It’s an unofficial statistic, but MMA is something like 0-for-4,563 when it comes to giving its fighters storybook endings. The latest to get a shot was Fedor Emelianenko, who at 42 years old was trying to become Bellator’s heavyweight champion on Saturday night at Bellator 214, against all odds and decorum. Had he beat Ryan Bader to close out the Heavyweight Grand Prix — had the old Emperor successfully stormed the West one last time — he could have gotten the hell out and left all the authors of his legacy scrambling for the right superlatives.
Instead, he got smashed by a left hand. Worse, he barely reacted to that inbound left as it made its way towards his face. When the punch landed, the light flickered in the attic and his blue eyes went to some distant spot on the horizon. Bader wasted little time in blasting him again after he fell. And then again, just for good measure.
Total bout time: 35 seconds.
Total groans of sadness: 3,298,470.
We all knew the fight could go like that. Still, the romantic possibility of seeing Goliath toppled by a rarely understood Russian monastic — whose spookiest trait has always been his meditative calm — was enough to tune in with the hopes of being wrong.
Didn’t happen. Fedor just looked outdated. His reflexes were slow. Gravity wasn’t on his side. He fell like a man who’d come unrooted from our psyche, like an old oak being nudged along by the wind. The thing was over the second Bader went into his throwing motion. Damnit, Fedor! One slip and rip and you’re carried out on the shoulders of lesser men! The champion with nothing left to prove.
Of course, all of that is hypothetical hooey, because who even knows if Fedor would have walked away had he defeated Bader? Chances are he wouldn’t have. Bellator could have put him against Tito Ortiz — another fighter who missed out on a storybook ending, even after he’d already achieved it — or somebody else. Fedor retired once already in 2012, after defeating Pedro Rizzo in St. Petersburg, and reemerged three and a half years later for a bout against Singh Jaideep. He kept going. He kept going even after getting knocked out by Matt Mitrione in New York, when his eulogies began showing up in earnest. His response to that was to enter the HW Grand Prix.
Because he did, he set himself up — improbably — for Saturday night’s show at the Forum. It had the feel of an “event,” even if wasn’t a glamorous journey. Bellator brushed off that old blunderbuss Frank Mir for his quarter-finals fight, which was a merciful way to get him rolling. He then took out Chael Sonnen in the semis, which was a little anticlimactic as well. Sonnen has been busy doing a lot of gigs. Let’s be real here: Fedor got this far on smoke and mirrors. Not that there’s any shame in it.
But had he beat Bader — the light heavyweight champion who has morphed into a juggernaut in Bellator, after finishing his UFC run on a 7-1 streak — there wouldn’t have been any asterisks. Bader was the reality check. Heading in, Bader had an edge in current credentials, in youth, in athletic power and in premonitions. Bellator’s ideal tournament was to get Fedor to the finals. Somehow, it did. What was the plan once he got there? Well, see, that’s where it got interesting. Fedor was on his own. He was cast as a cinematic underdog with very little logical shot. In other words, right at the precipice of drafting the perfect end to his own story.
It was all right there.
Had he won, by god, it would have been pandemo…
Anyway, he didn’t win. He didn’t really land a punch. The fight game is cruel, and it’s in the face of that cruelty that we scheme such beautiful deceptions. That belt would have looked poetic around Fedor’s waist, but it looks right around Bader’s. Bader is in his prime; which is to say, for him there’s no writing on the wall. Not yet. But that writing’s been there for Fedor. It wasn’t hard to read. There never was going to be a happy ending for the heavyweight great.
No matter how fun it was to imagine otherwise.