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Retro Robbery Review: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Fabio Maldonado

SPIEF 2016: MMA Fight Nights Global 50
Fedor Emelianenko and Fabio Maldonado at Eurasia Fight Night 50 in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 17, 2016
Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

As combat sports fans, we’ve seen bizarre decisions come in all shapes and sizes, whether we’re talking about MMA, boxing, or pro wrestling. But in recent memory, I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like the debacle that occurred when Fedor Emelianenko fought Fabio Maldonado.

With Emelianenko set to compete this Saturday at Bellator 269, it’s time to take another look at this heavyweight tilt from Eurasia Fight Night 50 in St. Petersburg, Russia, which marked its fifth anniversary this past June. If you’ve never seen it before, take 20 minutes out of your day to watch a replay through the magic of YouTube.

The fight was wildly entertaining and the result was wildly controversial, a perfect cocktail of an all-time great’s legacy mixed with a shockingly competitive adversary, good old-fashioned home cooking, and even some political intrigue. If this fight happened in the UFC, we’d still be talking about it.

On the other hand, this was a uniquely Russian MMA experience, one unlike any Robbery Review we’ve done before.

What was the official result?

Fedor Emelianenko def. Fabio Maldonado via majority decision.

How did the fight go?

This was Emelianenko’s second fight since coming out of retirement in 2015 and overall he entered the contest on a four-fight win streak. His level of competition certainly wasn’t what it used to be, but one can understand why he was still finding success even nearing the age of 40. He was still a marvelous offensive fighter and he took the fight to Maldonado right away with a thrilling opening flurry of punches.

A little over a minute into the fight, disaster struck for “The Last Emperor.” His hands low, he stepped directly into a sharp counter right hand from Maldonado that took his legs out from under him. Maldonado was on top throwing punches in bunches, Emelianenko working to keep him in half guard. The ground-and-pound was relentless and Maldonado landed plenty of big shots.

Emelianenko somehow managed to stand, but he had a serious case of the stanky leg. Maldonado kept cracking him and it looked like he was just seconds away from a TKO. It didn’t come, possibly because Emelianenko was still throwing back even if it looked like he might keel over at any moment. With a minute remaining in round one, Maldonado was just mashing Emelianenko with uppercuts. The referee made the questionable decision to interrupt the action to place Emelianenko’s mouthpiece back in (Maldonado’s body language at the time said, “What the f*ck?”). Emelianenko made it to the second round somehow.

(If you’re watching along, check out the expression of the two guys at the 5:15 mark of the video. Just complete bewilderment.)

Amazingly—or maybe not so amazingly if you’ve followed Emelianenko’s career—Emelianenko actually looked mostly recovered in round two. If anything, he came out fighting smarter, mixing up his strikes intelligently and picking a visibly tired Maldonado apart. Emelianenko legitimately busted Maldonado up in round two, bloodying his face. But Maldonado landed a few bombs of his own. Again, this fight was wild!

Round three, Maldonado found his second (third?) wind and he got in Emelianko’s face, just throwing hammers. Emelianenko showed a nice jab, which in a fight like this, proved to be incredibly effective. But technique aside, this was a down and dirty dogfight, and a great one at that. If you just watched the last couple of minutes, you wouldn’t even be able to tell that Emelianenko was essentially out on his feet in round one.

What did the judges say?

Evgeny Gribkov scored it 29-28 Emelianenko.

Alexey Gorokhov scored it 29-28 Emelianenko.

Maria Makhmutova scored it a 28-28 draw.

Round-by-round scores are unavailable, but presumably Makhmutova gave Maldonado a 10-8 first, while Gribkov and Gorokhov scored that frame a 10-9 for Maldonado. Emelianenko then received 10-9 scores across the board in rounds two and three.

How did I score it?

I’m with Makhmutova.

I have no idea how any judge in their right mind could score that first round anything less than a 10-8 for Maldonado. Emelianenko was cooked. Many, many fights have been stopped for less than what Maldonado was doing to Emelianenko and if it had been waved off, I can’t imagine there would have been too much controversy.

That said, the fact that Emelianenko battled back to win two of the rounds at least somewhat justifies referee Viktor Korneev’s call. It’s not a travesty that he allowed the fight to continue.

But it is a miscarriage of justice that Maldonado ended up taking a loss here. I agree with the 10-9 scores for Emelianenko in the second and third rounds, so this should have been a draw.

Seriously, what the hell happened here?

Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan did a deep dive into the politics surrounding this fight, which I’ll summarize here.

At the time of his fight with Maldonado, Emelianenko was the president of the Russian MMA Union (he later vacated the position in 2018, but still serves as the organization’s honorary president and chairman of the supervisory board). It was the Russian MMA Union that handled the assignment of the judges, Gribkov, Gorokhov, and Makhmutova.

You see the issue now.

Whether Emelianenko or the union intentionally stacked the deck in his favor is impossible to say and, more importantly, not relevant to the ethics of this decision as I think we can all agree that a fighter taking part in a bout overseen by an organization that they oversee is an absurd conflict of interest.

