An unprecedented era of ring dominance came to a quick end Saturday night when top-ranked heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, ensnarled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Fabricio Werdum's long-legged guard, tapped once on the heavy underdog's left thigh. The submission, a triangle choke that came 69 seconds after the opening bell, marked the first time in 10 years and 28 fights that Emelianenko conceded victory.
Universally ranked atop the division since unseating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to capture the Pride title in 2003, the quiet Russian, much to his chagrin, acquired an almost mythical standing among MMA watchers as he ripped through many of the world's best, including five UFC champions, to a 31-1 record. The lone loss, controversial and later avenged.
For everyone save the 32-year-old Brazilian, who laughed and joked the afternoon away with his camp in a hotel restaurant and bar, the result was a foregone conclusion. Relative to the squat, fast, powerful linear heavyweight king, Werdum was thought to be goofy footed and technically inferior on the feet. And in the first exchange of the fight, Emelianenko's forceful punching sent Werdum to his back even though he didn't connect.
Emelianenko, uncharacteristically hasty, dove at Werdum hoping to make it yet another early night. However, Werdum's skill was accentuated by the fact that so early in the contest neither man had worked up a sweat, which would have made a submission far more difficult to finish. If the Russian committed one major mistake it was deciding to play on the floor when he could have easily forced Werdum to stand. Emelianenko survived the first triangle attempt by posturing up and unloading with quick hammerfists. Werdum grabbed Emelianenko's arms and went for a second choke. Then a third. And, finally, he locked around the Russian's bald head and left arm, stemming the flow of blood to Emelianenko's brain.
Fedor's many admirers may have painted him as something otherworldly, but there is no reprieve from a properly applied blood choke. The tapout, a resigned effort, stunned the 12,698 fans at the HP Pavilion, many adorned in red Emelianenko shirts or the colors of the Russian flag.
"It happens so that I was made an idol," Emelianenko said. "Everybody loses. That happens. I'm an ordinary human being as all of us are."
Emelianeko's many detractors will attempt to point out that this loss tonight validates their belief that he was long overrated. That his decision to face mostly weak opposition between 2005 through 2007 made him unworthy of the accolades he received. Yet over the past three years, he has faced legitimate opposition, including two former UFC champions. It is perhaps more appropriate to take the loss as a reminder of just how brilliant he was over the past decade. Stunned by Kazayuki Fujita before recovering and stopping the man with a granite skull. Picked up and slammed on the head by Kevin Randleman, only to sweep the powerful wrestler, secure an arm and finish via Kimura. These nights, and others, could have brought about the second loss of his career. But they didn't.
In his mind, that was because of God's will. And so was tonight. In defeat Emelianenko carries himself as in victory.
Having seriously embraced the Russian orthodoxy over the past five years, the 32-year-old hailing from a small mining town some 300 miles outside of Moscow never seemed to take joy in vanquishing challenger after challenger. In body language and tone of voice, you would not have known he fell this evening to Werdum, whose reaction, which included plenty of chanting and dancing, was resoundingly Brazilian.
"This night I'm the best," Werdum said. "I won this fight. But for me, Fedor is still the best. Ten years, no losses. I look at Fedor in Pride. Fedor for me is my idol. I beat my idol. Can you imagine how I feel?"
Supremely confident coming into the bout, Werdum, who also owns victories against Emelianenko's brother Aleksander and Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, seated cage-side Saturday, noted that the Russian was so dangerous because when he saw opportunities, he capitalized. For whatever reason, he froze when against Werdum when it was most crucial.
"At the every moment when I had to escape, I stopped," Emelianenko said. "I didn't do that and that moment was used by Fabricio to lock me in."
Tonight "I got the chance," said Werdum, who welcomed a rematch with Emelianenko or a shot for the Strikeforce belt versus Overeem. "I saw the chance. And I didn't let it go."
Werdum -- 14-4-1 with losses to Junior dos Santos, Andrei Arlovski, Nogueira and Sergei Kharitonov -- never remembers fights until watching them on tape, something he's done upwards of 50 times for certain bouts.
"Maybe 1,000," he said.