The Last Fight for the Last Emperor

The Last Fight for the Last Emperor

In the fight game, you can never be 100% sure, but Fedor Emelianenko – arguably the greatest MMA heavyweight of all time – says this weekend’s clash against Ryan Bader will be his last. He said something similar in 2012 after knocking out Pedro Rizzo, but that retirement ended up being just a three-year break. This time, at the advanced age of 46, he looks really serious.

Fedor’s gloves finally come out Saturday night in Los Angeles at Bellator 290, signaling the end of an era in MMA. Want to put things into perspective? When Tom Brady made his debut for the New England Patriots nearly 23 years ago, Fedor already had three pro fights under his belt, the third of which kicked off his godlike run in Japan. Young Brady lasted until the first Wednesday in February 2023 before calling it (again), while Fedor went all the way to the first Saturday to do the same (again). Another quiet victory for “the last emperor”.

What can you say about Fedor’s most understated and particularly unlikely run? This reign has seen him go on a 28-fight unbeaten streak, win titles at PRIDE FC and Strikeforce, stand up against giants like the 7-foot-2 Hong-man Choi, knock out ruthless opponents like Mirko Cro Cop, survive slams by Kevin Randleman, and take down “Big Nog” Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, while the yakuza smoked in the shadows of the Saitama Super Arena.

Part of what makes Fedor such an alluring figure is that he’s a throwback to places and times we can’t fully comprehend, this prehistoric MMA fighter that fans can study the same way ichthyologists do. study the guy. Fedor was fighting when MMA was still a barely sanctioned taboo in the United States, a year before Zuffa bought the UFC and began changing the perception of the sport. It predates the Unified Rules. Weight categories. Even Dana Freaking White, who was still an aerobics instructor when Fedor got his hands on poor Levon Lagvilava at Rings in distant Tula Oblast.

At the same time, he is this out of place vestige of a Dostoyevsky novel, a 19th century Russian with a sober face, built of indestructible emotional gray matter. He was always stingy with words and, according to public records, never raised his voice in anger. A God-fearing man, he is stoic in a way that doesn’t make sense in the age of TikTok. He has reserves of power that his not-so-intimidating cadre can’t budget for. It’s what you think of when you hear a word like “Siberia”. Just deeply cold.

There will never be another Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest mixed martial artist to ever compete in the UFC. His attitude before a fight has always been enough to cast spells. With the cameras swirling and a colossal juggernaut or other smashing their fists with clear intent to do harm, there was never anything but bewildering serenity. It’s like he’s been asleep from the excitement and hype of mortal fools. I’m telling you, this shit is deep. For more than two decades, Fedor has had a cathedral calm that plays beautifully against the hysteria, bombast and pyrotechnics of fight promotion. That’s why he’s one of the most beloved fighters to ever do it.

I still remember being at the Affliction event he headlined in 2008, when he choked out 6-foot-8 former UFC champion Tim Sylvia in 36 seconds, as easily as the one would subdue a drunk outside a college bar.

Affliction thought it was a good idea to have Megadeth playing at regular intervals to excite the crowd in Anaheim that night, but the band was nothing next to the sheer magnitude of power that Fedor possessed. Fedor went stronger than anyone. It had more power, more amplitude, more gain. He didn’t need to speak harshly to his opponents. He was a soft-spoken calculus who turned live events into quasi-religious experiences. When Brett Rogers rocked it in his Strikeforce debut in Chicago, a hush fell over the crowd that was immediately followed by a collective groan. Would the mighty Fedor fall?

Of course not. Fedor survived the onslaught like he did countless times in Japan and knocked out Rogers in the second round. It was as close to an out of body experience as I’ve had at a live sporting event. There was something cathartic about what we were witnessing. Even the pair of long-bearded Orthodox priests Fedor has traveled with since Stary Oskol slugged it out as Fedor extended his unbeaten streak to an impossible 28 fights.

Fedor is part of MMA history, its mystique and probably some of its regrets. We never saw him stand there against Randy Couture during Couture’s title run in the mid-2000s, nor did we see him fight Brock Lesnar when Lesnar was breaking pay-per-view records. view UFC as heavyweight champion. It’s a shame that didn’t happen. The UFC tried to sign him, but Fedor – who is linked to Russia-based M-1 Global – never agreed with White and the UFC brass.

Still, Fedor did things in MMA that may never happen again. He fought in a time that can never be replicated. He ripped victory from the jaws of defeat like it was the game within the game. He didn’t even really try to evolve in the quarter century he competed. His game plan was to fight you, knock you out, or submit, depending on how things were going. I doubt he even knows what a gogoplata is. When presented with a fancy menu, he would always just order a burger. Sometimes it seemed like he had no plan at all, just intent on taking your best shot and figuring out if you could take his.

Of course, in MMA, no one who fights for 23 years comes out in perfect shape, and that mindset will eventually catch up. Fedor lost and lost beautifully down the stretch. When it was submitted by Fabricio Werdum in San Jose, I saw people crying in the stands. The magic was exhausted. Did Werdum trick him into this submission by playing injured? Maybe, but when the reign finally ended, discussions about Fedor’s legacy resumed, because we knew where it ended. He had a decade-plus run where no one could beat him.

After that, he just got hammered by Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in what might have been the ugliest, most lopsided beatdown of his career. He lost his next to fellow PRIDE legend Dan Henderson, who drank a gallon of water just to do the minimum heavyweight. Then came twilight fights against failed names like Jeff Monson and Rizzo, then the retirement, comeback and steal of a decision the partisan judges gave him against Fabio Maldonado in Russia. He’s been knocked out twice since his comeback, the last being live on Paramount Network against Bader, the man he faces again in his fight for retirement.

Will some of the audience stare through their fingers as Fedor trades blows with Bader? Absolutely. He is 46 years old, a little slower, a little softer. There are very few graceful exits in MMA, and as we’ve seen with legends like Frankie Edgar and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua recently, retirement fights have a way of quickly becoming soulful. Both were brutally knocked unconscious and roughly chased off the stage.

But when the tall Russian takes that ride one last time at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, he’ll take a lot of MMA history with him. There will be arguments over who is the best heavyweight of all time, and names like Francis Ngannou and Stipe Miocic will get the strongest claims.

Yet whoever was there won’t have to raise their voices to be heard when they say the name, Fedor Emelianenko.

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