Wherever Vitaly Minakov goes, the whispers begin.
"He's the 'Next Emperer.' He will take up the Russian heavyweight reigns left behind by Fedor Emelianenko."
While, Minakov and Emelianenko do have plenty in common, he does not want to be defined by comparisons to the mixed martial arts (MMA) legend.
Both men were extremely competent sambo practitioners. Minakov won the sambo world championships every year from 2008-2011 while also becoming a decorated black belt in judo. He's since turned his sights onto the MMA cage and has quickly burst onto the scene with an unblemished 11-0 professional record.
Minakov made his Bellator debut in November of 2012, knocking out decorated heavyweight grappler Vladimir Starcencov in the opening moments of the second round and he made a huge impact in his next bout, finishing veteran Ron Sparks in just 32 seconds to advance to the Summer Series Heavyweight tournament finals.
The Bryansk native spoke to MMAmania.com during a special guest appearance on The Verbal Submission about the initial transition to MMA, potentially fighting a teammate for the title and succeeding Fedor's legacy in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You won the Sambo world championship four years in a row, your one of Russia's top judo practitioners and you currently hold an undefeated 11-0 record in mixed martial arts. Is there anyone more manly than Vitaly Minakov?
Vitaly Minakov: (laughs) Well I don't consider myself to be like some kind of super manly person. I am just doing my job. I'm doing things I've been learning since early childhood. It's always like that. Every successful athlete, it doesn't matter how tough and strong you are, there is always someone stronger and tougher than you. So I do not think of myself as super manly, or super tough or superhuman. I'm just training and doing my job.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I'm interested in the transition you made to MMA. Being a four time champion and defeating Olympians in judo, were you just looking for another challenge with mixed martial arts?
Vitaly Minakov: Well I did almost everything that makes up the sport like wrestling, judo and sambo and I always wanted to test myself in MMA. A lot of my friends are professional MMA athletes so my transition to MMA from sambo, it was almost like an accident. Once I got an invitation to take part in an MMA event and I said, "Okay, why not?" It happened that I really, really enjoyed it. Right now MMA for me is like fresh air because there are a lot of new things for me to learn, new things for me to achieve. I know with the help of my friends, I'll be able to accomplish good things and reach my high goals in MMA now.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Considering your success in regular sambo, why didn't you test yourself in combat sambo against the likes of Fedor Emelianko and Blagoi Ivanov?
Vitaly Minakov: I don't see any reason for me to compete in combat sambo now while I'm competing in MMA. It's similar to combat sambo but it's more exciting, tougher, and has a bigger audience than combat sambo. I would love to compete against Fedor or Ivanov but Fedor is not competing anymore in MMA or combat sambo and Blagoi Ivanov had what happened to him last year so that's why he's not competing as well. Actually, I was supposed to fight against Blagoi in MMA in one of the Russian promotions last year but Blagoi had his situation in Bulgaria and that's why it didn't happen. I would have had a chance to fight him, actually.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How long did it take while making the transition to mixed martial arts before you got comfortable getting punched in the face?
Vitaly Minakov: (laughs) Well, to be frank with you. During the first four or five professional MMA fights, I didn't really understand which sport I was competing. I was so excited and so nervous, I didn't really pay attention on where I landed my punches. It was all so crazy. After that, I started to get more ring and cage experience and I decided to work with more and more professional sparring partners. Right now I think I'm picking it up and I have a clear idea of what MMA is all about. There are still new things for me to learn to reach a high level in the sport but answering your question, the first four or five fights were very hard for me because it was the time of transition you asked about.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How have you enjoyed your time in Bellator thus far, competing in the United States and scoring the two exciting knockouts?
Vitaly Minakov: I really enjoy fighting for Bellator. I like the way they work with me because our relationships are very open and sincere and I really like that about them. Right now my main goal is to become Bellator's world heavyweight champion and that's the only goal I'm focusing on and it's what I'm hoping to achieve in the nearest period of time.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): To become champion, you'll have to fight Alexander Volkov, who is your teammate and a fellow Russian. What's your policy on fighting friends or teammates? Is it okay as long as the title is on the line?
Vitaly Minakov: Well of course I'm not very excited that I could possibly pace my fellow countrymen. However I will not have much of a choice. It will be a situation where to get the belt, I will have to fight him of course. In this particular situation, what I like is no matter how this fight would end, the belt would still be in Russia. However, I will do my best so the belt moves from the capital of Russia, Moscow, where Alexander Volkov resides, to the Russian city of Bryansk where I live.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I saw a video of you getting picked up in the airport before this fight. Why did you feel the need to go back to Russia in between these two Summer Series tournament fights?
Vitaly Minakov: I spent some time in the States preparing for my previous fight against Ron Sparks. I really, really missed my family so that's why I went back to Russia to see my family and my kids. Also after discussing the situation with my management, we decided it would be possible to prepare for the next fight in Russia. It was possible because my main sparring partner is my brother and I had all the conditions to train in Russia for this fight. I only came to the United States about two weeks before the finals of the heavyweight tournament to get acclimation. Only the final part of my pre-fight preparation took place in the United States.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Many fans are raving about you being the next great Russian heavyweight. Some even call you "The Next Emperor," similar to Fedor's "Last Emperor." What do you think of some fans labeling you the next Fedor?
Vitaly Minakov: Of course I heard about that. I cannot say that I really enjoy it because first of all, I'm a person who first does things, who first tries to achieve things and after that, I will be able to say something. First I will have to get close to the things that Fedor has done during his career and only then will I be able to speak about how good I am. I think for me, it will be way better to be the first Vitaly Minakov than the second Fedor Emelianenko. I think all athletes, they have their own destiny and they have their own career including myself. I'm not a big fan of comparing myself to anybody, including such a great icon of our sport as Fedor.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about your upcoming opponent, Ryan Martinez. What do you think of him, especially after he stepped up on 24 hours notice to advance through the last round of the tournament?
Vitaly Minakov: The fight you mentioned, how Ryan learned of his fight in the semifinals on 24 hours notice and that he was able to win the fight says a lot about his mental strength. He was able to focus himself on the fight and he did everything to win, unlike Richard Hale, who maybe because of his opponent change, he couldn't show what he was really capable of doing in the cage.
Speaking of my fight with Ryan Martinez, we'll see how it goes in a week and a half once we enter the cage. However, I can say he's very mentally strong, physically tough and I think many people underestimate him. I do not belong to those type of people. I think this will be a tough fight and that's why trained so hard for this fight, all areas, stand-up, ground and pound, conditioning and everything. I have to be very well-prepared for this fight because in order to face Volkov for the championship, first I must get past Ryan Martinez. I do not look over this fight, I do not look past him, I'm focused on this fight and I feel I will be able to do everything correctly there in order to win.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): When you picture victory against Ryan Martinez, what do you see?
Vitaly Minakov: It doesn't matter how the win will come. For me a win is a win so I will try to do my best to beat him. If I see the opening or the opportunity to win, I will take it.
Vitaly would like to thank Alexei Zhernakov (who helped translate this interview) and his teammates Alexander Shlemenko, Andrey Koreshkov and everyone who supports him and is behind him for the fight.