The Last Emperor: A Retrospective

Say Hi to Fedor

By Staff Jun 29, 2012

Mike Sloan: In the end, the one moment or situation regarding Fedor that sticks out the most was when he dueled the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the third time. Their second battle ended via lousy no-contest because of the accidental head clash and ensuing nasty gash, this after their initial encounter was that epic battle won by the Russian in 2003.

When all the stars aligned and the MMA world was given the gift of their third bout -- when Pride’s cards were the absolute greatest MMA events on the planet -- what transpired was nothing short of magical.

While it wasn’t the greatest fight in the history of the sport, it was easily one of the heavyweight division’s finest hours. We were given clearly the world’s top fighter taking on who was considered the second-best heavyweight around and his natural rival. It was the perfect matchup for every possible reason, and the Last Emperor came out on top.

Fedor went on to win for many years until his reign ended, but on that night in 2004, he proved he was the greatest heavyweight on earth and was without peer, which is why for me, it still ranks as his most shining moment. It’s debatable whether Emelianenko is still the greatest fighter in MMA’s short history because of how he never stepped into the UFC’s Octagon, and those three losses towards the end hurt. But, when he ruled the sport and toppled his greatest threat in “Big Nog” for the second time, it was perhaps the truest testament to Fedor’s brilliant career.

Brian Knapp: When dealing with a transcendent athlete like Fedor Emelianenko and his place in history, there are so many memories to draw upon, from his surviving Kevin Randleman’s ridiculous slam and Kazuyuki Fujita’s heavy hands to his encounters with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. In many ways, he became an anti-establishment figure for his refusal to succumb to the UFC’s advances. Whether or not that decision affects his legacy remains to be seen. The man was undefeated for a decade. Need we say more? Personally, I will remember the stoicism with which he approached his profession. There was no mean mugging, no spiking the air with his fist during pre-fight introductions, no disrespectful trash talking. He walked into the ring with an expressionless face and one goal in mind: to beat the other man. Today’s fighters can learn a lot from his approach.

Stephen Martinez

Fedor took it to Filipovic
on the feet.
David Lethaby: With Fedor, I always admired his persona as much as his fighting skill. The baddest man on the planet was also the most humble. In the United Kingdom, Pride coverage was non-existent; I waited three days to get a copied “Final Conflict 2005” DVD off eBay. I have never felt so excited for a bout as I was for Fedor-“Cro Cop” on that card.

Fedor was a master of game plans, but as a fan I was nervous. How was he going to approach the vicious striker? He stood with him in the first round and dominated. I was in sheer awe and disbelief. After the win? No fist pumps, no cheering, but after the belt presentation, he managed a quick look to the camera to give a wink and a half-smile. Class as usual from the real people’s champion.

Todd Martin: “Say hi to Fedor. He’s a nice guy.”

Mark Coleman, his face battered beyond recognition, scooped up his two sobbing young daughters and carried them across the cage to meet the man who turned their daddy’s face into hamburger meat moments earlier. Fedor smiled at them without a hint of menace, but the young girls still seemed terrified. It was an iconic moment at Pride’s U.S. debut, Fedor unintentionally devastating these two children.

And it was a perfect reflection of Fedor Emelianenko as a fighter. Because he is a nice guy. Unflappable in the cage, he would deliver punches without mercy and keep pushing forward through punches, takedowns or submission attempts. But at heart, he was a quiet, humble and unassuming warrior. He did his job and he went home to a traditional orthodox lifestyle. There was no fronting or manufacturing of image. The contrast between Fedor’s gentle demeanor and the violence of his fights in the ring and cage was never more evident than it was at Pride 32. It’s how I’ll always remember the man.

Freddie DeFreitas: Prior to the arrival of Fedor Emelianenko, MMA had never been blessed with an athlete who possessed a mythical aura of invincibility. Boxing had the good fortune of breeding the types who captured the hearts and minds of fans and still remain relevant when the words “greatest ever” are uttered. Think of Rocky Marciano’s 88-percent knockout ratio during the “Brockton Blockbuster’s” 49-0 run from 1947 to 1956, or Cuban Olympian legend Felix Savon’s 362-21-0 amateur record and three gold medals. These men turned heads and sparked the imaginations of onlookers.

For me, Emeliankenko’s tenure in Pride was, at that point, the closest we came to an athlete achieving legendary status in MMA. When the pudgy fellow who could easily be mistaken for your next door neighbor arrived in Japan with minimal fanfare, little did we know it would be the birth of a future legend. Emelianenko’s hostile takeover of the Pride heavyweight class is still unrivaled in terms of divisional dominance. While many today are all-too-happy to bring up that he never fought in the UFC, there is no denying that from 2001 to 2006, Pride was home to the best heavyweight division in the sport, and the Last Emperor was its conqueror.

