Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Fedor Emelianenko: An Appreciation

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Nearing the end of his fighting career, Fedor Emelianenko was outspoken (or at least as outspoken as the reserved Russian might have ever been) in placing the fate of his destiny in the hands of his god. Over the course of his three foundation-shaking Strikeforce losses “The Last Emperor” chalked up both his defeats (“I felt like I could’ve won. But the win somehow eluded me. I felt I could do it. I had chances, but God’s will was different.”) and his future (“If it’s God’s will, then I can certainly continue fighting for several years to come.”) to the will of his higher power. Reflecting earlier this week the legend again spoke to his heavenly directive in assessing his current state of mind, “Speaking about my loses, I thank God for them. Losses teach you more than victories. They make you think, look at your mistakes.” Yet after cracking Pedro Rizzo early in yesterday’s match, quickly following up with a series of accurate bombs to finish the downed Brazilian before even 90 seconds had passed, it was neither his god nor his country that he claimed to be guiding him at this point. It was now his family. And they were coming first. Fedor was retiring.

To the uninformed, the name Fedor Emelianenko is probably that of an unknown. But to even the most casual fans of mixed martial arts there might never again exist such polarizing character within the “best MMA fighter of all time” debate. Defenders of his claim to the throne largely consider Fedor’s prime (he was undefeated for nearly a decade, going 27-0 with 1 no contest, which included a hit-list featuring five former UFC Heavyweight Champions) to be the lone example necessary of establishing the fighter as The Best. Cooler heads, such as MMA Fighting’s Ben Fowlkes, rightfully fill in history’s gaps though. “He was the best,” begins Fowlkes in his swift asterisking of Fedor’s legacy. “[A]t least among the heavyweights. He was also one of the most overrated fighters to ever strap on a pair of gloves, and probably one of the most blatantly mismanaged ones.” The man defeated elite athletes and freakshows alike before losing to a series of fighters more well-rounded and hungry for victory than he, Fedor’s age and stubborn technique no doubt contributing to his late-stage career smudge. But the man’s legacy is far more deceiving than simply that of a once-great champion falling from grace after having dominated at an elite level.

Had the Internet’s gathered voice always been so widespread and vibrant, celebrating and disputing fighters’ legacies with as up-to-the-second precision as the community of fans does now, modern perception of Fedor might be less dismissive of his flaws for the sake of his amazing strengths: When he was good, he was downright terrifying. Yet even in maintaining objectivity while assessing his body of work as a whole, the what-ifs and could-have-beens are far too prevalent to dismiss: what if M-1 hadn’t placed their sole emphasis on ruble signs when managing the fighter; what if Fedor had been paired in dream matches with such elite UFC heavyweights as Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar; what if instead of his Rocky IV-like training camps he utilized modern sports science in crafting his tools; what if he’d shed the love-handles and taken his fierce dominance to the light heavyweight division where he really belonged? What would we be saying then? Therein lies the point. Now, none of it matters.

In perhaps the most emotionally on-point remembrance of Fedor’s career, Bloody Elbow reader Motmaitre neither celebrates the historic undefeated streak nor questions the caliber of opponent Fedor faced. Instead, Motmaitre looks to history in defining the moment, reflecting on how it wasn’t merely Muhammad Ali’s abilities that secured his place in time, and it hasn’t been Mike Tyson’s late-career downfall that remains the final word on his boxing career. Instead, it’s how the fighters made us feel that has secured their legacies. “[F]or a few magic years, this unassuming and enigmatic Russian made people feel the passion, brutality and glory of MMA. His victories were not merely the triumph of a sportsman but the apotheosis of a hero. As with Tyson or even Ali, we might argue that there were better fighters. And indeed, maybe there were. But what is unarguable was that for a few special years, nobody inspired excitement, love, hope, hate and wonder like Fedor.”

The what ifs matter about as much as the farewell tour of closing the book with three largely meaningless victories: they don’t. Then again, to Fedor, none of it ever seemed to really matter. The debate, the constant commentary, the rankings, the legacy, all of that’s on us. At the end of his fighting career the man was able to bask victorious in his St. Petersburg farewell (with President Vladimir Putin in attendance, no less) as a true champion and hero of the Russian people, and not some long-since washed up shadow attempting to make excuses for his losses or reminding us of his commendable victories. One of the world’s finest purveyors of violent poetry retired as a healthy (and relatively young) man fearful of missing any more time with his children and wife than he already has. Something that really matters. As for discussion surrounding whether he was “The Best”? Those two words are about as meaningless now as they’ve ever been.