In the fighting game, you can never be 100 percent sure, but Fedor Emelianenko, arguably the greatest MMA heavyweight of all time, says this weekend’s clash against Ryan Bader will be his last. He said something similar in 2012 after he killed Pedro Rizzo, but that retirement ended up being nothing more than a three-year hiatus. This time, at the ripe old age of 46, he seems to mean it.
Fedor’s gloves will finally come off Saturday night in Los Angeles at Bellator 290, marking the end of an era in MMA. Do you want to put things in perspective? When Tom Brady debuted with the New England Patriots nearly 23 years ago, Fedor already had three professional fights under his belt, the third of which kicked off his divine career in Japan. Young Brady lasted until the first Wednesday in February 2023 before quitting (again), while Fedor went as far as the first Saturday to do the same (again). Another quiet victory for “the last emperor.”
What can be said about Fedor’s mostly underrated, particularly unlikely streak? That reign saw him go on a 28-fight unbeaten streak, win titles in PRIDE FC and Strikeforce, take on giants like the 7-foot-2 Hong-man Choi, take down ruthless opponents like Mirko Cro Cop, survive punches from Kevin Randleman, and take out “Big Nog” Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, all while the yakuza smoked in the shadows of the Saitama Super Arena.
Part of what makes Fedor such an alluring figure is that he’s a throwback to places and times we can’t fully understand, this prehistoric MMA fighter fans can study the way ichthyologists study gar. Fedor was fighting when MMA was still a barely sanctioned taboo in the United States, a full year before Zuffa bought the UFC and began changing the perception of the sport. He predates the unified rules. weight classes. even dana freaking out White, who was still an aerobics instructor when Fedor was getting his hands on poor Levon Lagvilava in Rings in faraway Tula Oblast.
At the same time, it is this displaced vestige of a Dostoyevsky novel, a sober-faced 19th-century Russian who is made of indestructible emotional gray matter. He has always been tight with words and, as far as public records show, he has never raised his voice in anger. A God fearing man, he is stoic in ways that don’t make sense in the age of TikTok. He possesses reserves of power that the not-so-intimidating frame of him can’t budget for. He is what comes to mind when you hear a word like “Siberia”. Just deep cold.
There will never be another Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest mixed martial artist to never compete in the UFC. His behavior before a fight has always been enough to cast spells. With cameras spinning and some colossal heavyweight or other pounding his fists with the clear intent of harm, he’s never been anything but eerily serene. It’s like he’s muffled by the excitement and hype of foolish mortals. I’m telling you, that shit goes fathoms deep. For more than two decades, Fedor has had a cathedral calm that plays beautifully against the hysteria, bombast and pyrotechnics of fight promotion. That’s why he is one of the most beloved boxers to ever do it.
I can still remember being at the Affliction event he headlined in 2008, when he choked the 6-foot-8 former UFC champion Tim Sylvia in 36 seconds, as easily as one would subdue a drunk outside a college bar.
Affliction thought it was a good idea to have Megadeth perform in intervals to get the crowd in Anaheim going that night, but the band was nothing compared to the sheer magnitude of power Fedor possessed. Fedor was tougher than anyone. He had more power, more range, more payoff. He didn’t need to badmouth his opponents. It was a soft-spoken reckoning that turned live events into almost religious experiences. When Brett Rogers staggered him in his Strikeforce debut in Chicago, a hush fell over the crowd that was immediately followed by a collective groan. Would the mighty Fedor fall?
Of course, no. Fedor survived the attack as he has done countless times in Japan and knocked out Rogers in the second round. It was the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. There was something cathartic about what we were witnessing. Even the pair of long-bearded Orthodox priests Fedor traveled with from Stary Oskol high fived as Fedor extended his unbeaten streak to an impossible 28 fights.
Fedor is part of the history of MMA, its mystique and probably some of its regrets. We never got to see him standing there against Randy Couture during Couture’s title run in the mids, nor did we get to see him fight Brock Lesnar when Lesnar was breaking UFC pay-per-view records as their heavyweight champion. It’s a shame it didn’t happen. The UFC tried to sign him, but Fedor, who is linked to Russia-based M-1 Global, never saw eye to eye with White and the UFC bosses.
Still, Fedor did things in MMA that may never be done again. He fought in times that can never be duplicated. He snatched victory from the jaws of defeat as if it were the game within the game. He didn’t even really try to evolve during the almost quarter century that he competed. His game plan was to fight you, knock you out, or submit you, depending on how things went. I doubt she knows what a gogoplata is. When presented with a fancy menu, he was always content to order a hamburger. Sometimes it seemed like he had no plan at all, that he was just intent on taking your best shot and finding out if you could take his.
Of course, in MMA no one who fights 23 years old comes out in perfect condition, and that mentality would eventually catch up with him. Fedor lost and lost magnificently down the stretch. When Fabricio Werdum presented it in San José, I saw people crying in the stands. The magic was over. Did Werdum cheat you into that submission by playing hurt? Perhaps, but when the reign finally ended, the conversation about Fedor’s legacy resumed, because we knew where it ended. He had a career of more than a decade in which no one could beat him.
After that, he was pummeled by Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in what might have been the ugliest, most lopsided beating of his career. He lost the next one to PRIDE legend Dan Henderson, who drank a gallon of water just to make the bare minimum of heavyweight. Then came some twilight fights against unsuccessful names like Jeff Monson and Rizzo, then the retirement, comeback, and stolen decision given to him by partisan judges against Fabio Maldonado in Russia. He’s been knocked out twice since he returned, most recently live on Paramount Network against Bader, the man he once again faces in his retirement fight.
Will a portion of the audience look through their fingers as Fedor trades blows with Bader? Definitely. He is 46 years old, a little slower, a little softer. There are very few graceful exits in MMA, and as we’ve seen recently with legends like Frankie Edgar and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, retirement fights have a way of turning gloomy quickly. Both were brutally knocked out and unceremoniously pushed off the stage.
But when the great Russian makes that walk for the last time at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, he will take a big piece of MMA history with him. There will be discussions about who is the greatest heavyweight of all time, with names like Francis Ngannou and Stipe Miocic getting the loudest claims.
However, anyone who has been there won’t have to raise their voices to be heard when they say the name, Fedor Emelianenko.