Barring any last-minute hangups, Fedor Emelianenko will fight in the United States for the first time in nearly six years on June 24, when he meets Matt Mitrione on the main card of Bellator NYC at Madison Square Garden.
The 40-year-old heavyweight, who put the city of Stary Oskol, Russia on the world sporting map, is fondly remembered for his lengthy reign as PRIDE heavyweight champion. But while his place among the sport’s all-time greats is secure, the time he spent competing stateside is an under-examined aspect of his legacy.
Emelianenko’s American fights correlate with the roller-coaster ride that was the MMA boom of the mid-aughts, from Pride’s attempts to create a foothold in North America, the wild historical footnote that was Affliction MMA to the rise and fall of Strikeforce. Even the things “The Last Emperor” didn’t do -- most notably, not fighting in the UFC -- helped mold the narrative of MMA history.
With that, a look at Emelianenko’s history in the United States, on the eve of his return.
Oct. 21, 2006 — Pride 32, Las Vegas
Emelianenko def. Mark Coleman via submission (armbar), 1:17 R2
Pride’s U.S. debut was an event which rarely gets its due among the more important dates in the history of mixed martial arts. A crowd of 11,727 at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas paid a gate of more than $2 million to witness the legendary Japanese company’s first foray into America. This was proof that the sport’s upward trajectory was about more than just the UFC brand, and that the followers of the Pride promotion were more than just a handful of diehards who would stay up all night to watch their favorite fighters.
While the evening’s card featured greats from Robbie Lawler (in the opening match, no less) to Dan Henderson vs. Vitor Belfort to Josh Barnett to Shogun Rua, the big draw was the first U.S. appearance of a vintage “Last Emperor.” Emelianenko, the Pride heavyweight champ for 3-1/2 years by this point, met former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman in the main event. The non-title bout was conducted under Unified Rules, which meant for a five-minute first round instead of the traditional Pride 10-minute round, but it was just as well. Emelianenko delivered a ruthless beatdown to Coleman, which mercifully ended early in the second round when Coleman tapped to an armbar.
Pride returned to Vegas the following February for PRIDE 33, which is best remembered for the legendary Nick Diaz-Takanori Gomi brawl. The gate doubled to $4 million the second time around. Without Pride proving itself a threat in Zuffa’s backyard, would the UFC have bothered to spend millions of dollars to buy the promotion several months later?
July 19, 2008 — Affliction: Banned, Anaheim, Calif.
Emelianenko def. Tim Sylvia, submission (rear-naked choke), 0:36 R1
Nine years on, Affliction: Banned stands as the zenith of MMA’s demons-and-skulls era. The event was a testosterone-soaked ode to excess, as the fighters performed in an oversized, 30 x 30 ring — or they did, at least, when the card wasn’t being stopped so Megadeth could perform.
A crowd of 14,832 jammed the Honda Center to the tune of $2.085M, with another 100,000 buying the pay-per-view for a card which featured five world champions. While these days, Tim Sylvia is considered a punchline to a variety of jokes, back then, he was just more than a year removed as UFC heavyweight champ and the winner of seven of his past nine bouts.
Fedor vs. Sylvia was a serious enough threat the UFC hastily arranged a Spike TV card for the same evening and put middleweight champ Anderson Silva in the main event, as he fought and defeated James Irvin in a light heavyweight bout.
If the goal of Affliction’s main event was to make Emelianenko, in the aftermath of the fall of Pride, look like he was still king of the hill, it worked. Fedor dropped Sylvia at the outset with a wicked left hook and an uppercut, then continued bombarding the downed Sylvia until he saw the opening for the choke and got him to tap in just over a half-minute. After the fight, Sylva would say Emelianenko hit him harder than he had ever been hit in his career. Out in Las Vegas, UFC president Dana White, appraised by reporters about what had happened in Anaheim, simply said “wow.”
Jan. 24, 2009 — Affliction: Day of Reckoning, Anaheim, Calif.
