Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
It felt like the end.
Fedor Emelianenko's M-1 Global fight in St. Petersburg, Russia, had the atmosphere of a celebratory sendoff, thousands filling up The Ice Palace to rise up and clap as hard as they could, scream and witness what might prove to be the last night for a fighter who slipped out of the tiny town of Stary Oskol and moved into international prominence as one of MMA's all-time greats.
Emelianenko didn't disappoint, even if his entire fight lasted just 12 seconds longer than his pre-fight introduction. The "Last Emperor" commanded all of their attention, all of their respect by knocking out Brazilian veteran Pedro Rizzo in just 84 seconds.
"Thank God we won," Emelianenko said afterward. "This is our victory. Thank you all."
And there were many to thank. In the seconds after the fight, Emelianenko was surrounded by his family, first his wife, then his young daughter. But he was speaking to the masses, from the sold-out crowd to the many in attendance that came up to the ring to congratulate him, including former boxing heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev and more notably, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who embraced him before offering a public congratulations.
All of them had just moments earlier watched Emelianenko pick up his 34th professional victory against only four defeats. It was a performance that turned back the clock, his hands flashing the same speed they did when he was menacing the PRIDE heavyweight division. The end came when he caught Rizzo with a step-in right hook that landed behind the ear. Rizzo's legs gave way and he fell to the mat, where Fedor swarmed with five unanswered blows before referee Yuji Shimata stepped in to rescue Rizzo.
It was the 23rd time he has finished a fight inside of the first round.
But Emelianenko left without offering the end of his own story. Prior to the bout, he had waffled on the retirement question, and he did nothing to clarify whether or not he would fight on. Little less than one year ago, he seemed like the sport had passed him by, the victim of three straight losses by stoppage. After three straight wins, he has more than enough evidence to insist he could continue, that he's more than capable of it, yet he has little else to prove.
Thursday night in St. Petersburg felt like the ideal way to send a legend off to retirement, but it might have been a little too perfect. How do you walk away after a night like that? Emelianenko has surpassed and defied expectations many times, and to leave behind the sport and an adoring public after that night of exaltation would be a noble final act.
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