The Russian fighter was in Chicago, killing time with his entourage in the days before a mixed martial arts bout, when the call came.
FBI agents were looking for him. A fearsome heavyweight known as “The Last Emperor”—and who’s beloved by Russian President Vladimir Putin—Fedor Emelianenko had been in America for only five days before the feds appeared at his hotel near O’Hare Airport on Tuesday, April 24.
A decade before, Emelianenko had headlined an MMA league championed by Donald Trump and his personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. The outfit went bust after only two fights.
Now, Cohen is the subject of a major federal investigation. Two weeks prior to the rendezvous with Emelianenko, the FBI raided Cohen’s New York home, office, and hotel room in search of records related to his payout to porn star Stormy Daniels in the run-up to Election Day. (Cohen is also reportedly being eyed by special counsel Robert Mueller in his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.)
Jerry Millen, Emelianenko’s manager, declined to discuss what the G-men asked the 41-year-old warrior, who won his Bellator slugfest in 48 seconds four days later. The FBI interview was first reported by The Telegraph of London, then the Associated Press.
“They told us they’d be at the fight on Saturday,” Millen said of the federal agent and a translator, who came from the FBI’s Chicago bureau and chatted up Emelianenko for 20 minutes before handing him their business cards. “They said they’d be in plainclothes and we won’t know they’re there.”
When asked if Emelianenko has a relationship with Cohen, Millen replied, “Not that I know of.”
It’s unclear whether the FBI interest in Emelianenko, a slightly pudgy bruiser with a shaved head and stony gaze, is connected to either inquiry. But Millen, who partnered with Trump on a failed reality TV show featuring Emelianenko, said everything the MMA legend does is above board.
“Fedor is one of the best people I know,” Millen added. “He’s not involved in any goofy shit at all.”
Millen wants President Trump to attend Emelianenko’s next fight in the fall. And he hopes the Russian president will make it, too. “It would cause havoc, but if Trump and Putin want to meet, why not meet at Fedor’s fight?” Millen told The Daily Beast.
“Fedor works for Putin,” Millen said. “He’s very close to Mr. Putin and a big supporter of Mr. Putin and he’ll probably go back to work, after this is all over, for the government of Russia as sports ambassador.” Indeed, Emelianenko was a member of Putin’s United Russia Party and in 2012 was placed on the Russian president’s sports advisory council.
“Donald Trump loves Fedor,” the manager added. “So what better place to meet [than] at the next Bellator event?”
When asked if his dreams of a Putin-Trump showdown was all talk, Millen answered, “If I can make it happen, I will. I think it’d be awesome if Trump and Putin were in the ring together for a Fedor fight.”
Emelianenko was linked to the future American president as early as 2008, when the Affliction apparel company launched an MMA league in answer to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Before Affliction’s MMA venture, the UFC had prohibited its fighters from wearing Affliction duds during events. “I don’t like the way they do business,” UFC President Dana White told Bleacher Report of the clothing line, which had been sponsoring the sport’s fighters. In response, Affliction launched a league of its own.
Enter Donald Trump.
In May of that year, at a press conference at Trump Tower, the real estate mogul declared his partnership with Affliction and announced its first pay-per-view fight. Emelianenko would be the star of the July 2008 bout—titled “Affliction: Banned,” in a nod to the turf war with the UFC.
Trump held another presser one month later to announce the signing of Belarusian fighter Andrei Arlovski. “I’ve got a lot of money. That helps, right? But also and perhaps more importantly, I seem to get a lot of attention,” Trump told reporters.
“If we make money, that’s great,” Trump added, “I think we will. I think it will be successful. What I do is usually successful.”
Cohen was named Affliction Entertainment’s chief operating officer in a press release touting “Banned,” which drew thousands of fans to the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, and starred a Megadeth performance. Cohen said he was “nearly speechless” that Trump and Affliction trusted him to make MMA magic happen.
“This is like having Ali, Frazier, Tyson, Holyfield and other top heavyweights all on the same boxing card,” Cohen said at the time. “It’s unprecedented and will revolutionize the way MMA fans view this sport.”
Even Donald Trump Jr. was touting MMA, a sport John McCain once called “human cockfighting.” Trump Jr. told Men’s Fitness the Trump Organization was investing money in Affliction, not just providing name recognition. “We’re obviously a very cash-rich company,” he said. “So we can come into something to make sure it’s done appropriately. Depending on how everything goes, if we have to put in more, we’ll put in more.”
Tom Atencio, then-vice president of Affliction MMA, said he and Todd Beard, Affliction clothing’s late president, dreamed up the idea to host bouts of their own in competition with the UFC. Beard died in 2014.
Trump got involved through mutual business associates, Atencio said. Meanwhile, Millen claims that a manufacturer of men’s suits introduced Beard to Trump. (Back then, Millen was vice president of M-1 Global, an MMA promoter based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which co-promoted Affliction events.)
