INGLEWOOD, Calif. — When they talk about Fedor Emelianenko years from now, the 35-second knockout loss to Ryan Bader on Saturday in the finals of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix at The Forum may not even come up. He accomplished so much for so long that losses at the end of his career, when he’s on the wrong side of 40 and his chin was no longer able to save him, do nothing to harm his legacy.
He became such an iconic figure in mixed martial arts that veteran fighters all but fawn over him, and Bader was calling the victory “surreal.”
“Winning the heavyweight title and to cap off a tournament by knocking out Fedor in 30 seconds, man, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Bader said.
Emelianenko, not surprisingly, didn’t show at the post-fight news conference, so we’re only left to speculate whether he’s finally come to the end of the line. He’s a minister of sport in Russia and when Bellator president Scott Coker called him more than a year ago and asked him if he wanted to be part of the eight-man Grand Prix, Emelianenko couldn’t immediately answer. He needed to get the permission of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
He made the field immeasurably better not only because of his popularity, but because of the reverence with which the other fighters in the field held him. Almost to a man, they’d call it an honor to share a cage with him.
He remained a mystery throughout his career, never sharing an iota more than was absolutely necessary. Smiles were rare. He’ll be known more for the emotionless glare he carried and his uncanny ability to absorb extraordinary punishment and continue to press forward.
That stoic image intimidated many a man, back when he was facing the best fighters alive while he was in the midst of a nine-plus year run in the previous decade when in a 28-fight span, he had 27 wins and a no-contest in a fight stopped because of cuts from an accidental head butt.
He had the look of a stone cold killer and he made many talented fighters melt in his presence, beaten before they closed the cage door.
“The first time I saw him fight, I said he looked like a character in a James Bond movie who was ruthless and out there doing his thing,” Coker said. “He looked like a Russian spy. He had a very stoic look about him and he was out there knocking people out. That’s what he did for a very long time.”
He dominated in a cold and unforgiving sport and the simple truth was this: If he kept fighting, eventually he’d be on the opposite side. His slide began in 2010, when he was submitted in just over a minute by Fabricio Werdum. He was then knocked out in back-to-back 2011 bouts by Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Dan Henderson.
That was really the beginning of the end for him. He had some big wins after that, but was never the same dominant fighter than he was prior.
Bader, though, had plenty of respect for him and regarded him as plenty dangerous. Bader figured that Emelianenko would be wary of his wrestling, so he practiced the very hook that he used to knock Emelianenko out over and over and over in practice.
“You know what? I saw that moment,” Bader said. “You can ask my team. We practiced that moment a lot. I thought that punch was going to do it. You can’t see his right hand, because he throws from his hip. He’s very hard to see and he throws hard. But in doing so, you leave yourself exposed. We felt he was going to respect my wrestling a lot and that I’d be able to put one up top.
“If you look at any of the footage … we were practicing that stuff the whole time: Throwing a jab, getting our distance, feinting and then throwing that left hook.”
That could have been the hook that sent Fedor off to the history books, where he’s on a short list of the greatest to ever do it in the sport’s first quarter century.
Coker, who repeatedly called him a friend, couldn’t rave enough about the standard that Emelianenko set.
“He had that one run where he was undefeated for 10 years and in those 10 years, unlike today because of leagues, whether it’s boxing or mixed martial arts, combat sports in general, sometimes the best guys don’t fight the best guys all the time,” Coker said. “It’s politics or networks or whatever it is. He fought everybody. Fedor didn’t duck anybody. When you think of his list of accomplishments and who he’s fought, it’s the who’s who of mixed martial arts.
“To me, he’s the GOAT, and that’s it. It goes back to he fought everybody who was presented to him.”
Even today, well after his prime, Fedor’s appeal remains.
“Walk down the street with him in Japan; he’ll be mobbed,” Coker said. “Walk down the street with him in Los Angeles; he’ll be mobbed.”
His time, though, has come, though whether he walks away after this fight or comes back for one more bout as a farewell and celebration of his career, the final chapter of the book on his legendary career can now be written.
It will tell of a guy who had thunder in his hands and a chin of granite, who never had the body beautiful but had the magnificent athleticism that many others wished they’d had.
The best thing about Emelianenko, though, is that he was a yes man.
Ask him if he wanted to fight and he’d say yes first and ask who later.
That’s the kind of guy who leaves a mark on his sport and will be talked about for years, decades and generations to come.
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