One day, the mixed martial arts world will move on without Fedor Emelianenko. That day, however, is not yet here, even if Emelianenko has teased retirement, even as his fights get more difficult to find for even his most ardent fans.
It was just about two years ago when Emelianenko's magical unbeaten streak was snapped. Since then, he's faced further professional disappointment before mounting an attempt at clawing his way back into the international conversation. To be sure, he has gone about it in the noble manner befitting his former status as the sport's greatest heavyweight, possibly its greatest fighter.
The cruelty of prizefighting is that the spotlight often leaves you before you're ready to leave it. And while Emelianenko is still a serviceable heavyweight -- probably even above average -- due to politics and the UFC-heavy worldview of most, his final days are taking place out of the limelight. On Thursday, he fights again, facing Pedro Rizzo at an M-1 Global event in St. Petersburg, Russia, but the fight has gained little traction among U.S. fans, and Emelianenko has indicated that it could be his last.
This week, he told MMA Fighting that his future remains undecided.
"I have a fight now," he said. "When it’s over we will see. It’s all God's will."
That isn't a definitive yes, but it isn't a definitive no, either, which leads you to believe that he probably has given some legitimate consideration to hanging up his gloves for good. Yet at the same time, he's not in a particularly wistful or nostalgic mood about his career and his legacy.
Asked about what he considers the fondest memory of his career, and whether he has any regrets, Emelianenko isn't interested in looking back.
"I'm having a fight and it's still early to sum up," he said.
On the other hand, while he declines to look backward, looking forward is a different story. Remember those rumors that Emelianenko would consider a drop to light-heavyweight? Whatever happened to that? To him, the idea is a non-starter, even though it wouldn't apply unless he continued competing.
"I’ve fought in this weight for a long time and I feel well," he said. "There is no necessity to change anything."
For almost his entire career, Emelianenko has fought as an undersized heavyweight, standing about 6 feet tall and weighing around 230 pounds. For years, his quickness, power and killer instinct were enough to rule that division. But it all ended on June 26, 2010, when Werdum trapped him in a triangle/armbar combination and Emelianenko tapped a single time, dignified yet clear.
In some ways, that loss could be explained away. Werdum was then, and remains now, a top 10 heavyweight. He also boasts one of the top jiu-jitsu games in MMA, with many saying he's the best big man in the gentle art, better than Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. His resume certainly backs up the claim.
More difficult to rationalize was his loss to Antonio Silva, the massive Brazilian who it seems only came in with superior size, but left with with a TKO win after battering Emelianenko throughout the majority of their 10-minute fight.
It was in the aftermath of that fight when he first mentioned the possibility of walking away.
"Back then I said that in the heat of the moment," he says now. "To the same I said, 'Maybe I've got to retire.' This was emotions. But after the fight [manager] Vadim [Finkelstein], trainers, my family, my friends and I decided that I will continue to fight in the ring."
But then, a loss to Dan Henderson, the veteran star made it three in a row, sending Fedor out of Strikeforce and on his own. Given his past success, he couldn't be blamed for any crisis in confidence that followed, but Emelianenko says there wasn't any.
"This is sport and no one is insured against losses." he said. "It’s all God's will. Perhaps, losses are given to us to think and work through mistakes."
Three months shy of his 36th birthday, Emelianenko faces an uncertain future. Even if he does continue to fight, which it appears is no given, options are limited due to nearly all of the world's top heavyweights being signed to Zuffa, making them unavailable to him. He says he still feels good, and for this camp, put in time training in The Netherlands.
In terms of pure sporting interests, it's a fight he must win. While Rizzo was once one of MMA's biggest punchers, he's now 38 and hasn't fought in nearly two years. His last two wins have come against Ken Shamrock at a time when Shamrock had lost five of six, and Gary Goodridge when he was in the midst of an eight-fight losing streak that took him to retirement.
Emelianenko says he has a great respect for Rizzo, who was a perfect 9-0 by the time Emelianenko made his own pro debut, and in that way was a model for his early days.
"When I came to MMA, I learned from him since he already had a successful career in this sport," he said. "So I will be very glad to meet him in the ring."
Yet when Emelianenko looks across the cage at Rizzo, he may be staring at his own future. Rizzo has spent the last several years globetrotting, taking fights wherever he could. This M-1 fight with Fedor will mark his seventh promotion in his last seven fights, yet he hasn't really built any kind of forward momentum. While Emelianenko will always have a home with M-1, the organization hasn't quite given him an international platform as a standalone promotion.
A win will mark three in a row for a heavyweight whose career headstone had seemingly been engraved when he lost to Silva. Then what? Maybe he walks away with his head held high, maybe he comes back one more time. Or maybe he already knows the answer. Maybe he's already determined 'God's will' but he's just not saying.
"We'll see," he said.
Even for one of the greatest of all time, the end must come. Maybe it's on Thursday, maybe it's not. Given his reputation as a soft-spoken gentleman, perhaps it is fitting that for him, it nears quietly.
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