EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The familiar script seemed ready to play out one more time.
Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight in mixed martial arts history, gave up considerable size, height and reach to an intimidating foe. The stoic native of Stary Oskol, Russia, would find himself in trouble.
Somehow, he'd fight his way out, floor his opponent with a big overhand right, and add to his collection of action-movie finishes.
Not this time.
The 34-year-old was overwhelmed by Brazilian giant Antonio Silva on Saturday night, taken down to the Izod Center mat and pummeled with an endless array of punches and submission attempts.
There was no heroic comeback. The second round ended. Emelianenko's face was a hideous mess, his right eye swollen shut. The cageside doctor was not about to let him continue with a possible cracked orbital bone.
The fight ended, and so did an era.
It may seem like Emelianenko was suddenly knocked from his perch over the course of two brutal rounds of action, but the seeds for his downfall were sown while he was still riding high.
When the Japan-based PRIDE folded four years ago, Emelianenko was almost universally regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Other fighters flocked to the UFC, but Emelianenko's management, headed by Vadim Finkelstein, took a different path. They aggressively sought every last dollar and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, wringing massive contracts out of wanna-be promotional marks like BodogFight and Affliction.
That could only happen as long as Emelianenko maintained his unbeatable mystique, which meant from 2007 and onward, the Russian no longer pushed himself against the best competition the fight world had to offer. Emelianenko fought middleweight Matt Lindland in the first and only Bodog event of note. He fought inexperienced Hong Man Choi in Japan. He disappeared from the scene for months on end, as promotional partnerships fell apart and Finkelstein and Co. sought new deals.
Meanwhile, the rest of the heavyweight division was fighting and improving as the talent pool deepened. The UFC offered Emelianenko a reported $5 million per fight and an immediate shot at then-champion Brock Lesnar in the summer of 2009. The offer was turned down, and Emelianenko instead went to Strikeforce.
Fedor struggled in his first Strikeforce match, against unheralded Brett Rogers. But Emelianenko rallied and won with a home-run knockout punch, so his lackluster performance until that point went largely unnoticed.
In June, Emelianenko was submitted in under two minutes by Fabricio Werdum, a fighter who previously was best known for being cut from the UFC roster.
Of course, even the best can be caught by a jiu-jitsu ace like Werdum, so Emelianenko again was given a pass.
Saturday night, though, left no doubt that the heavyweight division has passed Fedor by. No matter how much heart he possessed in the cage, or how much class he possesses outside it, a 230-pound heavyweight can't isolate himself, be controlled by management that always seemed to come up with reasons to avoid elite opponents, and remain at the top of the class.
His opponent, Silva, is a solid and respectable pro, but not one who was considered elite before Saturday night. Silva had no signature wins before defeating Fedor, with an array of journeymen like Ricco Rodriguez and Mike Kyle among his conquests.
Silva was 285 by the time he entered the cage Saturday, a 55-pound advantage over his foe. He had 4½ inches of height on Emelianenko and a considerable reach advantage. Even in the back-and-forth first round, Silva had an obvious strength advantage. The second round was like watching a schoolyard bully torment a victim, and while Emelianenko showed great courage in surviving a 10-8 round, he simply had no answer for anything Silva dished out.
"A lot of people say he has the strength of a bear," Silva said at the post-fight press conference, "but I have the strength of a Bigfoot."
The ever-gracious and humble Emelianenko, who went to the hospital immediately after the fight, seemed to make his intentions clear in the cage. "Maybe it is the time to leave," he told an interpreter. "Maybe it is the last time. Maybe it is my time."
But the money men seemed in complete denial of what went down. Finkelstein, whose M-1 "promotion" basically exists as Emelianenko's personal vehicle, isn't in any rush to let go of his meal ticket.
"Everyone saw how the fans greeted him," Finkelstein said. "He's had a wonderful career. I think the stoppage isn't such a clear-cut thing. He will find the strength to go on in the future. … With God's help, we will see Fedor back in the cage."
Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker, understandably, was trying to put his best face on an evening that delivered the fans a night of exciting action, but wreaked havoc on the marketability of his Grand Prix tournament. The two fighters considered the biggest names to American fans – Emelianenko and former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski – were defeated, the latter via his third knockout in his past four fights.
That leaves Coker trying to sell the public on several fighters who for the most part are high quality but not ticket sellers or ratings draws, like Werdum and Strikeforce heavyweight champ Alistair Overeem.
Coker floated the idea Emelianenko could be reinserted into the tournament down the road as an alternate.
"Fedor always comes back," said Coker. "As for retirement, people get emotional. … I expect he'll be back. You never know, he could come back [into the tournament] if there's an injury."
But this, quite frankly, would make a farce of the entire tournament concept. What's the point of having a tournament if someone who was brutally eliminated is given a free pass back into the competition?
Hopefully, it won't get to that. Hopefully, if Emelianenko really does want out, he'll be allowed to retire. Despite all the big fights his management left on the table over the years, despite the long absences and subpar opposition, Emelianenko's legacy is still that of the sport's first great heavyweight, the man who used his heart and skill to overcome his foes time and again, the man who made new MMA fans the world over.
If he gets out now, that legacy will stay unspoiled.