On the same night that King James began his reign in professional basketball, The Last Emperor abdicated his mixed martial arts throne.
Just as LeBron James’ first NBA title was much anticipated and a long time coming, so was the retirement of Fedor Emelianenko. In terms of performance inside the cage or ring, Emelianenko has been MMA royalty in nothing but nickname the last few years. However, in the big picture — even one tarnished by an undistinguished end game — his name will forever remain majestic in the annals of his sport.
Fedor. Like Arnold and Jack and Tiger, Kareem and Michael and, yes, LeBron, there’s no last name needed. Even though it’s a pretty regal last name at that.
Emelianenko will not be remembered for the 1:24 knockout of Pedro Rizzo on Thursday night in St. Petersburg, Russia, or for the two other empty victories he added to his resume after leaving Strikeforce a year ago following a three-fight losing streak. He’ll instead be called to mind as a luminary who, even at age 35 and coming off a string of performances that were more “Fader” than Fedor, still had the star power to sell out the Ice Palace, with Russian President Vladimir Putin among the 12,000 in attendance.
While his management, M-1 Global, seemed content to squeeze a few more paychecks out of its aging cash cow by removing him from the MMA mainstream and pitting him against barely breathing opposition, Fedor finally said enough is enough. “I think it’s time I quit,” he said after Thursday’s bout, according to a report by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “My family influenced my decision. My daughters are growing without me. That’s why it’s time for me to leave.”
A more fitting time for him to leave might have been last July, after he was stopped in the first round by Dan Henderson, a guy who usually competes down at light heavyweight, even middleweight. That loss came on the heels of two even more disheartening defeats: a nasty beatdown five months earlier by Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, and a 1:09 submission loss to Fabricio Werdum back in June 2010. As inglorious as it might have seemed for him to have gone out on three straight losses, there was no genuine consolation prize for Emelianenko in his post-Strikeforce wins over 40-year-old Jeff Monson, Olympic judo gold medalist but MMA neophyte Satoshi Ishii and an out-of-mothballs Pedro Rizzo, a once-stout fighter who at age 38 hadn’t competed in a relevant bout in years.
Seen in the most generous light, those three career-closing victories represented a victory lap of sorts, as Fedor twice got to perform in front of his countrymen (the Monson bout was in Moscow) and also gave the fans in Japan, where long ago he created his greatest glory, one last peek.
Indeed, Emelianenko will be celebrated for his decade-long stretch of dominance in the heavyweight division. Prior to the Werdum loss, he hadn’t truly been defeated. (The one blemish among his first 32 bouts was a 17-second stoppage against Tsuyoshi Koaska in 2000, a result that’s always been discounted because the cut that quickly ended the fight came on an illegal elbow strike.) Fedor beat Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (twice) and Mark Coleman (twice), all while they were in their prime. He didn’t just defeat everyone who stepped in with him, he terrorized them. Twenty-three of his 34 career wins came in the first round, 12 within the fight’s first two minutes.
Fedor never fought in the UFC, though, and for some that will diminish his legacy. Dana White surely is of that opinion — at least publicly … and loudly. “Fedor sucks, man,” the UFC president barked at TMZ earlier this year. “Get over the Fedor thing.” Now, had Dana been successful a couple of years ago in making a deal with M-1 Global, and been able to pit “The Last Emperor” against one of his megastars (Randy Couture? Brock Lesnar?), the loquacious promoter no doubt would have been more glowing in his assessment of the Russian.
That’s just talk, though. And in the end, the only person qualified to define Fedor is Emelianenko himself. He didn’t talk a good game. He told us all we need to know with his actions. He did it not just in the ring and the cage, but by walking away from those venues when it was time to be a family man.