It was a decade ago when Fedor Emelianenko was at the height of his powers and the apex of his aura. Then 31 years old, the Russian had gone unbeaten for years, and after being the subject of a bidding war, was scooped up by the upstart Affliction promotion, with the backing of future U.S. President Donald Trump.
His profile was so quickly becoming mythical that he even drew a profile in the esteemed pages of The New York TImes, a news outlet that until that point had all but ignored the explosive rise of his sport.
Those were heady days, and even in the moment, it was easy to see what made him so compelling to American audiences. In a sport full of brash and colorful athletes, Emelianenko was something different. He was quiet and modest, a stoic foreigner preparing a quiet takeover. His low-key demeanor contrasted well with his presence in the athletic arena, where he was a quick, explosive, seemingly unbeatable force.
No one knew it at the time, but his prime was quickly nearing its end. After dazzling finishes over Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, and a move to Strikeforce followed by a vicious knockout of Brett Rogers, Emelianenko began a slow but steady downward slide.
The details of his next few years are known to most that follow the sport, but suffice to say that it has been an odyssey. Emelianenko suffered a losing streak, won a couple of fights, retired, unretired, beat a few overmatched opponents and most recently, was KO’d by Matt Mitrione.
On Saturday, Emelianenko faces Frank Mir in the main event of Bellator 198 as part of the organization’s Heavyweight World Grand Prix, and it’s fair to wonder what exactly he is doing there, and what to expect of him.
Now 41, Emelianenko is—as any athlete of that age—past his prime. He still shows bursts of his previous greatness, but he cannot take punches the way he once could, his speed has diminished, and after a career mostly spent in rings, he has had difficulties in adapting to the unforgiving angles of the cage. This isn’t to be critical of the man; these are natural deteriorations experienced by everyone. It’s just that it’s hard to watch when comparing him to his past self.
Over his career, he has been a joy to watch. In a division that was rife with cement-shoed lugs with little past a smashing right paw, Emelianenko was a refreshing presence. He was quick and powerful and fearless, often chopping down opponents taller and heavier, and in a blink. But that Fedor is long gone, and we can’t even write a eulogy for his career, because he chooses to keep going. This is the man’s right, just as it is the fans’ right to grit their teeth and nervously sweat out his performances. It’s one thing when he’s fighting undersized heavyweights like Fabio Maldonado—even though Maldonado nearly KO’d Fedor—or one-dimensional opponents like Singh Jaideep. But facing a true, dangerous, well-rounded heavyweight like 6-foot-3, 260-pound Mir? That’ll make you wince.
Emelianenko might win, of course. In fact, the odds are fairly close that he tops the 38-year-old former UFC champ. But by agreeing to participate in the Grand Prix, Emelianenko has indicated a willingness to continue long past Saturday night.
That’s a huge shift in outlook for a man who was once ready to retire at 35 to spend more time with his family. At the time, Emelianenko said that there was “no fantastic offer” that could pull him out of retirement, yet here we are, with no real end in sight.
Of all the sports, none are an unforgiving to aging athletes as those in the combat arts. In other athletic pursuits, natural selection ruthlessly weeds out older or compromised athletes. Younger, faster, better models are always arriving in waves, intent on replacing all who have come before them. Lose a step, and it’s over. It may sound cruel, but it also sounds like nature.
It’s not quite that way in MMA. Younger, faster, better models come along, and they may steamroll you, but they can’t always push you completely out of the picture. When you’re a name, you have value. And when you were featured in The New York Times, you are most certainly a name.
So if the system doesn’t push an athlete out, we are left with … well, we are left with this. An all-time great hanging on and a fanbase hoping it doesn’t end the way we fear it will. It’s only because we appreciated Emelianenko’s greatness that we fear for how it will all end for him. History shows us that it probably won’t be good, and Mir intends to make sure that is the case. If it isn’t Mir, it will be someone else.
Bellator 198 may not be Emelianenko’s final time in the cage, but the reality is that it’s coming, and that our fear may be realized along with it. There are not many other eventualities when any and every heavyweight is gunning to ensure that “The Last Emperor’s” empire crumbles forever.