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Emanuel Yarbrough, largest UFC fighter ever, passes away at 51

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Emanuel Yarbrough, right, competed in sumo wrestling, the UFC and professional wrestling.
Emanuel Yarbrough, right, competed in sumo wrestling, the UFC and professional wrestling.
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Emanuel Yarbrough, who was on the wrong end of the most famous knockdown in early UFC history, passed away on Monday at the age of 51.

Yarbrough, who fought once in the UFC, and three times overall, was the largest MMA fighter in its history. At one time, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest athlete.

At 6-foot-7, he was billed at 616 pounds for a fight against 195-pound Keith Hackney on the third UFC event, held on Sept. 9, 1994, at the Grady Cole Center, in Charlotte, N.C. Exactly what he really weighed was subject to conjecture, because in those days, there were no weight classes and no weigh-ins.

Campbell McLaren, who ran the UFC at the time, said Yarbrough was actually 660 pounds at the time of the Hackney fight, but asked them to use a lighter number because he felt 660 pounds made him seem fat.

"I talked him into it," McLaren said. "He never wanted to fight."

The promotional buildup for the show was built around Ken Shamrock coming for revenge on Royce Gracie, Gracie vowing to win his third straight tournament, and the largest athlete in the world looking at blocking their plans. With a blind draw, nobody knew who they were going to face in the first round.

Knowledge of fighting by the public was in its infancy, so the prospect of somebody that large in a UFC became a major topic of discussion. While Yarbrough was billed on the show as a sumo wrestler, he was a very legitimate athlete in his younger days. At about 400 pounds, Yarbrough was a two-time Division II All-American offensive tackle at Morgan State University, and a two-time Division II and one-time Division I All-American in wrestling. Wrestling had already put a 285 pound ceiling on the heavyweight division, but in making the change, everyone who was already wrestling was granted an exemption until they completed their eligibility, so he may have been the last true super heavyweight to compete in college wrestling .

Because he couldn't continue in wrestling after college with the weight restrictions that were also implemented in the Olympics, he moved to judo, and in 1989, placed second in the unlimited weight class in the national championships. But his lack of stamina kept him from having a shot at making the Olympics.

The sumo background was legit to a point. Yarbrough competed in amateur sumo, very different from the pro sumo that is so popular on Japanese television. He had placed second in the world championships in Tokyo just months before his UFC shot, and actually won the world championship in amateur sumo the year after his UFC fight. .

Billed as sumo vs. kempo karate, Yarbrough quickly ran at Hackney, and drove him into the cage, and through it, actually knocking open the locked gate with the force. But when they got back into the cage Hackney quickly landed an overhand right, and Yarbrough toppled over like a redwood tree. The moment was replayed on news and sports shows for the next several years, often decrying UFC as a freak show, which wasn't exactly inaccurate, with the idea of a fight with no weight classes. Lost often in the stories about how unfair it was that they would put a 600-plus pound man in with someone under 200 pounds, is that the smaller guy won the fight handily.

After Yarbrough went down, Hackney landed a barrage of unanswered punches to the head before the fight was stopped in just 1:59. The win made Hackney one of the biggest early stars of UFC.

Yarbrough never fought in the UFC again, but the fame he got from the event led him to fighting twice in Japan. He lost to Daijyu Takase via second-round stoppage at Tokyo's Budokan Hall at an early Pride event in 1998. However, he did score one MMA win by landing on and smothering Tatsuo Nakano in just 1:17 in a 1998 Shooto show. The exposure from the UFC also led to a very brief pro wrestling career in Germany and Japan (where he performed under a mask), and a role as an inmate in the HBO series "Oz."

Yarbrough, who got as heavy as 880 pounds at one point, suffered from heart failure in 2007 and attempted to cut weight, getting down to 670 pounds at one point.