Josh Gross
Thursday November 12th, 2009

Last week, I posed five questions worth considering through November. We won't know the answers to four of them until later this month, but on the issue of Fedor Emelianenko's marketability, there appears to be some movement, at least anecdotally.

On Tuesday, the Russian spent most of his day in Los Angeles. Among other things, he met for lunch with CBS executive Kelly Kahl; underwent surgery on the thumb of his left hand, which was dislocated during the first round against Brett Rogers; and visited the city's Korean consulate to secure his visa.

Wherever he went, Emelianenko said, he was recognized more than ever before.

The doctor's receptionist, the guy who shot Emelianenko's new passport photo -- nearly everyone at the consulate knew of him. (Emelianenko headed to Seoul on Wednesday, where he will film a candy bar commercial.) They all at least took a double-take -- probably, at first, because he's still bruised up from the fight, but judging by the subsequent reaction, more likely his appearance on network TV.

"It also seemed that they weren't all MMA fans, just people that happened to recognize me when I got a cup of coffee or something," he said. "A lot more people than usual."

Increased visibility shouldn't come as much of a surprise since 5.35 million American viewers tuned in to his win over Rogers. Emelianenko was previously maligned as a promoter's nightmare. His success in the sport commanded a high price, yet never did result in significant pay-per-view buys or media coverage outside of niche MMA circles. It's too soon to know if he can draw on pay-per-view, but even Emelianenko's harshest critics won't be able to argue last Saturday was a bad night for his future marketability.

What about CBS, Strikeforce and M-1 Global? Last week I wrote that a peak rating less than 5.5 million would be a "major disappointment." The final number came in just short of that (5.46 million), and it is not terrific considering a UFC-branded event on network television would likely attract millions of additional viewers. It's also unsettling though expected that a sideshow like Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson could outdraw an established champion like Emelianenko -- twice on CBS and once on SpikeTV.

Still, for CBS, which garnered near triple-digit increases in male viewers aged 18 to 34 on Saturday (dropping its median viewer age to 41), and its advertisers, the results proved once again that young men will change the dial to watch MMA. The feeling at the network, especially now that people know the Russian's name and face, is that a second prime-time bout featuring Emelianenko -- something that could happen by the spring or summer of 2010 -- would produce noticeably better numbers.

"The thing I've concluded after four of these is that we still clearly need a story, personality and draw to make a successful network show," said Kahl. "The sport itself -- even with a quality card -- isn't enough. Even a relatively unknown person -- Kimbo or Fedor -- works if there's a great angle. Gina Carano would be helpful. I'd love to have Fedor again if we can get him. Now that we've reached a critical mass with him, I think we could really build on it."

Not surprisingly, UFC president Dana White believes CBS once again tied itself to the wrong promotion. CBS would be "out of their mind to put that rinky-dink" Strikeforce back on network television, he told the Los Angeles Times. It would seem, however, that his opinion is falling on deaf ears. Since partnering with Showtime and CBS seven months ago, Strikeforce has elevated its profile in the MMA promotion game. That continued Friday when EA Sports announced Strikeforce would serve as the "premiere" promotion in its forthcoming MMA title.

At 33, Emelianenko has hit the apex of his athletic prime. He doesn't feel he's lost a step, and, hand injuries aside, said he's better now than ever before.

"The key is to get the proper rest in between the fights," said Emelianenko, who plans to sit out a couple weeks to let his hand heal. The injury isn't bad enough, though, to be bothered with taking prescribed pain medication. "As long as I'm fighting in the right intervals and doing what I need to do to prepare for the fights I'll keep going fine."

That is music to executives' ears at M-1 Global. Without Emelianenko, the company wouldn't have a presence in the U.S. or abroad to push its brand or fighters. Viewership for the card in Russia, Korea and other countries, which was engineered by M-1 and is responsible for much of its take of the co-promotion, is expected to easily trump the 4.04 million overall number CBS pulled in the U.S., they said. M-1 and Strikeforce negotiated a 50-50 split of the profits, according to Emelianenko's camp. While Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker wouldn't confirm the number, he said he was pleased with the venture and looks forward to working with MMA's No. 1 heavyweight.

Following the win over Rogers, Emelianenko mentioned his challenger's size. Standing barely 6-foot and weighing almost 230 pounds, Fedor is small compared to many heavyweights, and he has rarely been asked to defeat a large wrestler with a relative understanding of submissions.

UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar more than fits that description, and for obvious reasons it's the fight everyone wants to see.

"I think I can fight with anybody regardless of size and regardless of style," Emelianenko said Wednesday. "How the fights turn out, that's something we need to see."

Odds of the bout actually taking place are long since the UFC refuses co-promote with M-1 Global. And Emelianenko, an equity stakeholder in the company, is unlikely to do anything in MMA without M-1 being attached.

For now, he's occupied fighting the likes of Fabricio Werdum or Alistair Overeem. He's content with growing his American fan base through network television. And he's buoyed in the belief that "however long God allows my career to go, that's how long I'll fight."

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