Fedor, the FBI, and the Fix-it Guy: How Trump’s infamous lawyer, Michael Cohen, got involved in MMA

On Monday, April 9, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the office, home, and hotel room of Michael Cohen, the longtime council and…

By: Karim Zidan | 5 years ago
Fedor, the FBI, and the Fix-it Guy: How Trump’s infamous lawyer, Michael Cohen, got involved in MMA
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Monday, April 9, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the office, home, and hotel room of Michael Cohen, the longtime council and business associate of U.S. President Donald Trump. The raid on the president’s infamous confidant, which was authorized by the U.S. attorney’s office, led to the reported seizure of records relating to the lawyer’s $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels following an alleged sexual encounter with the president in 2006.

The unexpected raids on Cohen shed light on the scrutiny facing the lawyer who refers to himself as Trump’s “fix-it guy.” While it remains unclear exactly why the FBI and Justice Department opted to seize documents belonging to the president’s personal lawyer, it is quite possible that the raid was related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mueller, a former FBI Director under George W. Bush, is responsible for overseeing any association between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign. Another possibility is that the raid was related to Cohen being “under federal investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations”, according to the Washington Post. Experts have debated whether Cohen’s hush money payment to Stormy Daniels during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign could be considered a violation in campaign law.

As a result of the recent reports regarding the ongoing investigation, it has become clear that Cohen is not your average lawyer. Cohen has worked as a high-level executive in the Trump organization, is a wealthy investor, and was also once the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Affliction Entertainment — a position he took after convincing Trump to invest in the mixed martial arts promotion.

The Pitbull

Cohen, 51, began his career in law after being admitted into the New York bar in 1992. He completed a short stint at a personal injury law firm before opening up his own practice. According to VOX, Cohen’s business relationship were closely intertwined with the Ukrainian community present in New York. Cohen married a Ukrainian immigrant and did business with her father before purchasing the expensive permits that allowed him to operate a taxi business. This allowed him to co-own a fleet of 200+ taxis by 2003 before becoming a partner at the Phillips Nizer firm.

As a result of Cohen’s newfound wealth, he began to invest in Trump properties in the early 2000s. He later became acquainted with Donald Trump Jr. after becoming treasurer of the board of Trump World Tower in New York. This helped him eventually meet Trump Sr. As treasurer, Cohen aided Trump in his opposition of the Trump World Tower condominium board’s accusations that the mogul had been involved in financial deception. The New York Times reported that Cohen organized a “coup” that led to a “standoff between Trump’s security detail and private guards hired by the disgruntled owners.” Trump won and obtained control of the board.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Having emerged victorious, Trump was impressed with Cohen and offered him the position of executive vice president and special counsel to the Trump Organization in 2007. He was given an office close to Trump’s and rose to become one of his closest confidants. He would continue to work closely with the wealthy businessman, joining him in his mixed martial arts venture, as well as his campaign for presidency. By 2011, Cohen became known as Trump’s “pitbull” and his loyal foot soldier.

”It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News in a 2011 interview. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”

That same year, Cohen co-founded the website “Should Trump Run?” to gauge interest in a potential presidential campaign. While Trump didn’t run in the 2012 elections, Cohen would rekindle interest in the campaign by 2015. During that time, he defended Trump against accusations of anti-semitism and swatted away allegations that Trump had raped his ex-wife Ivana Trump by claiming that “you can’t rape your spouse” in New York state — a false assertion. He went on to threaten Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak:

“You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.”

By 2017, Cohen’s behind-the-scenes intimidation tactics had become public knowledge, particularly his role in paying two women hush money payments following affairs with Trump. The first took place in August 2016, when former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal signed a nondisclosure agreement with the National Enquirer. The agreement included a $150,000 payment for the story. However, instead of publishing the story ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the National Enquirer buried it. Times has reported that Cohen was “apprised” of the McDougal negotiations at the time.

