Recently retired legend Fedor Emelianenko deserves the respect and admiration of all mixed martial arts fans.
After a historic career that never saw him step foot inside the UFC’s world-famous Octagon, former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko has signaled an end to his incomparable mixed martial arts journey in the aftermath of a triumphant performance in front of a rousing home crowd last Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Emelianenko needed just 84 seconds to decimate Brazilian veteran Pedro Rizzo at the Ice Palace in front of a who’s who of combat sports personalities and political figures, including kickboxing legend Ernesto Hoost, fellow MMA juggernaut Sergei Kharitonov, former two-time WBA boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the most influential and powerful figures on the planet.
An unassuming heavyweight with a modest personality and physique, Emelianenko’s legacy is unsurpassed in the sport and he should go down in history as the most dominant heavyweight of all time.
Following a UFC-filled weekend, much of the talk has surrounded Clay Guida’s hit-and-run strategy and Wanderlei Silva’s exciting battle with Rich Franklin in Brazil. The 35-year-old Emelianenko, once the most feared fighter in the sport, is not getting the attention he deserves after officially announcing his plans to step away from the sport, a sport he helped legitimize and popularize, particularly in Eastern Europe.
After debuting in May 2000, Emelianenko took the mixed martial arts world by storm, earning victories over highly touted Brazilians Ricardo Arona and Renato “Babalu” Sobral, which would inevitably land him a spot on the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships roster. While competing in Japan, Emelianenko would enjoy nearly 10 years as an unbeaten powerhouse, defeating a number of champions and elite combatants, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
The magnitude of these victories is not fully appreciated today, as Nogueira has since been stopped several times in the UFC, while Filipovic’s tenure in the sport has come to a screeching halt. However, these men were the best of the best when Emelianenko vanquished them. More importantly, his performances were nothing short of spectacular.
Nogueira was the Pride heavyweight champion since 2001 with a string of wins over Coleman, Heath Herring and Dan Henderson. The submission magician wasn’t just winning. He was finishing world-class opponents in resounding fashion. When the humble Russian up-and-comer challenged the Brazilian submission specialist at Pride 25, few observers gave him a legitimate shot of winning. Not only did Emelianenko win the coveted championship, which was undoubtedly the most prestigious heavyweight prize in the sport at that time, he did so in a destructive nature, devastating Nogueira with an onslaught of ground-and-pound never before unleashed on the sport.
Emelianenko went undefeated throughout his entire Pride tenure, regularly being matched up with fighters twice his size and obliterating them without breaking a sweat.
Emelianenko’s unblemished resumé would have a few scares and hiccups along the way, but his ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles was truly remarkable. In fact, no other fighter has shined like Emelianenko in the face of adversity. Randleman nearly broke the Russian’s neck when he suplexed him on his head at Pride Critical Countdown 2004, but “The Last Emperor” not only recovered from the brutal move, he transitioned to a fight-ending kimura to put the former UFC heavyweight champion away in less than two minutes. Kazuyuki Fujita and Mark Hunt also had their moments against Emelianenko, but the combat sambo stylist showcased his warrior spirit and proved that his will could not be broken, inevitably submitting both challengers.
When the UFC purchased Pride in 2006, all eyes were on Emelianenko, who fans and pundits alike had hoped would join the UFC’s struggling heavyweight roster. Well-documented disputes between UFC president Dana White and Emelianenko’s M-1 Global management team prevented the anticipated development from coming to fruition, which prompted him to join the fledgling Affliction organization.
Under the short-lived Affliction banner, Emelianenko crushed former UFC heavyweight kings Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, further establishing his legacy as a heavyweight force and one of the premier pound-for-pound fighters in the sport’s short history.
An unsuccessful contract negotiation with the UFC made Emelianenko public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the promotion and White took every opportunity to bash the Russian star and criticize his level of competition.
To be fair, any criticism of Emelianenko during this period is an equally stern criticism of the UFC’s weak heavyweight division during that era. Not only did Emelianenko trounce a number of former UFC champions, he decisively defeated Nogueira, the interim UFC champ at the time, on two separate occasions.
Once a potential UFC deal fell through the cracks, the fighter of the decade would sign a contract with Strikeforce. In his first bout with the organization, Emelianenko survived an early barrage from physical powerhouse Brett Rogers before knocking him out in staggering fashion.
Little did we know that it marked the beginning of the end for one of the all-time greats as Emelianenko suffered setbacks in his next three appearances. First, Emelianenko’s reckless offensive style was his downfall as he succumbed to a first-round triangle armbar at the hands of Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Fabricio Werdum, a man now widely regarded as one of the best heavyweights on the UFC roster.
