Inside Fedor Emelianenko’s last hurrah in MMA

Mixed Martial Arts isn’t what it used to be. In its early days, the sport was widely dismissed as a sideshow for badass and relegated to the fringes of the outcast. For years, MMA was fueled by an obsessive and loyal fanbase, who dug up fight clips from dingy corners of the internet and watched them on low-resolution VHS tapes.

If you knew, you knew. If you didn’t know, you probably didn’t care. There was something iconic about following MMA in the 1990s and early ’00s, like hitting the midnight screening of “Eraserhead” or grooving to Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or watch Fedor Emelianenko smash a big scary dude you thought was unbeatable.

This may not make sense to those who have only recently had a taste for cage fighting. As MMA has grown into a quasi-mainstream attraction over the past decade, back when Fedor’s limelight dimmed, the sport’s audience has also expanded. So it’s reasonable to conclude that newer fans may not understand what Saturday’s Bellator 290 main event is all about, where Emelianenko will fight for the final time (9pm ET on CBS, with prelims at 6pm ET on Bellator and Showtime -YouTube channels).

This is a significant moment in MMA history, and not just because Emelianenko challenges heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in one of two title fights tonight in Inglewood, California. (The other pits Johnny Eblen, the undefeated middleweight champion, against Emelianenko’s protege, Anatoly Tokov.) Fedor still has tremendous appeal, and it’s not about today or anything that’s happened in the last decade. It reaches deep into the sport’s underground past, which he ruled with an iron fist. That may seem hard to imagine for those looking at Emelianenko today, who only see a quiet, bald 46-year-old with a stout body that isn’t set in granite at all.

Emelianenko is known to his fans as “The Last Emperor,” but it would be more appropriate to refer to him as MMA First Emperor. There are other greats on whose backs (and fists and chins) the sport was built. A few from those formative years even share Fedor’s worthiness as a name drop with a name – Royce, Tito, Vitor, and Randy, to name a few. But no one possessed the regal aura of the man from Stary Oskol, Russia.

From 2000 to 2010 he fought 33 times and lost once – a dubious stoppage by a doctor just 17 seconds into a fight in Japan that remains a painful memory for longtime MMA fans. If Emelianenko had advanced in the Rings tournament that night, his next opponent would have been Randy Couture. I missed it so much.

But too many highlights have not escaped Fedor. He fought – and defeated – most of the biggest heavyweights of the day. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Mark Coleman. Kevin Randleman. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. The best of the greats lined up in front of Emelianenko, and he knocked them all down.

And in case you weren’t watching then: Emelianenko in his fighting prime never had the sculpted physique of a muscleman. As it always was.

Speaking to Emelianenko on Monday, I asked him which of his 40 wins was his favourite. “First fight for the belt with Nogueira,” he said in Russian through an interpreter, referring to the 2003 fight in which he won the Pride heavyweight title and ended Big Nog’s 14-fight unbeaten streak. “I had to activate my combat IQ and find keys to victory. Back then he was the best fighter in the world.”

But fight results alone don’t paint a vivid picture of Emelianenko. Instead, it all begins with the strike of the stoic executioner, whose eerie stare pierces his opponent’s resolve before the first blow is delivered.

And behind that listless temper lurks a deeply thoughtful presence. Remember Fedor’s response when I questioned him about the fights not happen. fashion? Brock Lesnar? What fight would you have loved to have had in the prime of his career?

“I’m very happy with how it went,” said Emelianenko. “Whatever God gave me, I was very happy with it. You don’t have to think about things that never happen. You have to live in the moment and be happy with what you have.”

His replies came after long pauses, which made me grateful we were on a Zoom call. Ten seconds of silence on the phone would have made me think our line was dead. When I asked Emelianenko about his expectations for Saturday’s fight, a repeat of a 35-second win by Bader four years ago, the silence felt as long as in that first fight. On my screen, a stone-faced Fedor brooded… and brooded… and then spoke.



Bader KOs Fedor in 35 seconds

Ryan Bader hits Fedor Emelianenko with a left hook to win the Bellator Heavyweight Title and World Grand Prix Heavyweight Championship.

“Everything that happened last time happened very, very quickly,” he said. “It certainly didn’t go my way. Of course I haven’t gotten any younger [since then]. But I hope even at 46 I can fight him.”

That humility might be refreshing in a trash-talk sport, but it doesn’t feel all that reassuring. MMA doesn’t gently walk its aging stars out the door. In the last year alone, revered former UFC champions Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Frankie Edgar have been brutalized in their career finals. In case you weren’t sad enough about Bader’s two-punch KO of the legend four years ago, here’s the sequel starring a Fedor whose reflexes are now four years less sharp.

But this is the last fight Emelianenko wanted and he earned the right to go through any door of his choosing. And while longtime fans should be ready to cover their eyes in a snap, wouldn’t it be a cute throwback if he gave us a glimpse of his old destructive self? We’ll never see Prime Fedor again, but maybe he still has what it takes to wreak havoc for a round?

Emelianenko has won four of his last five fights, all with first-round knockouts from faded stars like Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and a round mound from “Rampage” Jackson. Is it possible for Bader to join this harrowing club? Sure it is. He, too, has aged in the four years since the first Fedor fight. Bader is just months from his 40th birthday and may have faded as much as Emelianenko’s other late-career conquests.

Should Fedor pull off the unbelievable this weekend, don’t expect him to scrap his retirement plans. “No matter what happens on Saturday – I’ll be ready,” he said. “I hope that Valentin Moldavsky will soon become heavyweight champion.” Moldavsky, another of Emelianenko’s protégés, challenged Bader a year ago and lost a close decision.

For the record, Emelianenko conceded that even a resounding win at Bellator 290 wouldn’t see him retire as the world’s No. 1 heavyweight. When I reeled off a list of names and asked who was the best heavyweight on the planet, that was the only time during our conversation that Fedor didn’t stop to think. “[Francis] Ngannou,” he replied immediately, the Russian interpreter not being needed this time.

Of course, with any MMA retirement, there’s no guarantee it’s truly the end of the road. Emelianenko has been here before – back in 2011, on the night he defeated former UFC title contender Pedro Rizzo in Saint Petersburg, Russia. After receiving a congratulatory handshake from President Vladimir Putin at ringside, Emelianenko announced his retirement. “My family influenced my decision,” he told a Russian media outlet. “My daughters are growing up without me. So it’s time to go.”

But three years later, Emelianenko returned to the fight.

I asked him how his family reacted.

“I was able to talk her into it,” he said with a smile (after a long pause, of course).

Will he persuade his family to return again sometime in the future?

“No,” Emelianenko said without hesitation. Then, after some thought, he elaborated: “I’m 46 years old and the longer I’ve been doing this, my past injuries have reminded me [of that]. And my wife goes from fight to fight, ‘Listen, you gotta stop this, stay with your family.'”

When asked about his plans for the future, Emelianenko spoke about coaching the pro fighters on his team and working with young Russian kids who are just beginning their MMA training. But his eyes lit up when he returned the conversation to the family.

“We’ll have time together now,” he said. “When I don’t have to train, we go for a walk. When my kids were little and it was time for a nap, I stayed with them. Same at night, I read them bedtime stories. This is the happiest time for me.

“Family comes first. You have been waiting for me for a very long time.” Inside Fedor Emelianenko’s last hurrah in MMA

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