HOFFMAN ESTATES, ILL. – During Fedor Emelianenko’s long run as the top fighter in mixed martial arts, it was joked that he was some sort of a cyborg robot who couldn’t be beaten. And part of his mystique was that the few times he was hurt seriously, it was like a switch went off and the guy who had hurt him was caught in a submission seemingly seconds later.
On Saturday night at the Sears Centre Arena, Fedor got Fedor’d by Dan Henderson in losing his third fight in a row. The losing streak follows an incredible run in which he went undefeated in his prior 28 fights over a nine-year period.
When the the Russian’s first-round TKO loss was over, it hearkened back to some of the most memorable moments of his heyday. Such as the night in 2004 when he was suplexed on the top of his head by Kevin Randleman, only to submit Randleman with a Kimura seconds later. Or the night in 2003 when Kazuyuki Fujita connected with a haymaker and put him on rubber legs, and quicker than you could say his name three times, Fujita was submitted to a choke.
And it was just as clear those magic Fedor moments were a long time ago in a rapidly changing and evolving sport.
Even though Emelianeko (31-4, 1 no contest) and Henderson (28-8) put on one of the best fights in Strikeforce history before a crowd of 8,311, the traditional roles of a Fedor fight were reversed. Emelianenko knocked Henderson down and pounded on him late in the first round, seemingly seconds from finishing the fight. But Henderson snuck out the back door and landed an uppercut to Emelianenko’s jaw. Emelianenko flattened out, and with Henderson’s next punch, his body seemed to go momentarily limp.
Henderson threw a few more punches as ref Herb Dean dove in to stop the fight at the 4:12 mark of the first round.
“I’m not a machine, I’m not a robot,” said Emelianenko through his interpreter. “There are good moments and there are bad moments, and that’s what’s happened recently.”
Emelianenko, who is known for never complaining, said he felt the stoppage was early. The rule of thumb in MMA is when a guy goes limp, the ref stops it. Often the fighter himself, who recovers, has no awareness of the fact he went unconscious and came back. Emelianenko was starting to recover when the bout was waved off.
“It seems to me, yes, objectively, I was ready to continue fighting, so yes,” said Emelianenko through an interpreter about whether he thought the stoppage was premature.
“You know, you’d have to ask Herb Dean about it,” said Henderson, who called the win by far the biggest moment of his MMA career. “For me, I was focused on hitting Fedor and I know he dropped pretty good and I got on top to hit him some more. I got bumped to the side while I was punching him. I didn’t know it was Herb pushing me. I think he stepped in when Fedor fell the first time. I’m sure there s a lot of people who will agree or disagree. I thought it was a pretty good stoppage. I wasn’t going anywhere. I think it would have been done pretty quickly anyway.”
While Emelianenko is among the most loved and respected fighters in the world by his fan base and is clearly game and still an exciting fighter, he is no longer a top-tier heavyweight.
When he lost to Fabricio Werdum in the first round by submission in June 2010, his first clean-cut career loss, some saw it as a fluke. When he lost to Antonio Silva in February, it was dismissed as just the reality of giving up 50 pounds.
But here, he was finished in the first round by a light heavyweight who was weeks before his 41st birthday, and one who was guzzling water before weigh-ins to bloat himself past 206 pounds so the commission would sanction this as a heavyweight fight.
From here, the logical question for both fighters is what happens next. This was the final fight of both Henderson’s and Emelianenko’s Strikeforce contracts. Privately, Zuffa officials felt Strikeforce greatly overpaid for both of them when making each respective deal.
But Henderson likely turned himself back into one of the biggest names in the sport with the win, and he also has the Strikeforce light heavyweight title. With the company already losing welterweight champion Nick Diaz to the UFC, and having just cut heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, from a perception standpoint, losing another champion would leave fans with little confidence in the promotion going forward.
Emelianenko is another story. UFC president Dana White was not even at the show, but it had to burn him to see M-1 Global banners [the promotion that Emelianenko is managed by and has an ownership stake in] all over a show that his company was financing. Live in the building, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., on several occasions read what sounded like a public service announcement extolling the virtues of the M-1 company. Hearing that at a Zuffa production was even more surreal than Emelianenko dying by the sword he lived by.
Emelianenko gave his usual answer about continuing his career, talking about it being in God’s hands, but when pressed, Emelianenko said being a top athlete is something he’s been his entire life. He was among Russia’s best in both judo and sambo before entering MMA in 2000, and would not like to give it up now. “My entire adult life and young life, all I’ve known is training and fighting and competing, that’s something I’d very much love to continue doing and I still enjoy it, I’d still like for it to be a a large part of my life,” he said. “But today, in first place is my faith, then my family, that’s what I live for. My job is behind those two things. What’s most important to me is to see my girls because I miss them and would like to be with them.”
The question becomes where he would fight next. Even though he’s still popular, it’s questionable whether a fighter who costs $1.5 million or more per fight and no longer can be seen as being in the championship picture would be retained. Emelianenko clearly still has a lot of popularity, but it’s also questionable whether he’s ever been cost-effective for a U.S. promotion when he did have the aura of being the top heavyweight in the sport. Now, it’s an even bigger question. While a fight with Brock Lesnar in 2012 would probably do major pay-per-view business, although nothing compared to 18 months ago, there are reasons the fight wouldn’t be made, and there’s nobody else left to match Emelianenko with in a headline position that would have that kind of appeal.
When he came out for his fight with Henderson, the reaction was very much among the fans that they were seeing the Babe Ruth of their sport. And when it was over, they felt the same way, only it felt like seeing the Babe in one of his final at-bats.
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