Fedor Emelianenko ended his mixed martial arts career last Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia, the way he finished a majority of his fights: calmly walking away from another crumpled opponent at his feet.
That the 35-year-old legend -- who went undefeated for a decade and defined MMA's golden era in Japan in the 2000s -- fought his final rounds against expired competition not worthy of his talents will be a difficult pill for fans to swallow.
The fans wanted Emelianenko (34-4, 1 no contest) to finish his competitive years in the UFC and because that didn't happen, he will be remembered as either the most overrated or greatest heavyweight of all time, depending on the true knowledge of the MMA fan you ask.
But those who were around to witness Emelianenko's remarkable run, which began years before UFC owners Zuffa LLC trojan-horsed
Raised in the sleepy mining town of Stary Oskol, a 12-hour train ride outside Moscow, Emelianenko began practicing the art of sambo at age 11. After a two-year tour in the national army during his late teens, Emelianenko became an accomplished combat sambo champion, which became his entry into MMA competition in 2000.
For the diehard follower, glimmers of the fighter's future greatness were obvious in his earliest fights for Rings, a defunct Japanese promotion where Emelianenko first cut his teeth.
Emelianenko made his Pride Fighting Championships debut against Semmy Schilt, a 6-foot-11 Dutch kickboxer, in June 2002. However, it was his second Pride fight, a ground-and-pound virtuoso against gatekeeper Heath Herring that November, which really got the industry's attention. Nobody hit as hard as Emelianenko could on the ground. Nobody.
Emelianenko's victory over heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at Pride 25 in March 2003 secured his place on the sport's world stage. Nogueira, a functional Brazilian jiu-jitsu aggressor who also dabbled in boxing, was widely considered the best fighter in the world, and Emelianenko surgically picked him apart over three rounds.
In the next four years, the booming Japanese promotion lined up capable and not-so-capable challengers one after the other, but a calm and focused Emelianenko knocked them all down. In each fight, we discovered a new facet of the stoic fighter's arsenal. A rare combination of pendulum-like balance, coordination, speed and power, Emelianenko could debilitate his competition with a single overhand right or throw his opponent with the ferocity of a world-class wrestler or judo player to set up the fight-ending choke or submission on the canvas. Emelianenko could do it all, quite well in fact, in front of audiences of 50,000 and more at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo.
In the rare moments where an opponent seemed to be getting the better of him, Emelianenko's resilience became legendary. A granite-fisted Kazushi Fujita wobbled Emelianenko badly in the early seconds of their June 2003 bout and former Ohio State wrestling star Kevin Randleman took the Russian airborne and deposited him violently on his head in 2004. But Emelianenko recovered and submitted both of them.
Emelianenko's surprising range and versatility was illustrated perfectly in his seamless 2005 handling of Croatian kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, then the most feared striker on the planet for his hospital-inducing left high kick. Emelianenko outstruck the Grim Reaper, never once breaking the emotionless expression he'd become just as famous for.
With Emelianenko, there were no victory laps, primal screams or other celebrations after his wins. Most times, he'd turn on his heels with break-neck speed, then nonchalantly walk back to his corner. Japanese fans revered Emelianenko's aggressive fighting style just as much as his contrasting demeanor.
Outside the ring, Emelianenko's background and training remained a mystery for some time. Emelianenko could train anywhere in the world he wanted to, but he preferred the isolation and serenity of Stary Oskol. Fans poured over the rare Rocky-esque training footage that found its way onto the Internet, which featured images of Emelianenko wielding a sledgehammer on a helpless tractor wheel or running through the woods with his team in sub-zero weather. It only added to the mystique.
As the UFC's Ultimate Fighter franchise gathered the sport's next captivated audience in the States around 2006, the grand days of Japanese MMA were coming to an end. The death knell came when Zuffa purchased Pride Fighting Championships in March 2007 for a reported $70 million. So would begin a delicate and sometimes contentious negotiations dance between UFC President Dana White and M-1 Global, Emelianenko's management team, to procure the vaunted Russian's services inside the Octagon. But the two companies had different goals. As talks stalled and then soured, White disparaged Emelianenko and M-1 Global in the press, which only alienated the two organizations further from a potential deal.
