Inside Fedor Emelianenko’s final hurrah in MMA

Blended martial arts is just not what it was once. In its early days, the game was broadly dismissed as a cringey toughman sideshow and relegated to the outcast fringe. For years, MMA was sustained by an obsessive and trustworthy fan base that mined struggle clips from dingy corners of the web and watched on low-def VHS tapes.

When you knew, you knew. When you did not know, you most likely did not care to. There was one thing cultish about following MMA within the Nineties and early aughts, like hitting the midnight screening of “Eraserhead” or grooving to Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or watching Fedor Emelianenko smash some large, scary dude you thought was unbeatable.

Which may not make sense to those that’ve solely lately acquired a style for cage combating. As MMA has developed right into a quasi-mainstream attraction over the previous decade or so, by which era Fedor’s highlight had dimmed, the game’s viewers has expanded as nicely. So it is affordable to conclude that newer followers could not get what all of the fuss is about over Saturday’s Bellator 290 important occasion, during which Emelianenko will struggle for the ultimate time (9 p.m. ET on CBS, with prelims at 6 p.m. ET on the Bellator and Showtime YouTube channels).

This can be a vital second in MMA historical past, not just because Emelianenko is difficult heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in one of many two title bouts that night time in Inglewood, California. (The opposite pits Johnny Eblen, the undefeated middleweight champ, in opposition to Emelianenko’s protege, Anatoly Tokov.) Fedor nonetheless has large attraction, and it isn’t about right this moment or something that has occurred within the final decade. It runs deep into the game’s underground previous, which he dominated with an iron fist. Which may appear arduous to fathom for many who take a look at Emelianenko right this moment and see only a quiet, balding 46-year-old with a thick physique that’s not in any respect sculpted in granite.

Emelianenko is understood to his followers as “The Last Emperor,” however it might be extra becoming to dub him MMA’s first emperor. There are different greats on whose backs (and fists and chins) the game was constructed. Some from these youth even share Fedor’s worthiness of one-name name-drops — Royce, Tito, Vitor and Randy, to call only a few. However nobody has owned the regal aura of the person from Stary Oskol, Russia.

From 2000 by 2010, he fought 33 occasions and misplaced as soon as — a doubtful physician’s stoppage simply 17 seconds right into a struggle in Japan that continues to be a painful reminiscence for longtime MMA followers. If Emelianenko had superior within the Rings event that night time, his subsequent opponent would have been Randy Couture. Missed it by that a lot.

However not too many highlights bought away from Fedor. He fought — and defeated — many of the best heavyweights of the day. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Mark Coleman. Kevin Randleman. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. The perfect of the massive guys lined up in entrance of Emelianenko, and he knocked all of them down.

And in case you were not watching again then: All through his combating prime, Emelianenko by no means had the sculpted physique of a muscleman. Identical because it ever was.

Talking with Emelianenko on Monday, I requested him which of his 40 wins was his favourite. “First fight for the belt with Nogueira,” he stated in Russian by an interpreter, referring to the 2003 bout during which he gained the Pleasure heavyweight title, ending Large Nog’s 14-fight unbeaten streak. “I had to activate my fighting IQ and find keys to victory. At that time, he was the best fighter in the world.”

However struggle outcomes alone do not paint a vivid image of Emelianenko. For that, all of it begins with the stoic executioner’s walkout, his eerily dead-eyed stare piercing his opponent’s resolve earlier than the primary punch has been winged.

And lurking behind this emotionless temperament is a profoundly reflective presence. Think about Fedor’s response after I probed him concerning the fights that did not occur. Couture? Brock Lesnar? Which struggle does he most want he might have had through the prime of his profession?

“I am very happy with the way it happened,” Emelianenko stated. “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 solutions got here after lengthy pauses, making me grateful that we had been on a Zoom name. Ten seconds of silence on the cellphone would have had me considering that our line had gone lifeless. After I requested Emelianenko about his expectations for Saturday’s struggle, a rematch of a 35-second Bader win from 4 years in the past, the silence felt as prolonged as that first struggle. On my display screen, a stone-faced Fedor contemplated … and contemplated … after which spoke.