Next, Emelianenko was simply overpowered and suffocated by Brazilian behemoth Antonio Silva, who walks around at 300 pounds. Once again, it was his relentless aggression that cost him dearly as he came forward winging wild punches, not anticipating the takedowns from his much larger adversary, who utilized his massive frame to smother Emelianenko on the ground.
Finally, Emelianenko’s Strikeforce campaign came to an end in July 2011 as he was finished by fellow Pride legend Dan Henderson in a highly anticipated superfight. The stoppage has been criticized as Emelianenko appeared to recover immediately as referee Herb Dean separated the fighters, but it marked his third consecutive loss and subsequently led to his departure from the California-based promotion.
It’s worth noting Emelianenko was not always a blatantly aggressive brawler who came forward swinging for the fences. What made him so successful in Pride was his ability to fight with perfect technique, anticipating his opportunities to pounce rather than initiating wild exchanges. Perhaps the stoppages of Sylvia, Arlovski and Rogers got to his head. Perhaps he was beginning to believe the hype that he could not lose. It’s unlikely, but his losing efforts were reflective of a new style, a style fuelled by reckless abandon rather than precise technical expertise.
Since the trifecta of losses, Emelianenko racked up a hat trick of wins overseas, tactically outpointing durable former UFC heavyweight title challenger Jeff Monson before starching Satoshi Ishii on New Year’s Eve and ultimately finishing Rizzo with a bombardment of violent punches last Thursday.
Criticisms of Emelianenko’s recent opposition are not entirely far-fetched as these opponents mark a significant step down in competition from the world-class fighters we have grown accustomed to seeing Emelianenko overcome. However, his performances have been indicative of a more poised fighter who has learned from his errors and adjusted his offensive approach accordingly.
Ultimately, no one can disparage Emelianenko for his decision to step away from the sport. He has accomplished more than any other heavyweight in history. His list of victims is a who’s who of elite fighters. His accolades and skills will go down in the history books among the likes of Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn.
Traditionally, the Russian sambo specialist was always a tactician, who broke down his opponents by exploiting their weaknesses and exploding with ferocious flurries when he found the perfect opening. It’s the same Emelianenko we’ve seen re-emerge after three straight losses: a calmer, calculated and cunning combatant.
While Emelianenko has nothing left to prove, he’s still armed with the skills to perform at the highest level. His weapons will give any heavyweight fits, regardless of their size or athleticism.
A potential showdown with Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix winner Daniel Cormier would be a tremendous matchup, but that possibility appears to have dwindled away.
His fighting attributes aside, Emelianenko possesses the demeanor of a true champion. The deeply religious family man is the polar opposite of a fighter like Chael Sonnen. Emelianenko was always a humble competitor with no ego. He’s always let his fighting do the talking. No need for heated staredowns, smack talking or excessive media appearances. Emelianenko has always been content laying low at his home in Stary Oskol, training with the same entourage and spending time in the wilderness with his loved ones. It’s a breath of fresh air in a sport littered with arrogant and outspoken figures.
Sadly, Emelianenko’s legacy is being overlooked due to a stream of undeserved criticism since he finally lost a few fights. First and foremost, the men who bested him are some of the top fighters around. He did not go out after losses against Bob Sapp and James Thompson. He fought valiantly against the very best competition thrown his way. Moreover, Emelianenko was truly ahead of his time in a sport that was still gaining momentum. He was one of the first men to put all the essential skills together – a dangerous striker with knockout power, tremendous sprawling ability, dazzling throws and a sublime submission game that put 16 opponents away. For his era, Emelianenko was a quintessential mixed martial artist.
On the recent UFC 147 Countdown show, UFC commentator Joe Rogan, once a fond admirer of Emelianenko and his tools, referred to Werdum “shattering the myth of Emelianenko.” Any notion of a myth associated with Emelianenko’s reign atop the heavyweight division is absurd. The results he achieved while competing for Rings, Pride and Affliction were not mythical. He conquered the very best competition available to him at the time and he did so impressively. No bragging. No excuses. No dodging.
It’s truly a shame Emelianenko is not getting the credit he deserves after respectfully bowing out of the sport.
Every form of athletics has a hero. Basketball has Michael Jordan. Hockey has Wayne Gretzky. Boxing has Muhammad Ali. As for mixed martial arts, Emelianenko should unquestionably be considered among the all-time elite. It’s about time we paid tribute to his contributions and put him on the pedestal where he belongs.
If his pounding of Rizzo was indeed the last we see of him in action, we should be grateful for everything he’s done for our sport. At times, we never fully appreciate the greatness in front of us until it’s gone forever. Like him or hate him, the Russian is a legendary figure. It’s about time we treat him like one. In a new generation of well-rounded fighters, there will never be another Fedor.