Fedor Emelianenko built legacy in historic time period filled with highlight reels, politics

by Danny Acosta MMAjunkie

Politics always will be part of the fight game. In mixed martial arts, that perhaps never was as true as in the sport’s formative times when “The Last Emperor,” Fedor Emeliankeno, reigned. 

After Zuffa purchased PRIDE’s famed white ring in March 2007, the PRIDE heavyweight champion was the only titleholder to not leave Japan behind for the octagon. Emelianeko competed in anomalous big-money shows centered on him, like Affliction, then played the free market in favor of Strikeforce as the biggest free-agent signing in history. 

Zuffa took hold of Strikeforce four years after seizing PRIDE, again letting the sport entertain the notion Emelianeko could land in the UFC. But the difference in that buyout was that the first consecutive losses of his career severely shortened his stack of negotiating chips. After an 84-second knockout of Pedro Rizzo this past week for M-1, Emelianenko hung up his gloves having never stepped in the UFC’s octagon. 

As Zuffa continues it’s conquest consolidating the world’s best talent, fashioning a resume heavy with accolades and history like Fedor Emelianenko without the UFC seems increasingly impossible on the sport’s current trajectory. Emelianenko never touching down in the UFC begs the question of whether or not a career can be legitimate without those three letters. The answer is always yes, though the significant weights of Emelianenko’s achievements are specific to his time. He benefited from five years in one of two established elite promotions to cultivate the most decorated career to exist without the octagon. 

Fedor’s multiple opportunities to arrive in the UFC and his 12-year career entirely without it will be remembered begrudgingly thanks to the public spat between his promoter, M-1 Global, and the UFC, which was backed by infrequent but assertive attitudes about the Las Vegas-based promotion and its boss, Dana White. Fedor really was the first fight figure in this sport large enough to cause such frustrating politics. 

The story of Emelianenko, in the end, should not be about politics. No one should blame Manny Pacquiao for being robbed against Timothy Bradley instead of fighting Floyd Mayweather because Pacman chose to be in that ring rather than involving himself in promotional politics with Bob Arum to make the fight everyone wanted to see. A competitor that chooses to fight is under no obligation to play the behind-the-scenes game, no matter how infuriating their lack of participation. What definitively matters is fight performance. 

For Emelianeko, 35, calling it quits on a three-fight win streak consisting of Jeff Monson, Satoshi Ishii and Rizzo is an underwhelming finish to an illustrious career. Looking seriously prepared and fast versus an aged Rizzo illustrated the paradox that sucks Emelianenko’s proven track record into a vacuum of heated debate regarding legitimacy. Emelianenko is as viable a heavyweight as ever, and opponents in the division outside of the UFC are scarce almost to the point of parody. Going out in victory against two former UFC title challengers in the last three outings is different than going out versus two former champions. It is, however, far better than going the route of Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell. Wins are still wins, and Shamrock and Liddell suffered warrior-on-shield ugly losses. 

When a fighter delivers like Emelianenko did against a prime Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, ring time speaks for itself. Those foils defined Emelianenko’s dominance. He dismantled Nogueira from inside his renowned guard, showcasing ground-and-pound future generations aspired to reach while ripping the PRIDE heavyweight crown from the Brazilian’s respected grips. He figured out feared K-1 transplant Cro Cop’s kickboxing at the Croatian’s peak, constructing a case that the undersized heavyweight’s unreal quickness and unorthodox punches rendered him the best striker in MMA. 

How many will have the highlight reel of Emelianenko? The lofty record? Wins against UFC Hall of Famer Mark Coleman, UFC champions Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia or heavyweight tough men Brett Rogers and Heath Herring all came at times those competitors were well regarded. Contests with Zulu and Hong Man Choi are called upon to discredit Emelianenko, yet no fighter who spent enough time on the Japanese circuit escaped such head-scratching matchmaking. It’s a consequence of where paychecks are signed, like the value of currency. Emelianenko never fought Josh Barnett or Randy Couture, who sought out a clash with the Russian before ultimately giving up his dispute to return to the octagon as its heavyweight champion. It was a fight Emelianenko wanted. Ultimately, no fighter has a career free of scrutiny, especially when achieving Emelianeko’s status. 

The mystique surrounding Emelianenko is mixed martial arts’ unblemished record impossibility. There are simply too many ways to lose in this sport, as if being undefeated in anything isn’t rare enough. It was well known the 17-second technical knockout loss to Tsuyoshi Kosaka in 2000 due to a cut should have been ruled a no contest. The loss on his record didn’t mean footage existed of Fedor losing. He avenged the loss in unforgiving fashion five years later, eventually reaching an unprecedented 27-fight win streak. When the Russian submitted to Fabricio Werdum two years ago in 69 seconds via triangle-armbar, it was only after remaining undefeated for five million minutes – a decade atop the sport. 

Bounced by Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva from a heavyweight grand prix meant for his redemption, Emelianenko accepted a legacy fight versus Dan Henderson. PRIDE two-division champion (183 and 205 pounds) Henderson, betting his “H-Bomb” right hand could earn him victory against the greatest big man of all-time in Emelianeko, opted out of defending his Strikeforce light heavyweight title for a contest nostalgic to PRIDE’s open-weight days by fighting Fedor at heavyweight in July 2011. As a natural middleweight, the Olympian held a win versus arguably the second greatest heavyweight, Nogueira. The legendary titans fought like they were the night’s opening bout instead of its main event. The gun-slinging sprint ended with Henderson leaving Emelianenko unconscious on all fours at 4:12 of Round One. Fitting of an icon, his final defeat was his best.

In the power of promotional politics, Zuffa-owned Strikeforce released Emelianenko while transitioning its entire heavyweight division to bolster the UFC’s roster. Zuffa’s control of MMA’s landscape can largely do what it wants with history, including discarding it. It doesn’t have to do business with anyone. Promoters can always win, too, because not even the greatest fighters in the world, Emelianenko and Anderson Silva, can keep their win columns clean over a long enough period of time. The organization outlasts the individual until the leverage shifts their way. Still, fighters’ willingness to engage in the dramatic knockouts and submissions of combat sports determine how they will be remembered, regardless of promotional headaches. 

Only eight of Emelianenko’s 34 career victories were decisions. Fedor was a finisher. If he ever decides to forego retirement and enter the UFC, it will erase the lone holdout from the sport’s history. Fedor holds the world-class distinction of being the first mixed martial arts fighter to have a global political figure, Russian President Vladimir Putin, attend his bouts. That acclaim in his homeland and his international championship reputation cannot be overstated for a kid from Stary Oskol, Russia – a defining, stoic killer of a fighter, a truly legendary mixed martial artist.

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