It’s probably been a decade since the true prime of Fedor Emelianenko, who was once considered as close to a mythical fighter as anyone in the sport’s history has been.
He was talked about as the baddest man on the planet for years, the old axiom they used to say about boxing’s heavyweight champion. That was until MMA exposed the realities of the limitations of boxing alone in an overall fight.
Except for the fact that his spilling copious amounts of blood in his fights proved otherwise, the joke in his prime was that he was so good he wasn’t human. They called him a Cyborg.
There were moments in his fights that were the thing of legend. There was the night Kevin Randleman dropped him on his head in the suplex of all MMA suplexes, only to lose seconds later. Or there was the time when Kazuyuki Fujita knocked him silly with a punch and for a second Emelianenko’s winning streak was in jeopardy, only for Fujita to be submitted seconds later.
Because of his status, one promoter after another hitched up to the Fedor wagon. The idea was simple: If you’ve got the best heavyweight, money will follow. But that philosophy only led to a slate of companies that quickly went by the wayside. For all of his talent and intrigue, Emelianenko couldn’t generate money at nearly the level his handlers commanded and demanded for his services.
For the UFC, the one company with the audience that could have generated huge revenues off his name, Emelianenko was the one who never came.
There were secret meetings on exotic islands in foreign continents. Once, the UFC thought it had an agreement for the biggest money fight ever — or so they thought — with Emelianenko against Brock Lesnar at Dallas’ Cowboys Stadium sometime in 2012.
Emelianenko had just retired but was ready to come back. Lesnar was down for the payday. Emelianenko had lost three in a row and wasn’t nearly as scary as he was when he blasted Tim Sylvia out of the water in the debut of the short-lived Affliction promotion. At one time, the idea that Lesnar could have beaten Emelianenko would have gotten a person laughed out of any hardcore MMA discussion group. But by 2012, there was considerable intrigue regarding what would have happened. It’s a subject that has been debated for years since.
Emelianenko’s father passed away while negotiations were going on. Emelianenko then broke off negotiations, saying he was no longer interested in ever fighting again.
And now, nearly six years later, he’s a regular with Bellator. And due to what he once was, he is the biggest name in their eight-man heavyweight championship tournament. And after beating Frank Mir in 48 seconds in the first round, suddenly Emelianenko is a live pick.
His next opponent is Chael Sonnen, who it can be counted on to promote the fight in a manner none of Emelianenko’s former opponents have.
It isn’t that Sonnen has no chance. This is MMA, and strange things happen weekly. But Sonnen spent most of his career as a middleweight and his best attribute is a lifetime of wrestling.
Emelianenko’s past stumbles have come against hard hitters who can knock him out, like Dan Henderson or Matt Mitrione; guys who can overwhelm him with size, like Antonio Silva; guys who can outbox, him like journeyman Fabio Maldonado (the record book lists Emelianenko as winning that 2016 fight in St. Petersburg, Russia, but that result would have been different anywhere outside of Russia); or a submission master like Fabricio Werdum.
Sonnen, a smaller wrestler, is none of those things.
The force of his uppercut that put Mir’s lights out shows that Emelianenko still has his power, and Emelianenko getting dropped early by Mir shows that he is very much still susceptible to a big puncher.
For all the humanizing of him, the audience in Chicago saw him as the legend, and not Mir. Mir has had far more American exposure and was in the main event of what is still the third-biggest pay-per-view in MMA history, against the aforementioned Lesnar. But when Emelianenko came out, the Allstate Arena lit up with cell phones taking photos. He got the roar that only the elite superstars of the sport will ever hear.
The fans clearly see him as the biggest star in the tournament.
And a win over Sonnen would put him in the finals where he’d be the underdog no matter who he ended up facing.
Bader, who turns 35 in June, is the youngest competitor in the tournament. He is the only fighter in the tournament who would be legitimately top 10 in the world today, albeit at light heavyweight, where he’s Bellator’s current champion. He was the betting favorite to win it all, largely because of him being the closest to his prime. But he’s never fought at heavyweight. Lawal has fought at heavyweight, and has won eight of his nine heavyweight fights, but is also the physically smallest competitor of the original eight.
Mitrione is the biggest of the three, and has knockout power. Bader and Lawal are both younger and more well-rounded.
We’ve seen Emelianenko vs. Mitrione. That fight seemingly ends based on who connects first. In the case of a tie, which their first meeting was as they connected and knocked each other down at the same time in one of the craziest moments in MMA history, the first fight shows Mitrione has the edge in recuperation time.
The irony is the most intrigue of all to longtime fans would be if Mirko Cro Cop beat Roy Nelson on May 25, and came in as the alternate. Emelianenko vs. Cro Cop in 2005, won by Emelianenko, was the biggest heavyweight fight up to that point in history. Some would argue it is still the biggest. And the two have never met since.