talent playing up in the Canadian Football League instead of the NFL. Or picture Tiger Woods shunning the PGA and all the major championships to star in the second-string Nationwide Tour. It may sound ridiculous, but the fast-growing, wildly popular sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is grappling with such an unthinkable, uncomfortable scenario.
And it couldn't come at a worse time. Just as the sport's premier league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, prepares to stage its milestone UFC 100 event in Las Vegas this Saturday which is expected to attract more than 1 million pay-per-view purchases the top fighter in the world has no plans to participate. Instead of slugging it out in Sin City, Fedor Emelianenko, 32, will be training in a small Russian mining town 385 miles south of Moscow, preparing for an Aug. 1 pay-per-view fight in Anaheim, Calif., against former UFC champion Josh Barnett. That fight is being co-promoted by M-1 Global, an Amsterdam-based organization in which Fedor has an ownership stake, and Affliction Entertainment, an upstart UFC challenger whose financial backers include Donald Trump and Mark Cuban (Cuban's cable network, HDNet, televises Affliction fights). Why isn't Fedor fighting for the more established brand? "The UFC wants his mind, his soul, his body," says Joost Raimond, chief operating officer for M-1 Global.
A former member of the Russian army who possesses an assassin's glare and a face-denting right jab, Emelianenko, the top-ranked heavyweight in the world, is so good he is known simply as "Fedor," according to the World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts. He has won 30 fights in his career and lost just one, a controversial referee's decision in Japan nine years ago. Fedor has already beaten five former UFC champions, two of them twice. He has finished four of them off in the first round.
"He's the best," says Freddie Roach, a famed fight trainer who has worked with boxing greats Mike Tyson, Oscar de la Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and Fedor's last opponent, Andrei Arlovski, whom Fedor knocked out in three minutes in January. "He's so calm. He sees things happening. If you make a mistake, he'll knock you out. That's the mark of a great fighter."
Not having that great fighter as part of the UFC has been a rare black eye for a promoter that has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past decade. Led by its irascible president, foul-mouthed exaerobics instructor Dana White, the UFC has turned the blood sport from a fringe combination of boxing, wrestling and Taekwondo with a handful of followers into a global spectacle that has come to dominate pay-per-view television. The UFC generated $300 million in pay-per-view revenue in 2008, surpassing both boxing and pro wrestling for the second straight year. According to the UFC, 473 million TV households in more than 60 countries now have access to its programming; that kind of reach was enough to get White and his partners a $1.2 billion offer to sell the UFC about a year ago, which they ultimately turned down, according to White. "And we haven't even scratched the surface," says White, no fan of understatement. "We're still so far from mainstream. I am 100% confident that we are going to be the biggest sport in the world in 10 years." Sure, that's a bit much, but the UFC's hold over mixed martial arts is so complete that most people just call the sport "ultimate fighting."
According to Fedor, White offered him a UFC deal two years ago. "What they wanted was very rigid," says Fedor, through an interpreter, during a recent interview in New York City, where he had gone to promote the Aug. 1 fight. In conversation, Fedor is serene, but his narrow eyes are piercing, just like those of one of his biggest fans, Russian Prime Minister (and martial-arts practitioner) Vladimir Putin. "The bottom line was that the UFC was a one-sided offer, and you know, that's something that can never be acceptable," he says.
Fedor says White demanded that he fight exclusively with the UFC. Given his stake in his own promotion company, M-1 Global, that would have been a significant sacrifice. Fedor also insists the UFC would have virtually owned him if he won and would have been able to dump him if he lost. "If I was the UFC champion, I would never be able to leave the UFC," Fedor says. "The contract would just keep extending and extending. But if I lost, they could just kick me out of the UFC."
Further complicating matters, Fedor also specializes in another form of martial arts called sambo. This judo-like sport was developed for the Red Army after World War I and is now a Russian pastime. Under White's dictates, says Fedor, he'd have to stay away from sambo. "That's something I do for the pride of my country and is very important to me," says Fedor.
TIME asked White to respond to Fedor's accusations, and he pulled no punches. "Let me put it to you this way. I've done fight contracts with all the best fighters in the world," he said, working his way to the knockout blow. "With big huge superstars Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, the list goes on and on. Who the f___ is Fedor? Are you serious? The guys who fight for me have a chance to make a lot more money fighting with me than with anybody else. If he signed with us, he'd find his place in history, find out if he really is the best heavyweight in the world. It's all semantics. It's all bulls___." It wasn't the first time White had used fighting words. At a UFC-fight press conference in April, White said, "Fedor is not the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world ... Fedor is at a buffet somewhere in Russia."
So despite growing pressure from ultimate-fighting fans who want White to sign Fedor, it doesn't look like the pair will be doing celebratory vodka shots anytime soon. "Fedor doesn't make or break my business one way or the other, you know what I mean?" says White. "The reality is, I don't need Fedor." Still, over the long term, the Fedor-White standoff could leave mixed martial arts much like pro boxing, decimated by warring promoters and fighters, with talent spread across too many divisions for followers to keep count. After all, no sport can keep rolling in the dough if fans keep feeling shortchanged.