Combat sports are littered with legends gone by, tales of the unbeatable, all-conquering, otherworldly fighters. Over time their status grows and grows, but with perhaps rose-tinted glasses and a lack of real analysis.
From the legendary Gracie family and their ground-breaking influence of MMA to the bullish David ‘Tank’ Abbott and the stories of hundreds and hundreds of barroom brawls. When the talk of the greatest of all time raises its head, many UFC fighters lead the way, GSP, Silva and Jon Jones to name three. The heavyweights, however, all seem to stand in the shadow of The Last Emperor, the Pride Heavyweight who for 9 Years, yes 9 years! compiled a 28 fight win streak, a feat which is unlikely to ever be surpassed in the Heavyweight division.
The name Fedor Emelianenko looms large in any heavyweight or even pound for pound GOAT discussion, but is this just another example of a legend built on shaky foundations?
Fedor began his career just over twenty years ago in May 2000 under the Rings fighting Promotion, within two successful years he had moved to the Pride Fighting Championship, at the time, the world’s premier MMA promotion. There he spent over four years building his reputation or perhaps legend, with an aggressive fighting style, combining vicious striking with a punishing ground game and effective submission skills. Fedor was entertaining and his constant search for a stoppage endeared him to the Pride fans. Make no mistake, Pride FC was the number one fighting promotion, with the crowds, the fan base and undoubtedly some exceptional fighters.
Fedor was different, he wasn’t a ripped college wrestling stand out, or am athletically built K1 striker, he was just good everywhere, with no perceived weakness and a habit for winning. When Pride FC was swallowed up by the growing UFC Fedor declined their invitation and continued under various banners whilst maintaining he streak for three more years.
Everyone talked of Fedor vs Couture, Fedor vs Mir, Fedor vs Arlovski, all of whom were successful UFC Champions. Those fights never materialised as Fedor repeatedly turned down the UFC. Fedor did eventually get his hands on Arlovski after his UFC contract ended and convincingly stopped the Belarussian, a feat perhaps underestimated due to Arlovski having lost his UFC title and hitting a losing streak of four fights The real issue was Fedor’s reluctance to sign for the UFC and to test himself against consistently strong opposition, this reluctance undoubtedly muddies the waters. Instead, he chose novelty fights against the likes of the seven-foot two Hong Man Choi who’s career finished with an unassuming 4 and 5 record. He fought and beat Matt Lindland, a natural middleweight then there was the inexperienced and unproven Brett Rogers who gave him a real scare before he turned the fight around in typical Fedor style(Rogers finished his career 17-10).
The Rogers fight looked to have exposed Fedor somewhat and a three-fight losing streak then put an end to his years of ‘dominance’ culminating in a first-round stoppage by the heavy-handed (albeit Middleweight) Dan Henderson. Three ex UFC fighters stopping Fedor, two of them in the first round, inevitably led to questions, was he exposed or was he on the slide? Fedor’s response or at least his management’s response was poor, they chose fights with over the hill fighters or more outrageously MMA novices, Satoshi Ishii was 4-1, Jaideep Singh was 2-0, and whilst on paper, he beat an ageing light heavyweight in Maldonado, everyone knew who really won that fight.
The modern MMA fans questioned the legend of Fedor, was his record padded? Was he ever that good? Mid-tier ex UFC fighters Bader and Mitrione hammered home the point with damaging first-round knockouts. On reflection Fedor’s record needed looking at, there were good wins against what was good opposition at the time, Randleman, Coleman, Big Nog (twice) and Cro Cop all are solid names, but did the UFC put their abilities into perspective? Those opponents were book-ended by the likes of Yugi Negata, who never won an MMA fight and only ever fought twice, why therefore was Fedor fighting him when himself he was 16-1? Three fights later Fedor took on a seven-fight novice, three fights later another seven-fight novice. The evidence very quickly starts to build a padded record but not without its impressive wins. This lack of consistency in his opponents perhaps provided him with longevity and also helped maintain the myth, the mystique and most importantly the win streak.
I as much as anyone loves the idea of a god-like, unbeatable fighter, a conqueror of all comers with a skill set so sharp so polished that it looks like something from a movie set. Anderson Silva once looked like that man, until Weidman taught us that age catches up with every fighter. Fedor undoubtedly was a top tier fighter, a pioneer for heavyweight MMA, with some stellar wins, but the record is undoubtedly padded even his most ardent fans can’t deny this. The UFC was avoided and unfortunately, he has fought on and still does, way past his best or perhaps I’m being too generous and his best was simply exposed in that fateful thirteen months in 2010/11.
I will wait patiently to hopefully witness the true ultimate fighter one day, and whilst I am a Fedor fan and enjoyed each and every one of his fights, he for me is not that man. What he achieved will not be surpassed at Heavyweight, but perhaps that would be more to do with rigorous matchmakers than The Last Emperors ability.