Bader knocks out Fedor in 35 seconds

Ryan Bader hits Fedor Emelianenko with a left hook to win the Bellator heavyweight title and the Heavyweight World Grand Prix championship.

“Everything that happened last time happened very, very quickly,” he stated. “It didn’t go my way, for sure. Of course, I didn’t get any younger [since then]. But I hope, even at 46 years old, I can give him a fight.”

That humility could also be refreshing in a trash-talk sport, nevertheless it would not really feel so reassuring. MMA doesn’t usher its ageing stars out the door gently. Within the final 12 months alone, revered former UFC champs Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Frankie Edgar had been brutalized of their profession finales. So simply in case you were not saddened sufficient by Bader’s two-punch KO of the legend 4 years in the past, right here comes the sequel, starring a Fedor whose reflexes at the moment are 4 years much less sharp.

However that is the ultimate struggle Emelianenko wished, and he is earned the suitable to exit by a door of his selecting. And whereas longtime followers needs to be able to cowl their eyes at a second’s discover, would not it’s a candy throwback if he had been to present us a glimpse of his previous damaging self? We’ll by no means see prime Fedor once more, however could he nonetheless have it in him to wreak havoc for one spherical?

Emelianenko has gained 4 of his previous 5 fights, all with first-round knockouts of pale stars comparable to Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and a spherical mound of “Rampage” Jackson. Is it doable that Bader will be part of that concussive membership? Positive, it’s. He has aged, too, over the 4 years for the reason that first Fedor struggle. Bader is only a few months from turning 40 and could possibly be as pale as these different late-career Emelianenko conquests.

Ought to Fedor pull off the implausible this weekend, do not count on him to cancel his retirement plans. “Doesn’t matter what happens Saturday — I am going to be done,” he stated. “I hope that soon enough, Valentin Moldavsky is going to become heavyweight champion.” Moldavsky, one other of Emelianenko’s proteges, challenged Bader a 12 months in the past and misplaced a good resolution.

For the file, Emelianenko acknowledged that even a surprising victory at Bellator 290 wouldn’t ship him into retirement because the No. 1 heavyweight on the earth. After I reeled off an inventory of names and requested who’s the most effective heavyweight on the planet, this was the one time throughout our dialog when Fedor didn’t pause to mirror. “[Francis] Ngannou,” he answered instantly, with the Russian interpreter not wanted this time.

With any MMA retirement, after all, there is not any assure it is actually the top of the highway. Emelianenko has been right here earlier than — again in 2011, on the night time he defeated former UFC title contender Pedro Rizzo in Saint Petersburg, Russia. After getting a congratulatory handshake at ringside from President Vladimir Putin, Emelianenko introduced his retirement. “My family influenced my decision,” he instructed a Russian media outlet. “My daughters are growing without me. That’s why it’s time to leave.”

However three years later, Emelianenko returned to combating.

I requested him how his household reacted to that.

“I was able to talk them into it,” he stated with a smile (after an extended pause, after all).

Will he be speaking his household into one other return someplace down the highway?

“No,” Emelianenko stated with out hesitation. Then, after some reflection, he elaborated: “I’m 46 years old, and the longer I do this, my injuries from the past remind me [of that]. And my wife, from fight to fight, she says, ‘Listen, you have to stop doing it, keep yourself with family.'”

When requested about his plans for the long run, Emelianenko talked about teaching the professional fighters on his group and dealing with younger Russian children simply beginning their MMA coaching. However his eyes lit up when he returned the dialog to household.

“We now will have time together,” he stated. “When I don’t have to be training, we go for walks. When my children were young and it was nap time, I would stay with them. Same thing at night, reading them bedtime stories. This is the happiest time for me.

“Household is first. They have been ready for me for a really very long time.”