Emelianenko def. Andrei Arlovski, KO, 3:14 R1
Perhaps the most memorable two-day MMA stretch ever to hit Southern California came on this January weekend. On the back end, the WEC hit San Diego for a card with Urijah Faber, Donald Cerrone, Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz and the company debut of Benson Henderson.
But not before Affliction staged its second and final event. Things were a tad more subdued this time — no more Megadeth — and the numbers were a bit down, at 13,255 and a $1.5M gate.
Those who showed got what they paid for, as, in the main event, Emelianenko unleashed one of the most memorable knockouts in a career full of them. Fedor and Arlovski fought fairly evenly for the first couple of minutes of the fight, with each getting in their fair share of offense as they tussled back and forth in the clinch.
And then, it happened. Arlovski, who had won a barnburner of a fight with Ben Rothwell at the first Affliction show with a highlight-reel flying knee, went for the move once again. But he telegraphed it this time. And Emelianenko met him mid-air with a wicked right hand to the jaw that sent Arlovski spinning and crashing to the mat. It was a sequence straight out of a movie scene, a second straight win over a recent UFC champ, and Fedor’s 26th consecutive victory.
The ones that got away
The Fedor fights that didn’t happen were at times as noteworthy as the ones which did. Emelianenko was slated to meet Barnett at Affliction: Trilogy in Anaheim on Aug. 1, 2009. However, Barnett, as a previous PED offender, was subject to random drug testing by the California State Athletic Commission, and tested positive for banned substances. Without another adequate headliner, Affliction pulled the plug on the event and the entire promotion, coming to a sponsorship deal with the UFC. This concluded a 12-month span in which the International Fight League, EliteXC, and Affliction all went belly-up.
In the wake of Affliction’s end, the UFC put on a full-court press attempting to sign Emelianenko. The company was fresh off its UFC 100 peak and heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar’s star was burning bright. Speculation held that a Lesnar-Emelianenko fight could be held at the recently opened Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. However, the two sides were far apart on dollar figures, and the UFC refused to budge on demands by Emelianenko’s side to co-promote with the Russian M-1 Global promotion. Talks fizzled and Emelianenko signed with Strikeforce.
Then, of course, there’s the most recent Emelianenko fight which didn’t come off, and like the Barnett fight, “The Last Emperor” was entirely blameless. Slated to fight Mitrione at Bellator 172 in San Jose, Mitrione came down with a case of kidney stones. He tried to tough it out, but the fight was called off the day of the show.
Nov. 7, 2009 — Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers, Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Emelianenko def. Brett Rogers, KO, 1:48 R2
By this point, Affliction went back to making terrible shirts and Strikeforce, backed by Showtime, made its big play as it transitioned from a wildly successful Northern California regional promotion to the national stage.
Suburban Chicago was the setting for Strikeforce’s first-ever event on CBS, where a full house was on hand for Emelianeko’s first U.S. fight outside the Pacific time zone. The years haven’t been kind to Chicago’s Rogers, who has found a variety of legal trouble. But at the time, he was a hot, 10-0 prospect, coming off what proved to be his career highlight, a 22-second knockout of Arlovski in June.
Indeed, Rogers proved to be no pushover. He arguably won a back-and-first first round by rocking Emelianenko and getting him in trouble. But as he had done every time he had been in peril up until this point in his career, Emelianenko got out of the hairy situation and regained his bearings.
Rogers, though, emptied his gas tank in the opening round and faded in the second. As Rogers started dropping his hands, Fedor pounced, unleashing a vicious roundhouse right which landed on the button for the knockout. 5.46 million viewers tuned in for the main event, proving without a shadow of a doubt “The Last Emperor” had caught on in the U.S. as a drawing card.
June 26, 2010 — Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum, San Jose, Calif.
Lost to Fabricio Werdum, submission (triangle armbar), 1:09 R1
Strikeforce returned to its home base, San Jose’s HP Pavilion, for what most presumed was simply going to be Emelianenko’s next conquest. A crowd of 11,757 paid a gate of just more than $1M to see Fedor take on Fabricio Werdum. Werdum, who was infamously cut by the UFC after losing a first-round knockout to Junior dos Santos at UFC 90, had rebounded with a pair of victories in Strikeforce, but few expected him to be the man to end “The Last Emperor’s” legendary win streak.
