|The Main Event|
The main event of the day is what you might anticipate from some one-on-one time with Fedor Emelianenko: a good, old-fashioned ground-and-pound tutorial.
Trainer Josuel Distak puts on the focus mitts and lies on his back, and Emelianenko follows into his guard. The Russian discusses the tactics that have made him the gold standard for ground-and-pound in modern MMA.
"You want to dig into the opponent," he explains. "You want to feel it dig in. It comes from the shoulder. You don't want to punch with your arms, winding them up. You want them to be short and from the shoulder."
Emelianenko postures up and cracks a short, hard right hand into the focus mitt. Distak's arm recoils and he nearly backhands the mat because of the blowback.
Watching Emelianenko ground-and-pound in a controlled learning environment is fascinating. In the real time of a fight, it looks like wild, winging assault. Seeing it in slow motion, with his commentary accompanying it, you get a much greater sense of the precision and technique that go into the attack. When he punches, he doesn't swing his arms; his fist is much more like a missile than a hammer. It's barely cocked, but it explodes with rocket-like propulsion. The rotation in his shoulders as he punches is incredible.
"Jacare" takes his place in his trainer's guard, and attempts to mimic Emelianenko's technique. Souza always makes a loud, thudding pop on the focus mitts. However, his strikes are wide and looping as they smack the mitts.
"No, no," Emelianenko says, interrupting the Brazilian. "I'll show you how to hit stronger."
Emelianenko takes his place in Distak's guard again. His eyes are fixed on Distak's chest, not even looking at the focus mitts. He rips short rights and lefts, cracking the mitts.
"Every punch is different," he elaborates. "If every punch is the same, your opponent will be able to defend. You don't even have to look at him to attack; you can feel him."
Emelianenko keeps his eyes down. He rips a laser-guided right hand at the right mitt Distak is holding. The force of the blow rips the mitt off of Distak's hand, and sends it skidding across the mat for 20 feet. The crowd “oohs” and “aahs.”
"Strong!" Distak exclaims from the bottom.
Fernando Bettega takes top position above Distak. Emelianenko stands above him, critiquing his form. He smiles and laughs "No, no, no!" when he punches wide or wind up his strikes. The former Pride champ tells Bettega to not drag his punches across his opponent’s body, pointing out that it's the surest way to get armbarred. This, of course, is exactly how Emelianenko armbarred Mark Coleman twice.
After minutes of Emelianenko's pointers on posture and technique, Bettega is starting to look like a real ground-and-pounder. It's a dimension to his game which was sorely lacking in his previous fights, and there's scarcely a better mind to pick when it comes to improving it than "The Last Emperor."
Most people know Fedor Emelianenko as "The Last Emperor," a nickname given to him years ago as the last heavyweight tournament champion of Rings, and a nod to Russian royalty of the past. However, there's another more regional nickname for Emelianenko that not even the Russian was aware of.
Talking with Emelianenko between demonstrations, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza explains that in Brazil, the Russian is known as "Padeiro," meaning "the Baker."
The nickname has two levels: first, the fact that Emelianenko, with his sleepy demeanor and soft physique, seems more like a man who makes his dough with ovens, not armbars. Secondly, the Brazilians liken his ground-and-pound attack to a baker beating and kneading dough.
When the nickname and its etymology are relayed to Emelianenko, he smiles sheepishly and laughs slightly. "Jacare" and the other Brazilians, however, find it positively hilarious. "Jacare" goes on kneading imaginary dough and hammerfisting the air for some 30 seconds.
Nobody hands out nicknames like the Brazilians.
Fedor Emelianenko's hands-on session with the Fighter Exchange proteges intensifies as "The Last Emperor" shows off one of the most important facets of his game: how he sets up his devastating overhand rights, and the takedowns that often follow immediately after.
"You have to be smart," Emelianenko tells the fighters. "You really have to feel the opponent's distance."
Emelianenko bounces on the balls of his feet in his trademark stance, while Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza moves and weaves in front of him. As "Jacare" comes forward, Emelianenko mirrors his movement in reverse, keeping him at a perfect arm's length away. Emelianenko crouches and feints as he explains.
"I study the reaction the minute I start to move, or he starts to punch," the Stary Oskol native explains. "I feint and move to take his balance away, and then attack."
Emelianenko throws a short left hook, which "Jacare" moves to defend. As he does so, the Russian comes with an overhand right, and transitions straight into a fluid outside trip.
Though the demonstrations hover around half-speed, it's clear that the onlookers, especially the other fighters, are shocked by Emelianenko's speed and suddenness up close.
"I can't believe how fast he is," Bettega tells me after the tutorial. "On TV, you know, you can't tell so much. Up close, it's crazy. He's such an athlete."
Even one of the best athletes in MMA concurs.
"Fedor is so fast, man!" says Souza. "You'd never think this guy could move like that until you see him in real life."
|Larger Than Life|
The early moments of instruction from Fedor Emelianenko are awkward but edifying.
Part of it is the arrangement: Emelianenko is joined by Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Fernando Bettega, Josuel Distak, Max Martyniouk and Gegard Mousasi on the mat. Martyniouk, the only Russian speaker, has to play both trainee and translator. Likewise for Fernando Bettega, who is taking the Russian-to-English translation from Martyniouk, and then translating it into Portuguese for Souza and Distak.
But, it's not as big of a barrier as you might imagine: one fairly constant interaction you see in MMA gyms is the ability for fighters to understand one another through the pantomime of technique rather than language. Fedor's body movements and physical explanation of things while demonstrating clinch technique were readily understood by everyone, even before the translation.