Despite Trump’s grandstanding, it’s unclear whether his company had a financial stake in the fight club or simply licensed his name. “I really can’t speak about it,” Atencio told The Daily Beast. “I guess the easiest way to say it: It was a lot different than the public understood it to be. At the time, we did things just like any other business. It’s kind of a facade, if you will. Nothing is always as it seems.”
Trump, along with boxing promoter Oscar De La Hoya, was brought in to make MMA a mainstream sport, Atencio said. “It got in the mainstream media because of him,” Atencio said of Trump.
Atencio said he met with Cohen, the chief operating officer, a few times for lunch but that “at the end of the day, he was really Donald Trump’s lawyer and had nothing to do with the events.” Atencio said he got “a big kick out of” seeing Cohen’s COO title in recent news reports.
“He told me that he studied martial arts,” Atencio said of Cohen. “He was a really nice guy. [But] he wasn’t involved in any of the operations or putting things together. Nothing.” They would have lunch again after Affliction’s collapse, when Atencio visited New York.
All three Affliction events featured Emelianenko as the main event. But the company, which was hemorrhaging cash on glitz and payroll, folded before the third bout, “Affliction: Trilogy,” which was scheduled for August 2009.
Emelianenko was slated to battle Josh “The Babyfaced Assassin” Barnett, who tested positive for steroids weeks before the event. Affliction pulled the plug, claiming they couldn’t find a replacement.
“I always said in the media... it was our third event and had we broke even or at least gotten close to breaking even, we would have continued to move forward,” Atencio said.
Yet Emelianenko and M-1 sued Affliction two months later, saying Barnett wasn’t the reason the league went under. According to the lawsuit, which alleged a breach of contract, Emelianenko was to fight a minimum of three bouts, for $300,000 each, plus travel and accommodation expenses.
The Russian brawler claimed M-1 helped to secure a new opponent, Brett Rogers. He also claimed he informed Affliction he was willing to pit himself against several other fighters, including Bobby Lashley, court papers state.
Emelianenko accused Affliction of having ulterior motives. The league was secretly securing a sponsorship deal with UFC and failed to inform him of their intention to cancel “Affliction: Trilogy,” the complaint claimed. On July 24, 2009, as the fighter was on a plane bound for Los Angeles with a 30-man entourage, the UFC and Affliction were allegedly negotiating the upstart league’s demise. When Emelianenko landed in L.A., he learned his third matchup was toast, his lawsuit alleged.
The parties settled the case in August 2011, court records show. Attorneys for both sides declined to comment to The Daily Beast.
Mike Bassiri, then general counsel for Affliction, said he helped negotiate contracts with the fighters and the venues. He declined to answer whether Trump invested in Affliction’s MMA arm but said the company’s T-shirt business, along with pay-per-view revenues, financed most of the fight productions.
When asked if Trump took legal action after Affliction shuttered, Bassiri said no. Asked about a potential settlement with Trump, he answered, “I can’t discuss that with you. I’m sorry.” MMA was blowing up, Bassiri recalls, and Trump wanted to be a part of it.
Emelianenko was at the center of another failed enterprise backed by Trump: a reality TV series called “Fighting Fedor.” Millen pitched the 15-episode project, which was supposed to be taped in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In October 2008, Affliction announced it would begin filming the show, which would send 16 unknown fighters to Russia for a chance to battle Emelianenko. Trump and M-1 Global were listed as partners.
“I don’t know who is going to make it through, but whoever it is will be incredible,” Trump said in a press release for the Soviet spectacular, adding, “I’m going to be there, but I don’t want to compete on the show.”
Filming for the series never got off the ground. Millen said internal disagreements led to the project’s downfall, especially after he left M-1 Global and Affliction’s MMA bid failed. “We just didn’t do it,” Millen said.
Still, Trump sat ringside for Affliction’s pair of California contests. Melania Trump joined him for at least one, according to an Orange County Register columnist who attended Affliction’s sophomore battle in January 2009. “I think it’s very brutal,” Melania told the reporter. “But it’s a business and a sport.”
Donald Trump interrupted her and declared, “You know why she comes? Because she has no choice.” (The OC scribe, who was on the hunt for female MMA fans, also spotted Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag from MTV’s The Hills and porn star Jenna Jameson, who was dating MMA fighter and Apprentice contestant Tito Ortiz.)
Three days before “Affliction: Banned,” Trump appeared on The Howard Stern Show to plug his foray into MMA. “We have Fedor the Russian who has never been defeated,” Trump boasted, adding, “His thing is inflicting death on people. He’s abnormally strong.
“His neck, I think it’s like 28 inches,” the now-president added.
Trump told Stern he loves boxing, but that the sport has “lost an edge” and “you get tired of it.” He suggested MMA quenched a need for something more violent.
“Well, this way, it’s sort of like… somebody dies,” Trump said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s terrible… It’s not like ‘Oh, how are the judges voting,’ OK. It’s like, you know, somebody just succumbs.”