From Russia with Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

Friday, February 27th, 2009

In Slate‘s From Russia with Blood, Beauty, and Beasts, Matthew Polly describes how he got a laugh out of MMA champion Fedor Emelianenko — right after he unexpectedly lost at the World Sambo Championships:

Fedor is also everything sportswriters say they want in their champions. While absolutely dominant, he’s also humble, modest, and polite. He never trash-talks or gets into trouble with the law. He’s a patriot who fights for the honor of his country. And his hobbies are watercolor painting and Dostoyevsky scholarship. America hasn’t had a champion who would even know who Dostoyevsky was, let alone read him, since Gene Tunney. Fedor is a credit to his sport, his country — heck, the human race.

But, of course, that’s not what sportswriters really want in our athletes. We want quote-spewing narcissists who attend nightclubs packing loaded guns and shoot themselves in the leg. Writing nice things about good people doesn’t sell as well as writing mean things about assholes. And from a sales perspective, Fedor is the worst of the nice guys — not only is he bland, he’s almost Terminator blank. He enters the ring, destroys his opponents, and leaves as if he were simply picking the newspaper off the lawn. And in interviews, he is almost, if this is possible, more vacant — a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

However, there are rare moments when Fedor flashes a bemused smirk as though he recognizes the absurdity of his occupation. It is a sign of a hidden vein of humor, which, since I didn’t expect to get much out of our scheduled interview, I decided to mine. My goal was to make Fedor laugh.

OK, on to how he got a laugh out of him:

“I saw Vladimir Putin’s judo video,” I said. “What do you think of his skill level?”

“When he was young, he was on the Russian team,” Fedor replied. “And I admire his talent.”

“How would he do against you?”

“I am an active sportsman, a practicing sportsman. I don’t know whether he is practicing now.”

This was the moment I was setting him up for: “So, would you let him win?”

For a second, I could almost see his brain light up as he pondered the variety of potential answers to this question and their various implications.

“I don’t think it would be like competing, just practicing, just enjoying.”
As he finished his sentence, he looked at me with a hand-in-the-cookie-jar expression. I smiled wide and patted him on the shoulder.

“You are very careful, very careful.”

Without need of translation, he dropped his head and his shoulders started to heave up and down. Unable to hold back his delight in his artful dodge, he finally let go.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh … heh.”

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