For the next two years, Emelianenko headlined a slew of upstart promotions, taking out two former UFC champions in the process. Those promotions would all go under, but the fights in the U.S. exposed Emelianenko to a new audience, and only fueled the UFC's behind-the-scenes attempts to hire him.
To UFC legend Randy Couture, Emelianenko will always be the big one that got away. In 2008, Couture relinquished his heavyweight crown and resigned from the UFC in a highly publicized dust-up to pursue a bout with the elusive Russian.
Mark Cuban and Donald Trump were among the big names who expressed interest in promoting MMA's equivalent to Pacquiao-Mayweather, but Couture and Emelianenko would only get as far as a staged staredown for an Affliction clothing line ad campaign shot in a secluded warehouse in Studio City, Calif. Couture eventually returned to the UFC fold to squash the lawsuit that Zuffa had filed against him for breach of contract.
In the summer of 2009, Emelianenko turned down a multi-million dollar contract with Zuffa when the U.S. promotion refused to share co-promotion of the events he'd headline with M-1 Global (Emelianenko also had ownership stake in M-1.) However, Strikeforce co-owner Scott Coker was more than willing to accept M-1 Global's terms to get Emelianenko under his banner. Strikeforce, a rival promotion looking to step out from the UFC's long shadow over the sport, had recently signed broadcast deals with Showtime and CBS, and Emelianenko's star power would make all the difference.
That November, Emelianenko stopped an overmatched Brett Rogers on CBS, which drew a promising 5.46 million viewers. However, there were signs there that Emelianenko -- now 33 fights and nearly ten years deep into his career -- was inevitably starting to slow down.
His third straight fight in the U.S., one could tell that after years of international travel, he didn't have much of a taste left for it or the publicity requirements that came with it. In interviews, Emelianenko spoke briefly, but thoughtfully, in a soft, controlled tone. He was always engaged and polite, but never gave away more details than he had to, taking big pauses to collect his thoughts before answering through his translator. He spoke English sparingly and only in close quarters with people he'd known a while. He declined to speak about his wife and two daughters back in Russia, but he smiled genuinely and often.
When he wasn't being asked to speak, Emelianenko much preferred to listen and observe. When interviewing the astute Emelianenko, one got the sense that he was observing you as much as you were observing him.
In Emelianenko's next fight in June 2010, Fabricio Werdum caught him in an armbar-triangle choke combination off a knockdown and the Russian's incomparable win streak came to an end.
"I made a mistake," Emelianenko said softly at the post-fight conference. "But there is a relief because tomorrow I get to go home." Though the fight world might not have grasped it at the time, that statement was particularly telling of where Emelianenko's interests now lied.
Emelianenko finished his U.S. tenure with two straight losses in Strikeforce to Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson, a natural middleweight who brushed off the weight disparagement just for the opportunity to face the Russian legend in the cage. The loss to Silva, a Brazilian juggernaut who had 40 pounds on Emelianenko, was particularly heartbreaking, as fans had never seen Emelianenko brutalized that way before.
For his final three fights, two were under the M-1 Global banner and Emelianenko deservedly received a hero's welcome in his home country with Russian President Vladimir Putin in attendance ringside. The other fight brought Emelianenko back to Japan last New Year's; a final thank you to the fans who watched, nurtured, and supported his rise and reign into the greatest fighter in the world for a time. To these fans, it didn't matter that these final opponents weren't high-caliber ones.
Both despite and because of the debate over where his final competitive days went, fans' interest in Emelianenko remains unabated. When Alistair Overeem failed a drug test in March and was dismissed from his May title fight against UFC heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos, the Internet was ablaze with discussion over Emelianenko as a potential replacement. This is the power of Fedor.
Since last Thursday, there's already been hushed talk that Emelianenko might return to competition after the glow of his retirement has worn off. Hope springs eternal that Emelianenko might still grace the Octagon someday, but it's an unlikely proposition.
Aside from the lingering issues between Zuffa and M-1 Global, whatever drove Emelianenko to train and fight the way he did is long gone. He found what he was looking for in fighting and accomplished everything he wanted to during an astounding 12-year career. He's very content to settle down comfortably with his family in his own country. He's at peace.
It will be argued for years to come that Fedor Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight of all time, but those who experienced his career as it happened with have no doubts. There hasn't been another heavyweight who's possessed a better grasp of MMA's diverse skillset than Emelianenko, and there probably won't be one for some time to come.