Unpacking a Strange, Violent Connection Between Trump and Putin

Of course MMA would find its way into the Russia story

Mixed Martial Artist Fedor Emelianenko and Donald Trump in 2008. Credit: Tiffany Rose/WireImage.com

Quick, name someone who Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin both know and venerate. Give up? Try Fedor Emelianenko, a 230-pound, Ukrainian-born MMA fighter, widely described as the best MMA scrapper of all time – and one of the scariest, battle-scarred combat veterans ever to have entered the octagon.

Consider this description of Emelianenko's mien by a sports psychologist: "When the referee tells them to head back to their corners, Fedor suddenly darts a short look directly at his opponent – or through his opponent, I should say. This kind of look is associated with antisocial behavioral disorders and psychopaths. They don't look at you, they look through you."

Psychopath or not, Emelianenko probably didn't intimidate the FBI agents who came to see him at his hotel when he was in Chicago for a bout last month. (The agents attended the fight.) And despite his encounter with the FBI – there's video – Emelianenko, a.k.a. "The Last Emperor," still won his MMA brawl against Frank Mir in typically brutal fashion.

So why is the FBI interested in this man? Because back in 2008, both Emelianenko and his heavily tattooed brother, Aleksander Emelianenko, who was convicted of sexual assault, were involved in a short-lived venture called Affliction Entertainment, which was launched in partnership with Donald Trump. The company's chief operating officer was Trump's attorney and "fixer," Michael Cohen. The details of the FBI's interview with Emelianenko are unknown, but their interest in him almost certainly stemmed from the raid on Cohen's home, office and hotel room in April.

Emelianenko also has very close ties to Vladimir Putin and to Putin's United Russia Party – making him a weird, offbeat link in the sprawling pattern of Trump-Russia connections.

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When former Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev left his post with Russia's Council of Physical Fitness & Sports, Putin signed a decree appointing Emelianenko to the spot. In 2010, Emelianenko was elected to a local parliament as a member of Putin's United Russia party. And the fighter has reportedly expressed support for Putin's war in Ukraine and for Putin's annexation of Crimea.

For his part, Trump's ties to Emelianenko began a decade ago.

"In 2008, Trump was approached by Affliction Clothing, a martial-arts-themed apparel company looking to expand into fight sponsorship, and which saw a partnership with Trump as a sure-fire publicity generator," reported Politico in 2016. Michael Cohen was a fan of the sport and encouraged Trump to make a deal. Trump teamed up with Emelianenko's promoter/manager, Vadim Finkelchtein, and the new venture, Affliction Entertainment, made big plans. But, like many of Trump's business schemes – vodka, steaks, a "university" – Affliction Entertainment fell apart, disastrously. After only two expensive, money-losing spectaculars in Anaheim, California, both featuring Emelianenko, the company shut down.

Mixed Martial Arts is an especially violent, take-no-prisoners sport, and has resulted in at least five deaths since 2007 (that's for officially sanctioned bouts; there are many other casualties in unsanctioned or illegal fights). And it's precisely that violence that appears to attract both Trump and Putin.

Trump seems to have been obsessed with the sheer physical power of Emelianenko & Co. "His thing is inflicting death on people," Trump said of Emelianenko in a Howard Stern interview. "It's sort of like, you just – somebody dies! I've never seen anything like that. And it's terrible. It's the gladiator. It's not like, 'Oh, how are the judges voting?' OK? It's like, you know, somebody just – succumbs." (You can watch a video of Trump, in 2008, at the weigh-in of Emelianenko and his unfortunate opponent, Tim Sylvia, who lasted just 36 seconds in the cage with the fighter.)

Back in 2008, MMA was just Trump's latest obsession. As described by Bleacher Report, Trump brought WrestleMania to his Atlantic City casino as long ago as 1989, and ever since has been strangely attracted to the hype, fakery, showmanship and ersatz violence that mark the sport. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, where he trumpeted his ties to WWE's long-time chieftain, Vince McMahon. (Vince's wife, Linda McMahon, you'll recall, spent tens of millions of McMahon dollars running for U.S. Senate in both 2010 and 2012 in Connecticut, losing twice, and she now serves as Trump's Small Business Administration boss.)

And it was Dana White, the president of UFC, who gave a near-delirious address to the Republican National Convention in 2016 in support of Trump. In his speech, White gave Trump credit for bringing UFC out of the shadows and into mainstream American sports culture, sort of. "Arenas around the world refused to host our events," said White. "Nobody took us seriously. Nobody. Except Donald Trump."

As we know, Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Putin and other strongmen around the world (in Turkey, Egypt and the Philippines, for instance). He seems to have a bro-to-bro admiration for the Russian leader, who shares Trump's love of the violence and macho posturing associated with this type of fighting. And, as Vice's Fightland has pointed out, "No tie binds a man to the heart of Vladimir Putin like Emelianenko."

Putin and Emelianenko have a close bond, forged out of Putin's admiration for the MMA fighter's fierce competitiveness and sheer power (and Emelianenko's reverence for Putin). "I haven't trained with him personally, but I know people who have, and he's a powerful fighter, particularly in judo and sambo," said Emelianenko in an interview with Sports Illustrated. "Vladimir Putin is made of steel." There are countless photographs of Putin and Emelianenko together.