Following the fight, in a truly macabre display, Makhmutova was interviewed on national television and questioned about her score, despite the fact that she was the lone judge who scored the fight correctly (in my opinion).

From Zidan’s report:

Interviewer: The first round you have counted 10-8 or 10-9?

Makhmutova: 10-8.

Interviewer: The rest, it turns out, Fedor?

Makhmutova: Yeah.

Interviewer: You worry much. Your excitement due to the fact that the result has not converged with the results of the other two judges?

Makhmutova: No, it’s not because of the draw. Fedor is very close to me. Firstly, it was very difficult to look at it, almost without showing emotion. Secondly, always hard to make a decision not in favor of a person who you are close to. But the judges have to be judges, it is work. I think Fedor will understand.

Interviewer: With someone consulted with you about the damage Fedor took?

Makhmutova: I looked at the general condition of Fedor and saw that the eye has been closed after the first round. As a fighter decision still takes a doctor. And if the doctor told me that the fight should be stopped, I would have stopped the fight and would not argue with the doctor.

Interviewer: If you were the referee, would have stopped the fight?

Makhmutova: Yes, I would have stopped. In Russia, MMA tournaments are run by a judge from the Union of MMA in Russia, the organization created by Fedor.

Makhmutova, who later revealed that she was trained by “Big” John McCarthy, pulled no punches during her interview, and confirmed the conflict of interest present during the main event. MatchTV, the national sports outlet that took over from Russia2 in 2015, also had a keen interest in the outcome of the fight, given that one of the network’s producers, Batu Hasikov, is one of the founders of [Eurasian Fight Nights].

Suffice to say, a lot of parties tied to Emelianenko had a vested interest in the fight and it’s distinctly possible that the careers of the judges and the referee could have been adversely affected by an Emelianenko loss. It’s messed up. And it doesn’t end there.

Maldonado’s team didn’t go down without a fight. They filed an appeal to have the loss overturned. Twice, actually. The first appeal (shockingly) was denied by the Russian MMA Union, but the second appeal to the World MMA Association resulted in the WMMAA deciding that the result should be overturned to a draw based on the perceived conflict of interest and after conducting its own scoring of the fight with three independent judges.

Of course, none of that mattered in the end, because the Russian MMA Union refused to recognize the WMMAA’s authority in this matter. So that’s why despite everything you just read, if you check any database and look at the result for this fight, you’ll still find a big fat L next to Maldonado’s name.

What did Maldonado have to say about it?

MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz recently spoke to Maldonado and asked for his recollection of that fateful fight. Regarding the first round, he remembers it well:

“I’m very calm,” Maldonado said. “I have many defects as a fighter. I’m not fast, I can’t kick, but I remain calm even when things get difficult. And the second he went down, he wasn’t in bad shape, I noticed he was still looking at me, he was alive, but he was in bad shape with the ground-and-pound. His eyes turned and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll beat Fedor’ [laughs].

“My heart started racing, ‘I’ll beat him. Wow.’ But he was slippery as a fish, it was hard to grab him to hit him more. And he still landed a good punch. But when I was about to finish him the referee stopped the fight to get his mouthpiece back on.”

Maldonado gives the second round to Emelianenko, but feels he did enough to take the third and earn a 29-27 score. However, he admits that he expected the judges would give Emelianenko the win.

Upon exiting the cage, Maldonado says he ran into Khabib Nurmagomedov, and the future UFC lightweight champion had some kind words for him.

“[Nurmagomedov] shook my hand and said I won the fight, that he was embarrassed about the result, of what they had done to me,” Maldonado said. “I said I didn’t mind and thanked him. Of all the places I’ve fought, Russia was the one that treated me better.

“I went to Moscow [months later] and there was a wedding going on in the hotel. I was leaving the hotel and five Russian guys came to pick me up and take me to the wedding. They stopped the party to announce I was there. They treat me like like a star there.”

Maybe it wasn’t all bad? Heck, maybe Maldonado still gets his chance to avenge the loss now that Emelianeno is officially back in action.

Was it a robbery?

Maldonado should have one less loss on his record.

Maybe it worked out better for everyone involved that Emelianenko was able to have this crowd-pleasing moment (it was his first fight in Russia in four years) and the heavyweight legend certainly did enough to win two rounds, there’s no argument there. But that first round was a textbook 10-8 and Maldonado deserved to say that he took one of MMA’s GOATs to a draw.

If you disagree, just scroll back up and read about the shenanigans surrounding this fight, and please attempt to explain how anything beyond what happened between the two men in the cage was above board.

Emelianenko’s next fight takes place Saturday in Moscow. Let’s hope Scott Coker has already figured out how to navigate these murky waters, otherwise Tim Johnson might need to watch his back.

The final verdict



Was Fedor Emelianenko’s win over Fabio Maldonado a robbery?

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