The Decline and Fall of Fedor Emelianenko

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Photo: Esther Lin/STRIKEFORCE

Most empires are dead long before they’re actually destroyed, being sustained through their final years by the prestige of their earlier achievements. The story of The Last Emperor is no different, with the sad decline of Fedor Emelianenko having long been hidden by the prestige of his many achievements during the first half of his career.

One of the things that sets mixed martial arts apart from boxing is the integrity of its matchmaking. The decline and eventual collapse of Pride led to the UFC becoming the premier league of elite-level MMA with Pride mainstays facing UFC veterans, while the world’s most gifted younger fighters developed into polished fighters. However there was one world class fighter who continued to stand apart, namely one Fedor Emelianenko. Negotiations to bring the last-ever Pride FC heavyweight champion into the UFC failed both in 2007 and 2009, largely due to the demands of M-1 Global to co-promote any show that Fedor appeared on. While M-1 Global had been able to secure several high profile fights for Fedor by working with Affliction by the summer of 2009 the big spending American promotions were all out of business with no surviving promotion capable of paying anything close to the seven-figures the UFC was offering.

Nor was any promotion capable of proving the same level of competition. Fedor eventually signed with Strikeforce, a promotion whose heavyweight champion had been AWOL since 2007 and whose success had largely come from promoting welterweight and middleweight fights in California. Fedor’s promotional debut saw the ‘best heavyweight in the world’ fighting Brett Rogers. A bully of a fighter, Rogers had remained undefeated in his ten fight career with no one lasting more than three minutes against him. However, much like an over-hyped boxing heavyweight, his record was impressive on paper only. In reality, Rogers was nothing more than a circuit fighter with his ten wins mostly coming against low quality fighters who couldn’t handle his power nor expose the holes in his technique. While a quick KO victory against Andrei Arlovski gave Rogers some credibility, few believed that he was worthy of fighting Fedor and even fewer felt he had a chance of winning. While he would go on to lose the fight, Rogers surprised people by controlling much of the first round.

As in his previous fight against Arlovski, Fedor struggled to impose himself on a little fancied challenger. Despite Rogers’ boxing being mechanical and his wrestling being sloppy, Fedor couldn’t pick out Roger’s jab and spent much of the first round being manhandled by his larger opponent. Fedor was able to recover and secure the KO victory in the second round but it seemed that he was relying less on technique and more on raw KO power. The underwhelming nature of Fedor’s performance was confirmed when Alistair Overeem dismantled Brett Rogers in the main event of Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery in a one-sided demolition job.

The sight of a fighter who had given Fedor such a surprisingly competitive fight being utterly outfought once again raised questions about the quality of Fedor’s opponents. Of the eight men he had faced since defeating Cro Cop, only one had managed to win their next match, and that was Matt Lindland, and post-fight, he made his return to the middleweight division. Defenders of Fedor argued that this was a sign of the devastating psychological impact of fighting Fedor, with his former opponents never being the same after facing him. This always struck me as nonsense as the top-quality opponents he faced in Pride were usually able to bounce back with a win and no other dominant fighter had ever had such an effect on their opponents. The simpler and more logical explanation is that the fighters Fedor had recently fought weren’t very good. I mean let’s look at the facts:

  • Zuluzinho, Melvin Manhoef and Hong-Man Choi were special attractions with more losses than victories
  • At the time of their second fight, Mark Coleman was nearing forty and had long since passed his peak as a fighter.
  • In the fight prior to facing Fedor, Mark Hunt had been quickly defeated by Josh Barnett.
  • Matt Lindland usually fights at middleweight, not heavyweight
  • In his three fights before facing Fedor, Tim Sylvia had gone 1-2 having been defeated by Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria and Randy Couture

Of the eight fighters that Fedor fought between his victory against Cro Cop and his defeat to Fabricio Werdum, Andrei Arlovski was the one in the best form. He was in the middle of a five-fight win streak with his most of his wins coming against solid fighters. And Arlovski started very well, taking the action to Fedor in the opening minutes and seemingly having him in all sorts of trouble. However Arlovski was undone by his infamous glass chin as despite his early good work Fedor was able to land one good counter-punch and that was the end of the fight.

Fedor has not only been fighting inferior opponents; he has been failing to truly excel against them for quite some time. Arlovski was destroyed in just 22 seconds by Brett Rogers, while Rogers was utterly and completely dismantled by Alistair Overeem. In Mark Hunt’s last five fights, Fedor was the only opponent that needed more than two minutes to finish him – in fact, Fedor needed more time than the other four fighters combined. In his first fight after losing to Fedor, Tim Sylvia would embarrass himself and the sport by losing to semi-retired boxer Ray Mercer in only nine seconds.

While Fabricio Werdum was a step up in competition from Rogers, and he didn’t have the handicap of having a glass chin like Arlovski his record is no better than most of the previous eight men to face Fedor. In many ways it was significantly worse. His UFC career had been underwhelming, going 2-2 in his four fights and eventually being cut after quickly losing to Junior Dos Santos in Santos’ UFC debut. His two fights in Strikeforce had been nothing special, and he had struggled to defeat Antonio Silva last year. Werdum’s credentials as a grappler are undoubtedly impressive but he lacks the tools to get the fight to the ground, something that would be quickly exposed against the Super Heavyweight wrestlers that dominant the UFC’s heavyweight division. If Fedor hadn’t have over-committed himself and literally jumped into Werdum’s dangerous guard then Werdum would have struggled to stay in the fight let alone take it to Fedor.

Both Fedor and Werdum are already talking about an instant rematch to see whether Fedor can avenge his first true defeat. It’s the most marketable fight Strikeforce can make involving either guy but defeating Werdum won’t be enough to restore Fedor’s reputation. If Fedor wants to reestablish himself as the best heavyweight in the world then he will have to enter the UFC and defeat its top contenders, just as he did in Pride. For too long the aura of invincibility that he developed in Pride has allowed Fedor and his management to behave in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated from any other fighter. If any other fighter had turned down millions to fight the best fighters so he could instead fight inferior fighters for less then he would be accused of running scared. If any other fighter’s management company had demanded that they co-promote any UFC show he appeared on and receive half the profits, they would have been widely ridiculed. For years there has been a double standard in how the actions of Fedor and M-1 Global have been judged. Now that we pull can the curtain back we can now all see that the past five years of Fedor’s career have been wasted. Instead of testing himself against the best, Fedor has regressed as he fought one soft-touch after another. If he’s to ever reclaim his status as the world’s best heavyweight then he’ll have to enter the Octagon and once again claim the heavyweight championship of the world by defeating the best heavyweights in the world’s biggest MMA organization.

A Comics Nexus original, Will Cooling has written about comics since 2004 despite the best efforts of the industry to kill his love of the medium. He now spends much of his time over at Inside Fights where he gets to see muscle-bound men beat each up without retcons and summer crossovers.