The Most Interesting Man in MMA – Part III: Soul of a Russian

The Most Interesting Man in MMA
Russian American heavyweight mixed martial artist Jeff Monson attends a wreath-laying ceremony to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum marking his birthday at Red Square in Moscow on April 22, 2016. / AFP / YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Part II of this “Most Interesting Man in MMA” series delved into the fascinating tales of Jeff Monson’s journey in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). But unbeknownst to Monson, his first foray into Russia to battle Fedor Emelianenko would forge a relationship that could be much more influential than anything he had done before.

Fighting Emelianenko was something Monson dreamed about for years. The Russian star has long been viewed as the greatest heavyweight fighter in MMA history. Emelianenko hadn’t fought in his homeland in over a decade. So his main event slot on a November 2011 M1 Global event was set to be a big moment in Russian sports that year.

Though Monson knew when M1 Global approached him about the bout, they had a specific type of opponent in mind. “They wanted him to win, but they wanted it to be a hard fight,” Monson said. Emelianenko was on a three fight losing streak. He needed a win, but a win over someone with name value. Understanding his place in the arrangement, he knew he was the man for the job. Especially since he felt he could win. That is, if he fought the Emelianenko of old.

The Most Interesting Man in MMA – Part III: Soul of a Russian

However, Monson did not get the risk taking striker who was willing to go forward. Instead he got a version of Emelianenko that was much more careful following brutal losses. This version lunged forward far less, and kicked more than ever. Kicks, that would break Monson’s leg in the second round.

Though disappointed with how the fight played out, Monson displayed immense heart by being competitive while fighting on a broken leg. That toughness did not go unnoticed. But he wasn’t showered with adoration from longtime fans in the US. He was bombarded with over a thousand emails from Russian fans. They thanked him for being such a worthy foe for their hero. Monson even received a phone call from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin was ringside for the bout and wanted to congratulate the foreigner on his effort.

And this is where a very interesting relationship started. As a child growing up in the Pacific northwest, Monson had an interest in Russia. And his long-time interest in anarchism blended well with the country’s communist ideologies. And now as an adult, Russia had an interest in him.

“They wanted him [Fedor Emelianenko] to win, but they wanted it to be a hard fight,” Monson said.

Since the fight with Emelianenko, he has fought in the former Soviet Union on more than ten occasions. “I remember going on the streets and all these young people going ‘hey, Jeff Monson’ and shaking my hand,” he says. He has reached celebrity status and is often stopped to give autographs and take pictures.

Because of his notoriety with Russian youth, the country’s Communist Party has developed an alliance with the fighter. They have even made him the party’s sports ambassador. It would seem they hope he can push disenfranchised youth to the polls to vote. The benefit for Monson is to nurture a relationship that could see him eventually get the Russian citizenship he desires.

To show his adoration for his adopted homeland, the self-dubbed Libertarian-Communist used the Russian national anthem as his walk-out music before a recent fight. “It couldn’t have gone better,” he says. He remembers the thought process of why he chose to do this when he says, “I respect you people in Russia so much, that I’m going to come out to this [the Russian national anthem].”

“I remember going on the streets and all these young people going ‘hey, Jeff Monson’ and shaking my hand,” he says.

Monson’s even been thrust in the middle of the geopolitical situation between the remnants of Ukraine and Russia. Recently, multiple states have been formed in the warring nation. One of those new nation-states is the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Monson has visited the pro-Russian state on goodwill missions. And because of this, he was bestowed with the country’s first citizenship given to a foreigner.

Nonetheless, the state is not recognized by many foreign governments. Ukraine is one of those many. “So in Ukraine they’re calling me a terrorist,” proclaims Monson. And because of his visits and new citizenship he says, “I got a lot of hate.” The hate came in the form of negative emails he received from fellow Americans. And as a sympathizer for the LPR, he doesn’t mind the terrorist designation or the hate. As he’s seen firsthand the devastation of war. “I was there, I saw the schools, I saw the airport, I saw all this stuff destroyed by the Ukraine government.”

Fate plays a part in life. And fate brought Monson to Russia. It’s put him in a position to influence more lives positively than he ever had before in his career. “I feel, since I have this opportunity, I have to make the most of it,” says Monson.

Fate plays a part in life. And fate brought Monson to Russia.

He has been to over 35 cities during his many tours of Russia. He has also visited children’s hospitals. “There’s no greater feeling than that,” Monson says, when talking about bringing joy to the children he’s visited. One of his biggest goals going forward is to work with the Communist Party and build martial arts schools for underprivileged youth, in Russia and Luhansk. “It’s a good feeling, it’s a good opportunity,” he says, when pondering on the benefits these schools can bring.

Monson would eventually separate from his wife and remarry. He and his current wife Danielle now live in West Palm Beach, Florida, with their daughter Willow. At the age of 45, retirement has become a reality. “The bodies taken a beating, I can’t see out of one eye,” Monson says, when mentioning the reasons why his career is coming to a finish. Because of this, US athletic commissions won’t license him to fight.

Dr. Paul Gavoni is Monson’s striking coach at American Top Team. And he is relieved to see Monson choose to retire. “I’ve been wanting him to retire for a long time, I actually care about the guy, he’s my buddy,” says Gavoni. As his friend and trainer, he did not approve of Monson choosing to fight with his limited sight. But it is hard to make any fighter believe they shouldn’t do it anymore. Gavoni even gave his fighter and ultimatum. “I pushed for it [retirement] for a long time,” says Gavoni. “I told him that I wouldn’t corner him until it’s his retirement fight, and that he formally and officially announced that he is retiring.”

His competitive fire still burns bright despite the brutality his body has received over 85 professional bouts.

The friends may hopefully be in same corner again very soon, because Monson does have one final career goal. It is to have a November retirement bout in Russia. Still, retirement isn’t an easy realization. “I don’t want to give it up,” he says. His competitive fire still burns bright despite the brutality his body has received over 85 professional bouts.

At one time he thought that, if he died after his victory at the 99’ ADCC, he could die satisfied. “Now I think it would be an absolute disaster. I don’t want to die before I can be helpful in some way,” Monson says. Be it helpful in the lives of his three children and wife, the lives of his friends, or in the lives of children in Russia. Though he regrets not winning a UFC heavyweight championship, the richness of his career experiences dulls the disappointment of that unfulfilled dream.

But you can’t subdue the heart of a fighter. And “The Snowman” has bigger goals and more victorious moments outside of a cage/ring ahead.

“This guy’s one of the greatest fighters to ever walk the earth. He never looks down on anybody, he’s just a great guy,” says Gavoni, when asked to describe Monson. He may not be the most interesting man in the world, but he can settle for the being the most interesting man in the history of MMA.

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