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Fedor vs. Rampage showed that some fantasy matchups are better left unfulfilled

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Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It is easy to understand the rationale for putting Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson together on a year-end fight card in Japan. Prior to establishing their fame stateside, the two were concurrent stars in the PRIDE promotion. Although they competed in different weight classes, Emelianenko was the stoic Russian fighting machine, seemingly incapable of losing, while Jackson was the charismatic, hard-swinging American intent on entertaining an appreciative crowd. But that was over a decade ago, and time is unkind to most fighters. The MMA legend’s time paradox is this: it leads to increased fame while sapping key physical gifts. Expectations rise while the ability to perform decreases.

While some promoters use the notoriety of older fighters to set up future stars, Bellator’s Scott Coker at least usually attempts to offer a comparable foe. And so last night in Saitama, Japan, the two elder statesmen faced each other, a past fantasy booking come to life.

While the hopes were for a competitive, action-packed bout that turned the clock back to past glories, it never materialized. Jackson showed up to Saitama at a … ahem … robust 265 pounds. That’s almost 11 pounds heavier than his last fight, and a full 40 pounds heavier than his Bellator heavyweight debut in 2016. These pounds did not look especially helpful to him in a fight; the weight did not appear to be extra muscle. Rampage is now 41 years old, but while many among us gain weight as we age, is it crazy to suggest that adding 40 pounds in three years is a troubling trend for a professional athlete?

“I felt like a hippopotamus out there,” Jackson later said in an Instagram video addressing his loss. Despite his reputation as MMA’s crown prince of comedy, Jackson has unleashed some brutally candid self-analysis over the years, and this was another, even if it only addressed part of the problem.

The other is simply age. Rampage’s fight game was largely reliant upon fast counters. His return left hook was the stuff of nightmares in the mid-to-late aughts, but last night against Fedor, it showed no zip. At his size, the power is no doubt still there but it’s not fast power, and as we all know, in the fight game, speed kills. Jackson appeared to be hunting with a bullet that is no longer reliably in his arsenal, deteriorated as it is by time.

Emelianenko looked marginally like himself. He still bounces on the balls of his feet and uncorks hellacious shots, but while the resemblance to the legendary “Last Emperor” is unmistakable, it’s still the later version of a classic. Like Jackson, he was heavier than normal, having weighed 240.5 pounds at the weigh-in.

For both guys, the weight gain may have its roots in the wear-and-tear suffered over the years. Jackson has noted that he has two knee replacement surgeries in his future, which no doubt affects the ability to do road work. Add in his past admissions of loathing training, and those are problems that are bound to manifest themselves on fight night. Emelianenko, who often conceals his health specifics from the public, has also acknowledged the effects of nagging physical problems over the years.

These are no longer young men — Emelianenko is 43 while Jackson is 41. To trot them out as headliners as 2020 nears should no longer be a viable option, except for the facts that their star power precedes them and their paychecks make it nearly necessary. The business of fighting creates an attraction that often should otherwise be avoided.

This is not meant as a criticism of the actual in-cage performances of Emelianenko or Jackson, both of whom likely show up with the idea of recreating past greatness. It’s just a reminder that these kinds of pairings rarely create any magic. Remember Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock III or Tito Ortiz vs. Chuck Liddell III or Vitor Belfort vs. Lyoto Machida? None of these fights were very memorable, and if they were, it was for the wrong reasons.

Fighters age differently, of course, and for every letdown, fighters or fans may mention Randy Couture and Dan Henderson and a select few others who bucked Father Time a bit longer than most to stay dangerous, but these guys were the exceptions that proved the rule.

This is a young person’s sport, and that will never change, even as science and training finds ways to extend the athletic peak. Youth will always be faster, hungrier, more innovative. It’s why Anderson Silva has won only a single time in the last seven years and why at age 37, Stipe Miocic is the oldest UFC champion by five full years. It’s why even a seemingly sure thing like Rampage vs. Fedor fizzled.

Many of us get excited to hear that two historic names are meeting in the present. That’s understandable because that’s what makes us fans. But before giving in completely to nostalgia, it’s worth tempering your expectations and remembering that some fantasy matchups are better left unfulfilled.