The second incident involved adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who threatened to come forward with her story regarding an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Vox reported that Cohen founded the company Essential Consulting LLC as a front for such transactions. He used the company to wire $130,000 to Daniels’ lawyers.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ever since the allegations that Cohen had paid off two women in exchange for their silence regarding affairs with Trump, the loyal lawyer has been in a significant amount of trouble with the Justice Department. The FBI raided his office in April 2018 and he remains under investigation, which could be troublesome for the incumbent president. While Cohen claims to have used his personal money to pay Daniels, it remains unclear whether the payment can be considered an illegal contribution to Trump’s presidential campaign.

On April 25, 2018, the FBI made an appearance at the Bellator 198 fight week in Chicago. According to The Telegraph of London, who first reported the news, the FBI knocked on Fedor Emelianenko’s door asked to speak to the Russian heavyweight. Fedor, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, had headlined the Affliction MMA shows while Cohen was COO of the promotion back in 2008. Given that Fedor has long been associated to Russian president Vladimir Putin, it is not difficult to speculate that the FBI was potentially questioning the fighter about his relationship with Cohen and Putin. So how exactly is Cohen’s past as an MMA executive relevant to his current predicament with the FBI?

Cohen’s Affliction

The incumbent president of the United States has been involved in combat sports for several decades. He hosted the 1988 heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks in Atlantic City and later saw the potential profitability in the fledging sport of MMA. He was indeed correct, as the UFC — while banished from the Pay-Per-View market and banned in 49 states in the early 2000s — reestablished legitimacy under the ownership of Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. By late 2001, the UFC began hosting events in Las Vegas after earlier success that year in Atlantic City (UFC 31 and 32).

Seven years after its last visit in 2005, the UFC returned to Atlantic City as an established entity with market control. During a post-fight media scrum, UFC President Dana White reminisced about Trump’s pivotal role during those trying days for the promotion in 2001.

”When we first bought this company, no venues would even take us,” White, who praised Trump in 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC), said at the time. “Donald Trump was the first guy to say, ‘We’ll do the fights here.’ Trump gave us our first shot over at [Taj Mahal], and then when we left and went to a bigger arena at the Meadowlands, he was one of the first guys there in his seat.”

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

However, between the UFC’s last event at Trump’s venue in 2001 and its most recent event in Atlantic City in 2014, Trump’s views on the UFC, as well as his actions toward it, took an interesting turn — one that created one of the biggest failed ventures in MMA’s short history.

In 2008, Trump was approached by Affliction, an MMA clothing brand that was looking to get into fight sponsorship and promotion. They saw Trump as a much-needed public figure to kindle attention. While Trump had previously dealt with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), it was Cohen — a fan of MMA — who convinced Trump to “lend his name to the venture.” Shortly thereafter, Cohen became Affliction Entertainment’s COO.

”I’m extremely honored to serve as COO for Affliction Entertainment,” Mr. Cohen said in a press release. “MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world and I’ve been a tremendous fan for years. I can assure everyone – fans watching on pay-per-view and those in attendance from all over the world – that our upcoming pay-per-view show will be the greatest MMA night ever. I’m nearly speechless knowing Mr. Trump and Affliction have the trust in me for an event that features the greatest assembly of MMA fighters for one show in MMA history. This is like having Ali, Frazier, Tyson, Holyfield and other top heavyweights all on the same boxing card. It’s unprecedented and will revolutionize the way MMA fans view this sport.”

With Cohen at the helm, Affliction Entertainment began to look like a Trump property. While it remains unclear whether Trump was financially vested in the promotion, his son, Donald Jr., suggested to Men’s Fitness magazine that his father had indeed invested money into the business along with lending his name: “If we have to put in more, we’ll put in more.”

Affliction went on to host its first event in July 2008. Cohen, who spoke to BloodyElbow ahead of the show, explained Trump’s role with the promotion.

