Mir barreled toward “The Last Emperor” like an enraged, drunken rhino early in their Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix first-round matchup on Saturday night. And Emelianenko responded exactly as his loyal fans envisioned the fight would have played out had they met when they were in their primes more than a decade ago, when Emelianenko reigned as Pride heavyweight champion and Mir was his UFC counterpart.
Emelianenko tagged the out-of-control Mir with a perfectly placed shot to the kisser, which sent Mir face-first to the mat. A series of nasty left hands delivered to Mir’s face with ruthless proficiency put a merciful halt in the affair at the 48-second mark, and sent the near-sellout crowd at Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago into a frenzy in one of MMA’s electrifying moments in recent memory.
Nostalgia-based MMA promotion is an invitation to play with fire. More often than not, when a star fighter who is getting on in years returns, the result is ugly. If they’re lucky, the fans’ hero merely looks sluggish; in a worst-case scenario, they take a horrific beating.
But sometimes, the clock is successfully dialed back. The 41-year-old Emelianenko hasn’t looked himself in awhile, especially when the Stary Oskol, Russia native appears in the United States. Emelianenko (37-5, 1 NC), who was questioned by the FBI on Tuesday, had not won a bout in America since a 2009 knockout of Brett Rogers. Losses to the likes of Dan Henderson and Fabricio Werdum were followed by a quick knockout loss to Matt Mitrione at Madison Square Garden last summer in Emelianenko’s Bellator debut.
So when Emelianenko tore down the house with a vintage performance, he didn’t just send the fans home with a feel-good story: He also gave what had previously been a lackluster tournament a well-timed shot in the arm.
In the four years since the Viacom-owned Bellator turned the reigns over to CEO Scott Coker, the driving force behind the fondly remembered Strikeforce promotion, the company has made serious inroads in establishing itself as a legitimate No. 2 promotion behind the industry-leading UFC.
Coker’s Bellator has used legends of the past who still had drawing power, such as Tito Ortiz, the late Kimbo Slice and Royce Gracie, to help draw audiences to the company’s biggest shows which occasionally topped two million viewers. Viacom opened the corporate pocketbook as Bellator signed relevant talent away from the UFC, such as Rory MacDonald, Ben Henderson and Matt Mitrione. And the company has aggressively pursued blue-chip prospects such as Aaron Pico and Dillon Danis, the latter a buddy of Conor McGregor and a brash jiu-jitsu star, who made a successful MMA debut on Saturday night’s card with a first-round submission of Kyle Walker
But Bellator’s momentum had shown signs of stalling and even regression in recent months. The most alarming numbers came for Bellator 197 on April 13, which drew an average of 403,000 viewers. On the same night, Combate Americas, a Latino MMA promotion with minimal English-language penetration, drew 583,000 viewers for a broadcast on Univision which began at midnight Eastern.
Further, Bellator has been criticized for the way it has structured its Grand Prix format. Tournaments are a go-to Coker speciality, who enjoyed the legendary Pride tournaments of Emelianenko’s heyday. Among Coker’s most memorable events as a promoter were the 2011-12 Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament, which launched current UFC light heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier into mainstream consciousness when he won the event as an alternate.
Until Saturday night, the tourney had been disjointed in both concept and execution. For one thing, the “Heavyweight World Grand Prix” name is a misnomer: The tourney features four heavyweights (Emelianenko, Mir, Mitrione and Roy Nelson), three light heavyweights (current Bellator champion Ryan Bader, “King Mo” Lawal and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson), and a fighter whose best run came at middleweight (Chael Sonnen).
For another, the tourney has been spaced out in a way that made it hard to build momentum. Had all four first-round bouts been held on one night, it would have created a major event in an easy-to-follow format. Instead, Chael Sonnen defeated Quinton Jackson in a dull January bout and Matt Mitrione decisioned Roy Nelson in an equally boring February matchup.
The tournament seemed a lemon right up until Emelianenko turned the clock back with a big uppercut that sent even the most jaded fight fans into a tizzy.
Now, the Grand Prix resets in the most exciting way imaginable, as one of the sport’s most venerable figures becomes the sentimental favorite. How long can Emelianenko continue winning his battle with Father Time? Can he emerge victorious in one more tournament, 14 years after his legendary Pride heavyweight tournament victory?
Emelianenko will face Sonnen in the semifinals, and has every chance at defeating his undersized foe and thus building up to what could potentially be a gigantic event should he reach the finals. Hopefully Bellator has the sense to pair Emelianenko vs. Sonnen with the other semi (Mitrione vs. the winner of a May 12 Bader-Lawal fight) on the same night so as to capitalize on Bellator 198’s momentum.
Or maybe Emelianenko loses and the tournament once again fizzles. But for one night, at least, Emelianenko was “The Last Emperor” of old, and for fans starving for MMA the way it used to be, that alone made the Grand Prix worthwhile.
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