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The Two Legacies of Fedor Emelianenko

By on June 30, 2012

Fedor Emelianenko retired nine days ago, but not in the situation that those who followed his career for years would have ever expected. Instead of retiring in a major MMA event, with officials, fellow fighters, commentators and fans paying their respects to him in a manner deserving of an all-time great, he retired rather quietly after an M-1 Global event where he handily defeated the long-irrelevant Pedro Rizzo.

No one was hurt more by Pride Fighting Championships closing its doors than Fedor. Fedor and the UFC were clearly never going to be compatible, as Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta would never consider co-promoting with M-1 Global, the promotion that stubbornly leeched off of the world’s greatest heavyweight for years, impairing his career and reputation in the process.

Strikeforce built a decent heavyweight roster, however, which happened to coincide with the only losing streak of Fedor’s career. He lost decisively first to Fabricio Werdum, then Antonio Silva, and finally, to Dan Henderson, who has had most of his success competing at just 185 pounds. His career in the United States over, he won three lopsided fights in Russia in less than a year before calling it quits last week.

Where you stand on Fedor can say a lot about your own history as an MMA fan. Although MMA’s history (for all intents and purposes, anyway- don’t remind me about pankration in early Greece) only goes back twenty years, many current fans were not around to witness not only the formative years of the sport, but even the years of Fedor’s prime. Furthermore, many of them seem to lack the inclination to watch old events and familiarize themselves with the history of MMA, even though one could sufficiently do so in very little time.

As a result, many MMA fans have no real idea of Fedor’s significance in MMA history. Fedor really has two legacies in the sport: 1) that of a supposed coward who “never fought anybody” and was not as good as advertised, ducking the UFC until the bitter end, and 2) that of the greatest heavyweight of all-time, a fighter who did not evolve quite enough (or was just plain past his prime, take your pick) to stay relevant over the last three to four years but was nonetheless great.

The hardest part of explaining how great Fedor was to someone who didn’t personally experience the sport in his prime is that fans who missed out on that time period lack context. I say that without any condescension intended; it is simply the truth.

The Almighty Sherdog Fight Finder will not explain to you why Fedor was the number one ranked heavyweight in the world for seven years. That’s because you’ll simply scoff when you see names like Kazuyuki Fujita, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Heath Herring, Semmy Schilt, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, and Mark Hunt. Ask one of these fans this, though: if these guys weren’t top ten heavyweights back when Fedor fought them, who exactly was in your top ten at the time? They don’t know, because they weren’t following the sport.

As hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when these names represented quality opponents. When Fedor beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira the first time, he was the only one who appeared able to do so. Even Fedor’s later victories against Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski and Brett Rogers were immediately devalued when all three experienced huge career downturns after they faced “The Last Emperor”- a trend I once dubbed “The Fedor Effect“.

Dana White has a lot to do with this little misunderstanding. Frustrated that he couldn’t sign Fedor, he took the classy route, as always, and went public with his frustrations. He argued with anyone that would listen that Fedor wasn’t as good as advertised, and planted the crazy idea that Fedor was scared to fight in the UFC.

It’s a ridiculous concept, Fedor being scared to fight anyone, but fans who had never even watched Fedor in Pride readily bought it, as they do with just about anything White says. The reality was likely that Fedor simply wasn’t like other fighters; he never had any real interest in proving himself to be the greatest fighter ever, and Zuffa’s promises of wealth and promotion didn’t appeal to someone who wanted to just compete and live a simple life. Nobody probably cares less about the “is Fedor the greatest heavyweight ever?” discussion than Emelianenko himself.

Even when he announced his retirement, deluded UFC loyalists questioned his legacy, with many narrowing their argument down to one specific point- “He never fought in the UFC.” Even the LA Times mentioned the fact, calling it an “asterisk”.

Again, this kind of thinking betrays a lack of knowledge and understanding of the time when Fedor was the best heavyweight in the world. Now, it makes total sense. In 2012 (and to be fair, from about 2008 onward), if you’re a heavyweight and not fighting in the UFC, you’re not going to find much competition. The heavyweight division has never been particularly deep, and the UFC diligently snaps up anybody worth signing.

However, as hard as it may be to believe, the UFC was not the owner of the best heavyweight division in the early to mid-2000’s. That distinction belonged to Pride, the home of Fedor, Nogueira, Cro Cop, Josh Barnett, Herring, and Coleman in their primes.

Furthermore, whether Fedor was the best heavyweight in the world from 2009-12 is not all that important to a discussion about whether he’s the greatest heavyweight in the sport’s history so far. First of all, while he didn’t fight in the UFC during his prime, he fought and defeated the best two heavyweights that the UFC had to offer during the mid-2000’s: Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. Of the heavyweights who had success in the early 2000’s that he never faced, which one would have given Fedor trouble? Ricco Rodriguez? Ian Freeman? Cabbage Correira? Gan freaking McGee? Come on, now.

Fedor only really missed out on fighting two prominent heavyweights from his prime years: Josh Barnett and Frank Mir. Now, Barnett can hardly be held against him, as that fight was booked and ready to go before Barnett failed a drug test that ultimately led to the end of Affliction as an MMA promotion. Mir was no world-beater in the mid-2000’s: even before the motorcycle accident that derailed his career for a few years, Mir lost a one-sided fight to Freeman and gave a rather unimpressive performance against the likes of Wes Sims. He didn’t fight Randy Couture, but Randy himself had lost consecutive fights to Barnett and Rodriguez before reinventing himself as a light heavyweight. Sure, Randy beat Sylvia to win the heavyweight title in 2007, but Fedor ran right over Sylvia just one year later in a much more convincing fashion. Where’s the evidence that Couture definitely would have beaten Fedor?

Couture is an interesting comparison to Fedor, actually. He retired with a 19-11 record, yet is regarded by many current UFC fans to be a better all-time great than Fedor, who had just four losses in 38 fights. As a heavyweight, Couture lost to Barnett, Rodriguez, Brock Lesnar and Nogueira, and his best wins as a heavyweight in the Zuffa era were over Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga. I would never say that Couture isn’t an all-time great; that’s crazy talk. What I do wonder is why Couture (as a heavyweight) gets a pass for so many losses and a lack of high-level wins later in his career, while Fedor doesn’t. Oh, that’s right, because those performances took place in the UFC, while Fedor’s didn’t.

It’s a short-sighted way of looking at things, and shows a lack of understanding of the earlier days of MMA. When someone says that Fedor didn’t fight the best, they’re wrong. He did fight the best during the years when he was at his best. Is being the best heavyweight in the world for seven years enough to be considered the greatest of all-time? Until someone else can do anything similar, it is. Who else would you appoint? Couture, whose best days were at light heavyweight? Nogueira, who lost to Fedor each time they fought? Junior dos Santos, who is all of one defense into his title reign? MMA is the only sport with fans so stubborn that being the best in the world for 1/3 of the history of the sport itself doesn’t count for anything.

Someday, someone will surpass Fedor as the greatest MMA heavyweight ever. It hasn’t happened yet, though. If you missed out on seeing and really understanding the great career of Fedor Emelianenko (as well as Wanderlei Silva, Cro Cop, Nogueira and many others who made their mark in Pride), do yourself a favor, get the DVDs on the cheap and find out why the rest of us think you’re crazy when you say Fedor isn’t MMA’s greatest heavyweight so far.

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  1. Raullie C says:

    Awesome read…I couldn’t agree w you more.

  2. Jon Hartley says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Raullie!

  3. whobody says:

    The “simple life” of Fedor is also in this article and I appreciate your perspective and clear review. Good stuff. I will save and read again.

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