“In conjunction with Affliction, which is a company where there’s mutual friends, they approached [Trump] with the prospect of becoming an equity partner in Affliction Entertainment,” Cohen told Luke Thomas in June 2008. “And after approximately a month of talks and negotiations, a deal was inked this past Monday.”

Cohen added that Trump planned to challenge the UFC’s dominance over the sport and usurp them as the top promoter in MMA.

“The one thing that Donald Trump brings is a mark and himself as the persona. There is no greater promoter in the world than Donald Trump. Whether it’s real estate, whether it’s luxury items, whether it’s going to be mixed martial arts, there is no better promoter in the world than Donald Trump. And what he brings to the table are contracts that are fair to the fighters; he brings the ability in which to sell out events; and he brings a love for the sport.

“So the answer is any company that enters into the arena of mixed martial arts certainly is going up against the UFC. The UFC has the longest track record and they have certainly been the premier company. We anticipate that will change. And that it will change very quickly.”

Asked whether Trump was willing to leverage his business contacts to take Affliction beyond Pay-Per-View and into primetime television, Cohen said it was “something that is being considered.

“Certainly one of the benefits of having Donald Trump as your partner is all of the individuals he has access to via his rolodex, which is immense.”

Despite Cohen’s grandiose plans for Affliction Entertainment, the promotion held two shows before combusting. The company was haemorrhaging money due to the exorbitant purses being paid out to fighters like Fedor. According to Politico, Fedor’s contract promised him $300,000 per fight and a $1.2 million consultation fee. By August 2009, Affliction Entertainment was no more.

Following his failed foray into MMA, Cohen took his leave from combat sports. Little did he know that his tenure with Affliction would be the subject of much speculation nearly a decade later.

Fedor and the Federal Agents

Ahead of Bellator 198 in Chicago, The Telegraph of London reported that the FBI showed up at the hotel where Fedor Emelianenko was staying. The agents requested to see the legendary fighter and “knocked on his room” before questioning him briefly. Fedor, who was scheduled to face Frank Mir in the opening round of the promotion’s Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, obliged.

While Fedor’s manager, Jerry Millen, declined to reveal the conversation that took place between his client and the agents, he explained to the Associated Press that “the FBI came to the hotel looking to talk to Fedor and they were very nice, came in to speak with Fedor for a few minutes, spoke to me, very cool guys, and that’s all I can really say about it.”

The agents reportedly made several trips back and forth to the hotel and were even present at the Bellator 198 event on Saturday night. While the FBI’s presence is unusual, it does not suggest any wrongdoing on Fedor’s part. However, it does leave room for speculation with regards to the potential topics of conversation between Fedor and the agents.

Fedor’s association with Putin led to the legalization of MMA in the Russian Federation in 2012, as well as Fedor himself becoming the president of the Russian MMA Union, the sport’s regulatory body. In exchange for his newfound career in sports administration, Fedor became a political tool in Putin’s re-election campaign. Ahead of Putin’s re-election in 2012, Fedor campaigned for the ‘United Russia’ party in support of Putin, who later won a third term for presidency with 63.6% of the vote.

M-1 Global

With regards to Trump, Fedor’s relationship with the U.S. President was limited to him headlining two Affliction shows before the promotion’s collapse. However, while Trump and Fedor had a working relationship long before the businessman’s pivot to politics, the Affliction deal was noted by the Hillary Clinton campaign as one of the key ties between Trump and the Russian Federation.

However, when asked whether Fedor was actually friends with Trump, Vadim Finkelchtein, Fedor’s manager at the time, revealed that their relationship was entirely “about business.”

”No one knew he would become a president then. I remember him as a smart, successful businessman who understood what he needed to do very well. It was an M-1 and Affliction co-promotion, and he represented the Affliction side. We had a press conference and weigh-in in Trump Plaza, visited his office several times. He greeted us very kindly and with all respect.

“I saw he supported Fedor in his fights and respected him a lot as a sportsman.”

Share this story

About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

More from the author

Related Stories