On a map, it looks like the Dave & Buster's in Manchester, Connecticut, sits along a quintessentially American stretch of blacktop.
Buckland Hills Drive cuts a gentle curve from east to west, just a stone’s throw north of I-84 and a little south of a thin blue pencil line called Plum Gulley Brook. It’s hemmed in on all sides by shopping centers. There’s a Home Depot right there, an Olive Garden, a Sam’s Club.
The restaurant itself sits across the street from a sprawling mall, where a Sears, a Barnes & Noble and a Dick’s Sporting Goods are among the anchor stores.
It seems fine, it seems like suburbia, but it seems impossible that Fedor Emelianenko could ever feel at home there.
It’s difficult, in fact, to imagine the enigmatic Emelianenko at a Dave & Buster's at all—yet that’s exactly where he’ll be come Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. He’ll participate with a fleet of other aging “brand ambassadors” at a function called Bellator MMA Fan Fest, a few days before that fight company puts on its biggest event of the year so far, in nearby Uncasville.
This trip marks the first time Emelianenko has set foot in the United States since his Strikeforce run, which ended in 2011 on the heels of three consecutive losses. Prior to that, he’d gone undefeated for nearly a decade. Afterward, he finished up his legendary MMA career with three straight wins overseas, though the rebound couldn’t totally blot out the fall.
By 2012, he ran his professional record to 34-4-1 and then walked away from a sport where he was universally loved but never really known. Now he’s back, to spend an hour or two signing autographs and meeting fans alongside other Bellator emissaries like Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Kimbo Slice.
At a Dave & Buster's.
In Manchester, Connecticut.
If you could offer a penny for his thoughts, it might be fascinating to know what the religiously devout Russian knockout artist will make of this garish American chain restaurant, which markets itself as a glorified video arcade for grown-ups.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. You could ask him, but Emelianenko probably wouldn’t say. The closest he’ll come this week is the following impenetrable report on how it feels to be back in America:
“There is a lot of diversity in America, cultural diversity,” he says through his interpreter. “There are a lot of things that I can appreciate about it, and there are some things that I’m definitely not used to and wouldn’t say that I welcome very much.”
Nearly three years into retirement, the consensus greatest heavyweight in MMA history still keeps most of his thoughts to himself. He’s still so judicious with words, his sentences still so difficult to parse, it’s hard to know if he’s just a very simple man or a very, very shrewd one.
Ask him if, now that it’s all over, he’s finally able to appreciate his status as one of the two or three greatest fighters of all time, and he says: “I never thought about it. I never try to think about it.”
Ask him if his new association with Bellator will last beyond this weekend and he says: “We’ll see.”
Ask him if he has a favorite memory of his fighting career and Emelianenko says: “The most colorful memory I have right now is when I realized God is with me.”
After a moment more to think about it, he adds that, yeah, that time he beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to unify the Pride heavyweight title on New Year’s Eve 2004 was pretty good too.
(Ed note: I’m paraphrasing.)
At base, Fedor is still Fedor. As if you didn’t know, he still talks and looks exactly the same:
He’ll give you a full paragraph about how much he likes Bellator CEO Scott Coker, a few fleeting words about his ongoing love for MMA, but it’s still pretty hard to talk to the guy.
There’s the language barrier, there’s the translator, there’s the occasionally wonky phone connection. Sometimes you ask a question and the pause afterward goes three, five, 10 seconds. Even after he answers, you’re left wondering if either side’s complete message got through.
But the man seems different in subtle ways too. Maybe it’s just your imagination, but Emelianenko appears ever slightly more relaxed these days. He’s a bit more talkative—which is to say, still not very talkative at all—a bit more at ease.
He actually laughed at one point.
Even the idea of the Dave & Buster's meet-and-greet, which you might assume would be tortuous for a quiet, painstakingly private man, appears to be his pleasure.
“It’s like meeting old friends,” he says. “It’s never forced, I don’t look at it as work. It’s always two-way love.”
Spend a few scant minutes trying to peer into the impossible fortress of his mind, and you come away with the distinct impression that retirement agrees with him.
The life he describes in his hometown of Stary Oskol, Russia—a city about the same size as Scottsdale, Arizona or Baton Rouge, Louisiana—sounds fairly idyllic. About a year ago, he reportedly divorced his second wife and remarried his first wife. Now he says he spends his free time with his family, going to church, going on trips, to museums and to the gym together.
“Now that MMA has become a very popular sport in Russia, it’s proved slightly more difficult to walk around on the street,” he says. “People do recognize my face.”
Today, Emelianenko describes himself as a full-time advocate for MMA. While it’s unclear exactly what that means, it’s easy to imagine him traveling the world, doing essentially the same thing he’ll do for Bellator this weekend: offering support and garnering free press just by, you know, being there.
Ask him if he ever has thoughts of a comeback, and he’ll say he never left.
“Even though I’m retired, I train every day,” he says. “I try to stay in shape to keep my stamina up. I’m still in the sport, but from a slightly different angle.”
Ask him a question he appreciates and he’ll thank you for it. Literally, he’ll thank you for asking. When the conversation concludes, he’ll thank you again and say he hopes you can meet in person one day.
He’ll say he hopes to continue the “dialogue,”—even though the talk you just had barely met the minimum requirements of a conversation—and then he’s gone.
Still the greatest.
And on his way to Dave & Buster's.
Chad Dundas covers MMA for Bleacher Report.