In July 2009, UFC President Dana White flew to the Island nation of Curacao in a last-ditch attempt to negotiate a potential deal with Fedor Emelianenko, then known as the baddest man on the planet.
At the time, the UFC president saw Emelianenko as his white whale — an obsession that haunted him ever since the heavyweight fighter rose to become arguably the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. As the UFC continued to put rival promotions such as PRIDE FC and Affliction out of business, White’s determination to reach an agreement with Emelianenko became a necessity.
White met with Emelianenko’s manager, Vadim Finkelchtein, a Russian entrepreneur with businesses in St. Petersburg and the Netherlands, including a controlling share M-1 Global, an MMA promotion he had founded in 1997. The Russian promotion’s main financier at the time, influential banker Sergey Matviyenko, was also present.
The two parties had little affection for each other. Matviyenko—vice president of one of the largest banks in the Russian Federation and son of Valentina Matviyenko, one of the most powerful women in Russian politics—was clearly unimpressed with White’s offer and negotiation tactics. While the exact deal offered remains a mystery, it reportedly did not impress Matviyenko — then M-1’s primary shareholder and decision maker — who leapt from his chair and laughed in White’s face.
Negotiations hit a stalemate, and both sides have different retellings of the story; White claims to have offered Emelianenko the most lucrative deal in the history of the promotion, while Finkelchtein and Emelianenko deem half of what White said incorrect. The end result was a schism between the largest promotions in the United States and Russia, and, for White, another failed attempt to secure one of the most coveted athletes in the sport.
However, nearly a decade removed from the infamous island negotiations, the UFC and M-1 Global have formed an unexpected partnership that will see the Russian promotion become a farming system for the UFC and assist them in hosting events across the Russian Federation.
This newfound partnership between M-1 Global and the UFC will see the Russian promotion’s champions get opportunities to hone their craft in the UFC. The joint venture will also include a partnership with the Mubadala Investment Company and the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF) to establish “UFC Russia” to promote UFC events across the Russian Federation. This in effect means that the UFC will work with sovereign wealth funds from Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to strengthen their position in the Russian market.
The deal came as a surprise to pundits and fans alike, many of whom assumed that the two promotions would never be able to reach any form of agreement. According to Finkelchtein, old wounds began to heal once the UFC was bought out by WME-IMG (now known as Endeavor) and changed its leadership.
“When the UFC was purchased by new owners in 2016, its team changed and they also changed their minds on their global expansion strategy,” Finkelchtein told BloodyElbow. “Before that, the UFC was trying to become a monopolist by buying up the competitors, but now they have changed their strategy, because there are too many promotions in the world and there is no sense in buying them all. Back in time they even tried to buy M-1 Global, but now they consider us as partners.”
Finkelchtein, who has been at the helm of M-1 Global since its inaugural event in 1997, has lived through a historically tense relationship with the UFC. However, once the UFC transferred ownership to Endeavor, he sought out a meeting with the promotion’s new leadership. In early 2018, Finkelchtein met with Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel to discuss potential business strategies. Finkelchtein suggested that M-1 Global could provide a farming mechanism for Russian champions to compete in the UFC, provided they do not become exclusively contracted to the UFC and are allowed to return to M-1 Global. According to the M-1 Global founder, Emanuel accepted his proposal and the two parties began to negotiate a deal.
Despite the tense and bitter history between the two promotions, the deal seems like a natural fit given the UFC’s recent interest in the Russian market. M-1 Global remains one of the largest and most successful promotions in the regional market — one that has already had some of its fighters move on to successful careers in the UFC.
“It is known that most of the successful Russian fighters in UFC come from M-1 Global,” Finkelchtein explained. “Like for example Alexander Volkov, who is now ranked no. 5 in the heavyweight division, joined the UFC as the M-1 Challenge heavyweight champion. Khabib Nurmagomedov had a few fights in our promotion, Marcin Tybura, Rashid Magomedov and Ramazan Emeev were also our champions.”
While M-1 Global had gradually lost a percentage of its market share in Russia with the rise of promotions like Fight Nights and ACB, both those promotions are now facing financial difficulties and have greatly reduced their event output in 2018. This leaves room for M-1 Global to step in and fill the void by scooping up prospects and top fighters from other promotions. Finkelchtein explained that this made the UF and M-1 global partnership “mutually beneficial” and added that “cooperation with UFC gives [M-1] an advantage because it will increase the average level of our fighters. Our champs signed to UFC will also fight at our events. We will have new top prospects who’d like to win the belts and move to UFC, so that is definitely going to be our advantage.”
Given the support from investment funds and the oldest MMA promotion in the Russian Federation, the UFC’s venture into Russia appears to be a serious attempt to penetrate the Russian market. Without a local partner with experience promoting combat sports events in Russia, the UFC would have faced a series of obstacles, including media rights, marketing strategies, and government bureaucracy. However, by partnering with M-1 Global, the UFC can avoid such concerns by allowing its local partners to run those aspects of the business.
Though the UFC’s primary obstacles will be a Russian economy still recovering from the 2014-15 recession and the ongoing political concerns between the US and Russia that have resulted in a diplomatic crisis, Finkelchtein believes the UFC will be able to negate the costs associated with events in Russia and inject new life into the MMA scene in Russia.
“All the money that the [UFC] does not get here, they can compensate in other ways like TV, sponsors, etc. MMA market in Russia has been changing and growing and when the UFC comes to Russia, MMA will become even more popular. Economic situation here has been improving lately, so the market will grow too.”
Full Disclosure: I, Karim Zidan, worked as an English commentator for M-1 Global between December 2014 and June 2016.
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