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Fedor Emelianenko, and the Complicated Legacy of a Simple Man

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Fedor Emelianenko is finished now. So he says. Fighter retirements are a little like break-ups: you have to wait a while, sometimes a long while, before you know if it’s going to stick. Assuming Emelianenko doesn’t go for some desperate reconciliation attempt on a New Year’s Eve fight card somewhere (the MMA version of the saddest one-night stand there is), his break-up with the sport will have ended after twelve memorable years -- seven or eight of which were truly impressive -- and innumerable tedious debates about his place among MMA greats.

Was he the best fighter this sport has ever known? Doubtful. I think that title belongs to Anderson Silva, who, for all we know, could still have several more good years left in him. How about the best heavyweight? Sure. That feels like a more comfortable claim. He dominated Pride back when that organization had the best big men in the world, then he came to the U.S. and beat the two fighters who had traded the UFC heavyweight strap back and forth during that same time period.

Emelianenko was one of MMA’s straddlers. He came up during one era of the sport -- an era of specialists, but very few all-around mixed martial artists -- and continued on into the next one, when nearly every opponent was in possession of both a ground game and a striking game, rather than faking one to set up the other. Emelianenko dominated the fighters of both eras. He did it as an undersized heavyweight, and he did it for a long, long time.

He was the best, in other words, at least among the heavyweights. He was also one of the most overrated fighters to ever strap on a pair of gloves, and probably one of the most blatantly mismanaged ones. It’s all a part of the complicated legacy he leaves behind. Fedor the great. Fedor the not-quite-that great. Fedor the cautionary tale.

Emelianenko never cared very much about legacy or rankings. That’s what he said, anyway, and of all the things he was capable of, guile never seemed like one of them. A certain subset of fans tried to make him into their own reluctant cult leader by worshipping his every move on internet forums, but to his credit, he seemed embarrassed by that attention, and maybe even a little annoyed at those who kept forcing it on him. No matter how many times he tried to tell us that he was just a simple man who happened to be very good at fighting, there were those who would settle for nothing less than a messiah.

But the enigmatic Russian was similarly passive and disinterested when it came to the direction of his own career. When it was time to make big decisions about his future following the sale and demise of Pride, he put his career into the hands of people who treated him as a commodity first and an athlete second. They were determined to squeeze every last ounce of value out of him while they could, and in the process they kept him out of the most compelling fights during what may have been the peak of his career.

It wasn’t all their fault. They caught some bad breaks here and there. They had what could have been a career-defining fight against Josh Barnett yanked out from under them by Barnett’s failed drug test. But with their demands for "co-promotion" -- which, near as I can tell, consisted of splashing the M-1 Global logo on any flat surface they could find -- they attempted to turn Emelianenko into a promotion unto himself. They created the impression that they were picking and choosing his fights, trying to keep him out of the tough ones while they shook his perfect record like a piggy back they were trying to extract the last few coins from.

When the breaks started going against Emelianenko, beginning with his shocking submission loss to Fabricio Werdum, they never stopped until he was thoroughly damaged goods. After remaining on the top of the mountain for years, suddenly he fell right off the cliff. He lost three straight before being bounced out of Strikeforce. The second loss, to Antonio Silva, seemed like it was the size difference finally catching up with him. The third loss, to Strikeforce light heavyweight champ and occasional middleweight contender Dan Henderson, seemed more like age.

If his career had ended there it would have been no less impressive. He continued on anyway, winning a few more mostly meaningless bouts in events propped up by the scaffolding of his fame. He ended it with a knockout of Pedro Rizzo, who was himself a fighter from a bygone era, and one who never quite learned to straddle the way his more successful contemporaries did.

That win won’t really matter, except perhaps to those who were there and got to share in the moment. In the Fedor canon, a knockout of the aging Rizzo falls somewhere above his wins over Zuluzinho and Hong-Man Choi, but far below his defeats of Mirko Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. When you look at his record now, you see freakshows and you see fights. You see an amazing unbeaten streak that includes real wins over real opponents, as well as a few almost criminal ones against unconvincing fakers. Look closer, into the background, and you see handlers who tried to monetize that streak just a little too much, and ended up negotiating themselves right out of the big time. Somewhere in there is an excellent fighter, struggling to keep from being drowned out by the hype and the hate.

Emelianenko was great once. Maybe he could have been even greater if his management had gotten out of the way and given him a chance to find out. We’ll never know, and neither will he. I get the sense that we’re the only ones who even care. Emelianenko was one of the few fighters who never asked us to tell him how wonderful he was, and never seemed interested in listening when we told him anyway. That’s a part of his legacy too. The part that doesn’t care what we think. The part that just wanted to be a man when so many others tried to make him into a god.

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