Using "Jacare" as his demonstration dummy, Emelianenko explains some basic principles that govern how he uses the clinch and body lock in MMA: low center of gravity, good hip placement, and knowing how to disrupt your opponent's balance with knees and punches to the body. Again, despite the lack of direct understanding of Emelianenko's words, the Brazilians all smile and nod knowingly, as if they're all grasping and enjoying the lesson from "The Last Emperor."
"He's so strong," Souza tells me during a short break. "Very strong. He has a great clinch. I can see why he was so tough to beat for so long."
The comment on Emelianenko's physical prowess is amusing. "Jacare" is someone who got to feel that body-on-body strength. However, from the growing crowd of people filtering into the gym to watch, the constant refrain is one of surprise: people simply can't believe how much smaller Fedor is in person. It seems as though his stature within the sport conflated with their idea of his physical stature.
"I can't believe that's Fedor!" exclaims a middle-aged woman who has sat down beside me. Her son is a massive fan of the former Pride champion, and is here for the seminar later today. "He seems so much bigger on TV. Like, larger than life, you know?"
|Fedor's Boot Camp|
It's another miserably gray day in Santa Monica. However, our Brazilian contingent is excited this morning in spite of the infernal drizzling. Today, they'll have some one-on-one instruction from the sport's longtime heavyweight king, Fedor Emelianenko.
Emelianenko is in town for his "Fedor's Boot Camp" seminar at the M-1 Global gym in Chatsworth, Calif. However, for an hour beforehand, "The Last Emperor" has agreed to show off some of the tactics that made him MMA's heavyweight ruler for over seven years to Fernando Bettega, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Josuel Distak.
Before we can get moving, we have to deal once again with "Brazilian time."
When I got the word from the big bosses that we were to leave the hotel at 11:15 a.m., I instantly knew that in order to make things go smoothly, I would have to lie. I told Fernando Bettega that we were to leave at 11 a.m. sharp, and to tell Distak and "Jacare" likewise. Of course, this still didn't work perfectly: Distak and Bettega are both there by 11:05, but it's almost 11:20 by the time we get "Jacare" into the car.
Then, en route to the gym, a pit stop must be made: whether self-conscious or uncomfortable, "Jacare" has decided his toenails are too long to get on the mat. Ergo, we enter a Walgreen's in hot pursuit of toenail clippers.
Naturally, the merchandise is easy to come by. The Strikeforce middleweight champion wastes no time getting down to business after the purchase. Souza removes his sandals, and sits on the wet sidewalk. His feet are flat on the wet cement, as he clips toenail after toenail after toenail.
When all 10 have been satisfactorily cut, a cursory wipe of his feet, and his sandals are back on.
Josuel Distak has put on the focus mitts. It's time for music.
I'm always partial to the focus mitts, because the acoustics form the perfect in-gym symphony. It's even more pronounced watching Distak wield them, as he is able to get his fighters into such a rhythm that the resulting audio is like violence in 4/4 time.
He guides "Jacare" and Bettaga through a mitt progression: left hook, right hook, left hook, right uppercut. As they throw, Distak moves back, forcing the fighter to move forward to attack, like they're pouncing on a hurt opponent. As the uppercut smashes the pads, Distak lets out an "EYYY!".
It's quickly symphonic: Boom. Boom. Boom. Ey. Boom. Boom. Boom. Ey. Boom. Boom. Boom. Ey.
Next is a left hook to the body, left hook to the head, right hook to the body, right hook to the head. The ripping motion of the hook to the head in close quarters almost always elicits a "RAGGH!" from fighters. This is no exception.
Boom, Raagh! Boom, Raagh! Boom, Raagh! Boom, Raagh! Boom, Raagh! Boom, Raagh!
In the beginning, "Jacare's" natural thudding power produces far louder smacks on the focus pads. Bettega, even in sparring, typically seems more preoccupied with movement and defense than with really letting his power out. When he rips the hooks to the head on the mitts, they're like sonic booms. It's the first time I've seen him hit with that kind of authority.
|Ready For Anything|
After a hard second day of training with the Cesar Gracie team, I ask Fernando Bettega about what he's seen or learned over the course of this week.
"I've learned a lot," he nods. "Everywhere, I learn something. At AKA, you see the professionalism. All the great fighters there helping each other, how the trainers are working together. Also, the wrestling. I really liked the wrestling, getting instructions from an Olympian, it's great for my game."
"And what about at Gilbert Melendez' and Cesar Gracie's? How did you like working with those guys?"
"Oh, it was great," Bettega smiles. "The training is tough, so many good guys. Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz. Getting to roll with them was great. Cesar Gracie, his guys, it's like a family. I like it."
This is an important concept for Bettega. He puts a strong emphasis on "comfort" in his training. He tells me he feels he can train harder, without any inhibitions, if he's training with guys he likes, guys he considers friends.
"For me, Rafael [Cordeiro] is still the best coach," he tells me. "He's like my father, you know? That can't be replaced. That makes for good training. It's hard because, today, MMA is a business. You pay your trainers, need to promote yourself, get sponsors, and other things. But this started with martial arts. You need a master, you need to have that kind of respect."
"It's not just about learning kicks and punches. Anyone can teach you a kick, a punch, a takedown," Bettega shrugs. "A great coach, a master, having a team that's like family, that will teach you about life."
"What has MMA taught you about life?" I ask him.
"I never believed I could do this, anything like this," he confesses. "Learning all these techniques, learning how to fight, how to control my emotion, how to be the best I can be, I learned that life is tough."
Bettega pauses thoughtfully before elaborating.
"You have to be ready for everything. Hands up," he says, putting his dukes up over his smile.