Instead, the unthinkable happened. Werdum goaded Emelianenko to the mat, and trapped him in a triangle. Fedor’s face first went several shades of red more than usual, than started turning blue, then purple. He held out as long as he could before tapping at the 1:09 mark.
If you weren’t watching MMA back then, it’s almost impossible to explain how big of a shock this result was. The only comparable moment since was when Chris Weidman knocked out Anderson Silva at UFC 162 and ended the longest reign in UFC history. Nearly a decade and 27 wins later, the invincible aura of Emelianenko was shattered.
As a postscript, this fight in hindsight wasn’t nearly as lopsided an upset as it appeared at the time. For Werdum, the win over Emelianenko was in the early portion of a 9-1 stretch which culminated in him finishing Cain Velasquez at UFC 188 to claim the UFC heavyweight title.
Feb. 12, 2011 — Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva, East Rutherford, N.J.
Emelianenko lost to Antonio Silva, TKO, 5:00 R2
Strikeforce went about the task of rehabbing Fedor from the loss by making him the centerpiece of their heavyweight Grand Prix tournament. Long a fan of Pride tourneys, Strikeforce founder Scott Coker brought the concept stateside with a jam-packed tourney featuring the likes of Fedor, Arlovski, Barnett, Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Bigfoot Silva, and more.
The tournament’s opening night was a major event which drew all sorts of mainstream media coverage. The card not only drew not only a crowd of 11,827 to the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., but also an average of 741,000 viewers, a Showtime MMA record.
And they witnessed a tourney that seemed to go down in flames in the outset, as the two biggest mainstream names both lost badly. First, Arlovski suffered a brutal knockout at the hands of Sergei Kharitonov. Then Emelianenko took a wicked beating from “Bigfoot.” The uber-tough Fedor held on for two rounds as Silva dished out the punishment. But Emelianenko ended up with both eyes nearly swollen shut by the time the doctors stopped the bout after the second round.
A shellshocked Coker, at the post-fight news conference, tried to float the idea of re-inserting Emelianenko into the tournament as an alternate if the opportunity arose. But instead, just 15 months after the win over Rogers, observers openly questioned whether Emelianenko should retire.
The tournament itself was salvaged, as it eventually morphed into the launching pad for Daniel Cormier, who started as an alternate and decisioned Barnett in the finals to establish himself as one of the sport’s elites.
July 30, 2011 — Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson, Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Emelianenko lost to Dan Henderson, TKO, 4:12 R1
By the time Fedor returned to the cage, Strikeforce had been sold to then Zuffa-owner UFC, which had to be questioning the value of the contracts it had inherited. Emelianenko was paid a $1.5 million purse for his bout with Henderson, who received $800,000. The $2.3M payout for the main event alone was nearly four times the $638,000 gate paid by the crowd of 8,311 back in Chicagoland.
It was certainly a consequential evening as a showcase for fighters who would make their mark in the coming years. Miesha Tate submitted Marloes Coenen to win the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight belt. Tyron Woodley, Tim Kennedy, Tarec Saffiedine, Derek Brunson, and Alexis Davis all earned wins. But the night was also confirmation that Emelianenko was on his way out. The bout was contested at heavyweight, with Henderson, the former Pride light heavyweight and middleweight champ, clocking in at a mere 207.
Emelianenko appeared to have Henderson in trouble late in the first round, as he dropped Henderson with a right hand. But as Fedor went in for the kill, Henderson, then the Strikeforce light heavyweight champ, managed to squirm out of the bad spot and rally from his knees, with an onslaught that ended with Emelianenko face first on the canvas before Herb Dean could call the fight off.
From there, Emelianenko won three fights overseas before entering a three-year retirement. He signed with Bellator last year and this weekend he’ll make his promotional debut — and return to the United States.