It's no secret that Putin is an MMA devotee and that combat sports are his forte. "I was just a boy when I started judo," Putin is quoted as saying on his own Kremlin web page. "I became deeply interested in martial arts, their special philosophy, culture, relations with the opponent and the rules of combat." The site goes on with a list of his accomplishments in the field: Master of Sports in judo, Master of Sports in sambo, honorary president of the European Judo Union, honorary doctorate in judo from South Korea's Yong In University, and a black belt in karate.

As Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a former State Department medical officer who served in Moscow, wrote in the The Cipher Brief: "Martial arts and the study of Judo has likely shaped Putin's personality as much as any other activity … Putin has cleverly utilized 'martial arts diplomacy' to further informal, highly publicized, personal relationships with well-known martial artists, such as the U.S. actor and martial artist Steven Seagal (who holds a 7th dan rank in aikido and whom Putin granted honorary Russian citizenship in 2016) to further his own political and strategic goals."

In addition to Trump and Putin's bromance with Emelianenko, there's a dark and troubling side to this story. Both leaders have cultivated a political appeal to white nationalist and even neo-Nazi subcultures in the United States and Russia, respectively, and the Emelianenko brothers – along with the MMA culture itself – appeal to many of these same supporters. (UFC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

"The MMA subculture in Russia has also become mixed with nationalism as some clubs have strived to only train ethnically Slavic Russians rather than people from the mostly Muslim North Caucasus region, where combat sports are enormously popular," reported AFP. "Some amateur tournaments do not allow non-Slavic Russian fighters from the turbulent southern region, home to many of the country's successful wrestlers."

And it's worse than that. Take, for example, the wildly popular swag from White Rex, a Russian clothing line associated with the country's MMA world. White Rex has been criticized for catering to neo-Nazis, fascists and white supremacists. (Rolling Stone was unable to reach White Rex for comment.) A detailed and scary take-down of White Rex in Bloody Elbow, the MMA site run by SB Nation, describes the company's panoply of mystical, occult, pagan, and outright Nazi-like symbols: "Some of the White Rex shirts openly state slogans such as 'Zero Tolerance,' 'Angry Europeans' and 'White Rex Against Tolerance.' Others, including women's wear, sport symbols such as '88,' which stands for 'Heil Hitler.'"

In an interview with a Russian media company, Denis Nitikin, the founder of White Rex, rejected having his brand labeled as "neo-Nazi." He did however say that after spending a decade in Germany, Holland and Ireland, he began to grasp the idea of nationalism: "I began to ask myself why the white man is oppressed, and realized that something was completely wrong. Since the Right was driven out of politics, they had to express their resistance, going to the streets and beating up migrants. This was the only opportunity to protest."

But let's revisit Fedor Emelianenko's brother. Much of Aleksander Emelianenko's body is covered with meaningful tattoos, and they've been widely written about, analyzed and interpreted. Some critics argue that they are symbolic of both the Nazi subculture and the Russian criminal underworld, and one tattooed phrase on Emelianenko reads "Gott mit uns" ("God with us"), which was also etched on the belt buckles of the Nazi Wehrmacht. For his part, Aleksander denies any extremist leanings. In response to charges that he is an extremist or an ultranationalist, he has said, "I am not and never will be a supporter of any political extremist movements." He told an interviewer that the tattoos are meant to symbolize simple qualities such as bravery and refusal to kneel. "There are words in German, 'God with us,' on my back," he said. "For me it is a symbol of revival, so to say."

Since mounting his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has deliberately cultivated an appeal to disaffected, angry white working-class voters, some of whom have fallen under the influence of far-right and white nationalist groups and organizations. In Russia, too, Putin has built a powerful bloc of supporters among right-wing Russian nationalists, many of whom have ties to a seedy underworld of paramilitary groups and motorcycle gangs. It shouldn't be any surprise that these Trump and Putin supporters resonate with each other like tuning forks – or that the violent subculture of MMA and its ilk form part of the waves connecting them.

But if the Mueller inquiry, the FBI raid on Michael Cohen, and the FBI questioning of Fedor Emelianenko tell us anything, it's that the Justice Department and the Office of Special Counsel may be hot on the trail of yet another of Trump's Russia ties. As David Von Drehle so memorably put it in his wry account of Trump's proclivity for MMA, "At this point, many Americans would like to change the channel. And indeed, pro-wrestling ratings have been dropping for years. But as long as Trump's core audience laps it up, there will be more – culminating, perhaps, as Bob 'the G-Man' Mueller delivers a Tilt-a-Whirl Headscissors Takedown followed by a Rude Awakening."

It's far too early in the Russia inquiry to say what part the investigation of Trump and Cohen's ties to Emelianenko might play, if any. The president, as anyone who's following the Special Counsel's inquiry knows, has multiple ties to Russian political figures, Russian oligarchs and real estate moguls, and there's growing reason to suspect that he or his campaign staff and aides colluded with Moscow in 2016. But for someone who's said repeatedly that he has "nothing to do with Russia," his connection to Fedor Emelianenko is one more piece of a fascinating puzzle.