Let the Debate Begin: Fedor/Werdum

Early in the week of his fight with Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko commented that he wasn’t worried about Werdum’s jiu-jitsu. He should have been.

The last of MMA’s mythic warriors finally fell as Werdum became the man to do what many thought would never be done: beat Fedor. Not only did Werdum beat Fedor, he made “The Last Emperor” tap in just 69 seconds. And while that may seem like the former pound-for-pound king of MMA was dominated, it was not the case. What it came down to was Fedor—and everyone else—underestimated Werdum and, more importantly, Werdum’s ground game. Fedor rocked Werdum almost immediately and went in for the kill. However the same old story received a revised ending as Werdum had the presence of mind and ability to immediately go for a triangle choke when Fedor pounced. Fedor struggled while Werdum tried and eventually did lock in the hold completely, and the Russian had no choice but to tap. Literally, that was a play-by-play of those 69 seconds.

And while all the talk was about Fedor losing, the one thing that the pre-fight hype and post-fight talk had in common was that Werdum was not given proper credit as a fighter. After the fight, the deed overshadowed the man who did the deed. Of course, Werdum has always been underappreciated but it really makes no sense when you consider his ground credentials: European jiu-jitsu champ, two time ADCC champ, two time Brazillian jiu-jitsu champ, black belt in BJJ and black belt in Judo. Let’s not forget the fighters he’s trained with, his record (14-4-1 ain’t too shabby), the fact that his four losses were all to credible fighters (Kharitonov, Big Nog, Arlovski, and Junior Dos Santos), and who he’s beaten; he’s the only man to beat both Emelianenko brothers, and he holds wins over Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem, Tom Erikson, and Brandon Vera. But going into Saturday night, the Le/Smith rematch was given more of a shot to be a competitive fight than a heavyweight tilt featuring one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners on the planet and the best fighter in the world.

Now, let’s get to all that post-fight talk. It doesn’t surprise me that UFC fighters were happy with the loss and talked about Fedor’s supposed lack of competition, etc. And it didn’t surprise me that the forums were chock full of Fedor hatred, but the “lack of competition” talk simply has to stop. One 411mania writer accurately noted that the vast, vast majority of this is coming from MMA fans who first got into MMA through The Ultimate Fighter and thus only know what UFC tells them. However, if any Pride fan, any Fedor fan, any MMA fan prior to 2005 or any MMA fan who has taken a look at the full landscape of the game through its history (UFC, Pride, Shooto, Pancrase, Strikeforce, Hero’s, etc.) and actually bought into the argument that Fedor hasn’t fought anybody, then all I have to say is, “shame on you.”

So, as an olive branch to the uninformed or to the Fedor haters, let’s take a look at the winning streak.

For starters the streak lasted just over 9 years and six months. To put that into perspective, Fedor’s streak was longer in length than the longest winning streaks of Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell’s careers combined. During the streak, Fedor won 27 fights with one no contest; for perspective: Wandi’s longest streak saw him go 16-0-1-1, Chuck’s streak saw him win ten straight fights, and Nogueira’s longest streak (in RINGS and then Pride) saw him go 13-0-1.

Now to the big issue: competition. One thing people have to understand when looking at a fighter’s career is that it’s not just about who you beat, but when you beat them. To use a boxing analogy, Larry Holmes got no credit for decimating Muhammad Ali when they fought in 1980. Why? Because everyone knew Ali was gone when the fight was made and even though the fight was a big deal to people because it was Ali, it wasn’t a surprise when he lost.

As for Fedor’s streak in MMA, here’s some of the highlights: during the streak Fedor beat Mark Coleman twice (a better Coleman than Shogun and Bonnar got), beat Kevin Randleman less than a minute after Randleman slammed him on his head (and when Randleman still had potential) and beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira twice in his prime (a much, MUCH better Nogueira than Frank Mir faced off against or Cain Valasquez blew away). Fedor also beat Cro Cop in his prime, he beat Heath Herring in his prime (something that was years past Heath when Lesnar destroyed him), and he beat Semmy Schilt during Schilt’s most effective period in MMA.

The best fact about the winning streak: Fedor beat a total of four former UFC heavyweight champions and that number goes to five if you count Nogueira who won the UFC interim heavyweight title just over three years after his last fight with Fedor. So to say that Fedor hasn’t fought anybody is pretty silly, especially considering that the same people talking about lack of competition in recent times were likely going bonkers for the Sylvia/Arlovski fights in UFC.

Finally, let’s put all that hatred and overreaction into perspective. If you want to blame anyone for the Fedor myth, blame UFC for buying Pride. As of the end of 2006 (the final full year Pride was in existence), here were the main tags attached to Fedor: Pride heavyweight champion, the baddest man on the planet, pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world. After the purchase and Pride was no more, then came the Last Emperor nickname and the over-embellishing of Fedor’s abilities and of the man himself.

Saying the guy is an unbeatable killing machine, a cyborg and Fedor over God via Armbar is fun when you’re talking with your friends in-between his fights. However, when he gets into the ring or the cage he is just as vulnerable as any other person. The fight game can be a double-edged sword in that it operates in the following way: building great fighters into larger-than-life figures in order to sell tickets, and then humbling them (no matter who it is) when they are defeated to make more money on the rematch, or on the new hot thing in town. For an example, let’s look at the fight that made Lesnar: his title win over Couture. Couture was around fourteen years longer than Lesnar at the time and had not been in a fight for just under fifteen months at the time. Lesnar had last fought a little over three months before the fight with Randy. However, because it was Randy (Captain America, the undying legend, the active hall-of-famer, etc.) and because Lesnar was already a star thanks to UFC’s fantastic hype machine—a positive comment in case you were wondering—the fight was seen as a titanic clash instead of the more realistic torch passing fight or another example of Randy’s greatness had he won.

The point is, Fedor didn’t lose because he’s done or because he was overhyped and overrated. He lost because he hadn’t fought a guy with a ground game like Werdum’s for years. He got caught just like Chuck did against Rampage, just like Lesnar did against Mir, and just like a lot of great fighters have had happen to them at one point or another during their storied careers.

But don’t take my word for it, here it is from the man himself after the fight:

“At the very beginning of the round, I hit Fabricio and I wanted to finish the fight as soon as possible and at that very moment I made a mistake.”

“Certainly there were several moments when I could escape, but I relied on myself too much and that’s why I paid for it.”

“At the very moment that I had to escape, I stopped. I didn’t do that and that moment was used by Fabricio to lock his clinch, to finish locking up his legs.”

“It happens that I was made kind of an idol.” “Everybody loses. That happens. I’m an ordinary human being, as is all of us and if it is God’s will, the next fight I will win.”

“I tried to work out (motivated) to come into the fight in my best shape and the fight today showed that maybe I didn’t work enough.”

“I didn’t manage to make all my technique to become automatic. That means I will have to work more.”

Compared to a certain UFC heavyweight champion’s reaction to his only career loss, Fedor fully deserved the hype he has gotten in the past few years.

To Werdum: thank you for making the world take notice. To Fedor: come back soon.

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