There was a time when a Fedor Emelianenko appearance in the cage was the greatest thing in mixed martial arts.
From mid-2000, when the Russian first competed as a professional, until the end of 2009, Emelianenko fought 32 times and lost only one, due to a dubious medical strike. During one stretch, primarily at Pride Fighting Championships, he was undefeated in 28 bouts while taking on many of the best heavyweights of the era.
Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. Kevin Randleman. Mark Coleman (twice). Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (three times). Andrei Arlovski. Tim Sylvia. All but “Cro Cop” were former UFC heavyweight champions, and Emelianenko beat them all. Many fans and experts, mostly longtime fans who have seen a lot of MMA, consider Fedor to be the heavyweight GOAT.
But now? Emelianenko is 45 years old and in recent years has not seemed like an all-time legend. It looks like an aged legend.
With everything and that, it is Fedor.
On Saturday, Emelianeko (39-6, 1 NC) faces Timothy Johnson (15-7) in the Bellator 269 main event (Showtime, main card at 3 p.m. ET). If the mere presence of Fedor doesn’t add enough sparkle, the setting should help make it feel special. The billboard takes place in Moscow. Russian fans will catch a glimpse of their legendary Ukrainian-born, but proud Stary Oskol compatriot, a few hundred miles south of Moscow, since he was 2 years old.
This will be the sixth Bellator MMA fight for Emelianenko. After his glorious career at Pride, he jumped between various promotions before retiring in 2012 on a night in Russia when he knocked out three-time UFC title challenger Pedro Rizzo. Three and a half years later, Emelianenko fought again. And in 2017 he was at Bellator, working for his old friend Scott Coker, who was his promoter with Strikeforce.
It has been a wild ride at Bellator for Emelianenko. His five fights ended in knockouts in the first round. Matt Mitrione and Ryan Bader finished it, the latter in 35 seconds in a Bellator World Heavyweight Grand Prix final in 2019. Fedor was the last man standing in fights against Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and, most recently, Quinton. Jackson.
Emelianenko’s knockout of “Rampage” Jackson took place at the Saitama Super Arena on the outskirts of Tokyo, which years earlier had been the scene of both men’s biggest moments in Pride. It was not a coincidence. The December 2019 fight was billed as the start of a retirement tour for Fedor. The idea was for him to compete for the last time in three places of personal importance: Japan, Russia and the United States.
Almost two years later, is the retirement tour still around? There is no indication that Emelianenko will leave his gloves in the center of the cage after Saturday’s fight, but enough time has passed for us to wonder if Fedor will continue.
Either way, now is as good a time as any to appreciate the career of the man known as “The Last Emperor.” ESPN MMA / ESPN Deportes writer Carlos Contreras Legaspi tells of his memory of the great Fedor.
Being a fan of MMA in Mexico 17 years ago was not easy. There were no legal ways to view live events. If you were lucky, you could buy a UFC or Pride DVD while on the road, or maybe get them from catalog six to eight weeks after their release.
I started covering MMA in 2010, when Cain Velasquez became the UFC heavyweight champion. Because he is Mexican American, that’s the moment the sport became a thing to notice or follow in Latin America. As I followed Velasquez, I heard him answer the same question dozens of times – his heavyweight GOAT was Fedor without question, and Velasquez hoped to fight him at some point to prove he was the best.
Due to Velasquez’s praise for Emelianenko, I became addicted to watching “The Last Emperor.” I saw his days in Pride almost a decade after those fights happened, on tape. My favorites occurred between 2004 and 2006, when Fedor beat out arguably the best heavyweight class in division history. He had an incredible streak.
I can’t say I have a specific favorite memory of Fedor. It was just a general love for how he fought: the violence, the rhythm in his punches for a small heavyweight, the power in his ground-and-pound, and the smooth transitions on the ground to armbars or kimuras. These are things that make his prime years feel special even today, with the heavyweight division now showing off Francis Ngannou’s astonishing standing power and Ciryl Gane’s impressive technique.
Velasquez vs. Fedor was a dream fight, and maybe it’s good that it stayed that way. It would have been difficult for a fight to live up to the expectations of a showdown between those two in their prime.
Bellator 269 – Saturday’s undercard
Showtime, 3 p.m. ET
Heavyweight: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Timothy johnson
Heavyweight: Vitaly Minakov vs. Said Sowma
Hitweight (160 pounds): Usman Nurmagomedov vs. Patrik pietila
Middleweight: Anatoly Tokov vs. Sharaf Davlatmurodov
Bellator / Showtime YouTube channels, 12 pm ET
Heavyweight: Kiril Sidelnikov vs. Rab Truesdale
Lightweight: Vladimir Tokov vs. Aymard Guih
Flyweight: Darina Mazdyuk vs. Katarzyna sadura
Flyweight: Irina Alekseeva vs. Stephanie Ielo Page
Bantamweight: Brian Moore vs. Nikita Mikhailov
Welterweight: Grachik Bozinyan vs. Alexey Shurkevich
Men’s Featherweight: Aiden Lee vs. Alexander Osetrov
Men’s Featherweight: Gadzhi Rabadanov vs. Alexander Belikh