Jun 30, 2012

The End of an Era: Fedor Emelianenko retires

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Fedor Emelianenko retired from MMA last week to little fan fare. In a lot of ways it’s sad that Fedor never really got the full respect and attention he deserved from the American audience. With “The Last Emperor" fighting in smaller organizations against lesser known competition during his twilight years, the average MMA fan might recognize the name but not fully grasp the important that Fedor had on the sport.

I remember the first time I saw Fedor fight. Like many others I didn’t think he looked like anything special physically and his last name was one of the weirdest I’d had seen at the time. However, the highlight video I saw of him man-handling Semmy Schilt (K-1 Legend) was impressive. When I found out his next fight would be against one of my favorite Pride Heavyweights, Heath Herring, for a #1 contenders spot, I was excited. For those of you that might not have been fans then, Heath Herring and Big Nog fought for the first Heavyweight title in Pride history. At the time it was easily the best heavyweight fight I’d ever seen. I was amped for my boy to make quick work of this doughy Russian so we could finally see the rematch the whole MMA world wanted to see. However, I was in for a rude awakening and the first real glimpse of Fedor’s greatness.

When Fedor fought Herring it almost seemed unreal. Heath had been on a tear in Pride, at the time only losing the super competitive fight against Big Nog and smashing all others that were in his way. However, Fedor handled Herring in that fight with relative ease, getting big throws and some of the nastiest GnP I’d ever seen. Even though towards the end of the first round it seemed like Fedor was gassing a bit, the damage had already been done. Heath Herring wasn’t allowed to continue on to the second round due to a nasty cut. With this fight I knew Fedor was for real, but I still didn’t think he had a chance to beat Big Nog. At that time Big Nog was the man in Pride, besides the “freak show” fight with Bob Sapp no one had been able to put Big Nog in any type of real trouble. I remember it was around this time the Pride FC video game for Playstation 2 was coming out and I had befriended one of the developers on an MMA Forum. I remember he told me he thought Fedor was going to win and I thought this guy was nuts and, as a result, that game would surely suck. How wrong I was.

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Fedor’s fight against Big Nog was the turning point in his career. The massive beat down he put on arguably the best fighter in the world was breath taking. He took the tried and true strategy of GnP and turned it on its head. I honestly can’t remember seeing GnP as good as what I saw Fedor do against Big Nog. He had his own unique way of throwing punches on the ground that not only blasted him but probably chipped a few years off of Big Nogs life. After this win, the legacy of Fedor really began. What’s so interesting from this point on wasn’t just that Fedor kept winning, it was how he was winning that was really impressive.

For the remainder of Pride’s history, Fedor was the raining HW champion. A couple more fights with Big Nog and a classic against the fierce Cro Cop were Fedor’s biggest profile wins. However, the most telling moments of his Pride run were when we saw momentary weakness against Fujita and Kevin Randleman. In the Fujita fight we not only saw that Fedor has one hell of a chin (or temple really) but also the intelligence of a true champion. Most people saw the fight against Fujita as a gimme. While extremely tough and a good wrestler, Fujita had no real threats for Fedor, on paper at least. Fedor was easily winning the fight until Fujita ripped a massive overhead right head that gave Fedor the fish legs (if you haven’t seen the fight and heard Rampage’s commentary please go do yourself a favor). However, like a crafty champion, Fedor knew it was time to survive. Fedor clinched and was able to recover; he later smashed Fujita with an awesome punch/liver kick combination that lead to the fight ending rear naked choke.

Likewise in the Randleman fight, Randleman was riding extremely high coming off probably the biggest win in his career, a KO over Cro Cop. Like Fujita, many didn’t think Randleman had much of a shot against Fedor. That was in till Randleman caught Fedor with the most amazing suplex I think I’ve seen in MMA. By most accounts the suplex would have killed most men and even some smaller bears, but it didn’t stop Fedor. Pretty much 30 seconds after the suplex, Fedor wrapped up a kimura and the win. It was with these fights that Fedor stopped being seen as a mere man in the eyes of MMA fans, for he had turned into a silent emotionless Russian killing machine.

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Sadly, poor management would lead Fedor away from the next major organization (UFC) after Pride’s passing. Instead, Fedor signed with the newly founded and heavily funded Affliction organization. While the competition wasn’t the best, the money was great, so great in fact that after two fight cards the company had to stop promoting events due to lack of funds (combined with a failed drug test by Josh Barnett that stopped the third event from happening). Despite the best efforts of the UFC, they were not able to come to terms with a contact for Fedor while he was a free agent after the fall of Afflicition. Fedor signed a deal with the second biggest MMA organization at the time, Strikeforce.

It’s during Fedor’s run in Strikeforce that we see the end of his era. While getting a KO over Brett Rogers in his debut with the organization, he would lose his next three fights. It’s important to note that it was around his time in Affliction that people started to question Fedor’s status as the pound for pound best MMA fighter in the world. Even though Fedor went undefeated in till his run in Strikeforce (Fedor had 1 loss prior due to cut, which he later avenged) many questioned the quality of opponents he was facing later in his career. At the time there was only a few other fighters close to claiming the pound for pound title, but the argument that Fedor was the best fighter in the world was getting harder to defend.

Even though many consider the end of his run in Strikeforce to be the real end of his career, Fedor continued to fight in the organization he partly owned, M-1. Fedor has been able to string together three wins since leaving Strikeforce, getting the nod against tough veteran Jeff Monson, smashing Judo newcomer Ishii and retiring after beating long time UFC veteran Pedro Rizzo. Even with these wins no serious MMA fan really thought Fedor was going to be able to make it back to the top of the MMA mountain. The beatings at the hands of Big Foot Silva and Dan Henderson more or less put the Fedor legacy to rest. However, those defeats don’t over shadow the career Fedor had. If there ever is a true MMA Hall of Fame, Fedor will be in there.

The Heavyweight division has always been the pinnacle of combat sports, and MMA in particular. People just want to see the big guys fighting each other. However, no one has been able to rule the division of any extended amount of time. In part this is want makes Fedor so special. Even though he would eventually be bested and retire, no one in MMA Heavyweight history controlled the division for as long or with such an iron fist as Fedor did. While a new generation of HW fighters have taken over in Fedor’s place, it’s still unknown if any of them will be able to do what Fedor did. It’s tough to imagine any other fighter reaching the heights that Fedor did, but whatever happens in the sport from here on, Fedor will always be considered a Legend.

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