Mick Bower: Ringside for Fedor’s bout with Matt Lindland in St. Peterburg, April 2007: Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin. Berlusconi: media mogul, money man behind the all-conquering AC Milan team-turned-politician, the man who made ‘bunga bunga’ parties a subject for political discourse. Putin: judo black belt and former KGB Bureau Chief who became leader of Russia. In the lawless mess of post-communist Russia, he was the only person with the clout to keep the warring factions in order.

The Italian beamed at the dancers in red satin mini-skirts as Putin was deep in conversation with Jean Claude Van Damme. The scene was a distillation of many things: the politician-celebrity crossover, the power of patronage, the rush to open markets and buy favor. It was also emblematic of the hype that surrounded Emilianenko’s later career. The great and not so good gathered to see a mismatch against a middleweight.

Fedor was still the consensus top heavyweight, but in terms of power, ruthlessness and filling his opponents with dread, he was at best in bronze medal position for baddest man in the room that night.

Jack Encarnacao: For me, the performance that will forever symbolize what Fedor Emelianenko meant to MMA took place in Anaheim in 2008, the night he dismantled Tim Sylvia in 36 seconds.

S. Martinez

Some Fedor foes left something
to be desired.
It was the most electric thing the stout Russian ever did in an MMA ring, because it seemed to validate every ounce of praise heaped upon him by his fans, perhaps of the most maniacal in the history of the sport. At the time, Fedor was getting guff for fighting overmatched and shopworn opposition since his battle with Mirko Filipovic in 2005. It was easy to frame him as ducking top fighters in pursuit of easy bouts that would keep the gravy train rolling.

Then, he came to Anaheim and made a recent UFC champion look like he was fighting for the first time.

To see Fedor so utterly dominate a man who'd never been knocked out in the UFC lent credence to the enchanting idea that his dominance knew no bounds, that he occupied a world all his own.

Tristen Critchfield: When Fedor Emelianenko knocked out Andrei Arlovski with a single punch at Affliction “Day of Reckoning,” it cemented his status among many fans as the greatest heavyweight of all time. Never mind that the defeat marked the beginning of a tailspin that would ultimately knock the intimidating Belarusian off the sport’s most prominent cards within two years. At the time, “The Pitbull” wasn’t that far removed from his reign as UFC heavyweight champion, and he entered the bout riding a five-fight winning streak which included triumphs over the likes of Fabricio Werdum, Ben Rothwell and Roy Nelson.

When he began his fight with Emelianenko, Arlovski looked like he would be able to accomplish what his former UFC rival, Tim Sylvia, could not some six months earlier. Arlovski beat the Last Emperor to the punch and connected with solid leg kicks in the opening round before inexplicably attempting a flying knee that Fedor countered with a right hand, knocking Arlovski cold. I had the opportunity to ask Arlovski about that fight approximately a year and a half ago, as he prepared for his entry into the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix.

“I saw that my kicks and my punches hurt him, and, for some reason, I jumped because people started screaming, ‘Pitbull,’” Arlovski told me. “It was cool when I did the flying knee against Ben Rothwell, but it doesn’t work against Emelianenko.”

The point? Even a former champion like Andrei Arlovski tends to get caught up in the moment when he’s fighting against a legend.

Yael Grauer: My favorite Fedor moment had to be his knockout of Andrei Arlovski at Affliction “Day of Reckoning.” For some reason, I thought Arlovski actually had a chance. He looked sharp at first with great footwork, a speed advantage, landing some leg kicks and punches. Fedor, on the other hand, looked sluggish and was swinging and missing time and time again. He immediately capitalized when Arlovski went for a flying knee and left his chin exposed for a millisecond that wasn’t even apparent to the naked eye. Fedor countered with a straight right, and that was all she wrote.

Tony Loiseleur: I first got to meet Fedor Emelianenko when he was set to make an appearance at M-1 Challenge’s April 2009 show in Japan. There was a moving poise and calm to him that I’ve never seen in another fighter, even to this day.

Dave Mandel

Fedor fights made for some
strange bedfellows.
Even speaking through a translator, talking to Fedor was like talking to royalty. The quiet, matter-of-fact way he spoke, the gracious allowances he gave for my rushed, impertinently direct line of questions, and the dignified answers he gave in return; Fedor responded like a man of distinction and class, rather than “the baddest man on the planet.”

While longtime MMA fans will ostensibly remember Fedor like that -- for pounding people’s brains into the canvas, for surviving suplexes from hell, for finishing dudes with lightning quick submissions, and for doing it all with an ice-cold, distant gaze -- this MMA fan will always remember him as the greatest of all MMA nobles -- the Last Emperor, indeed.

Tomasz Marciniak: I remember Fedor better from the perspective of fights that did not get made than the battles he fought. When he was beating the likes of Mark Coleman and Mark Hunt in Pride’s dying days, I pined for another landmark Emelianenko fight that would stand the test of time. It never materialized. Promoters kicked around clashes with Randy Couture back when it was “the fight” to make in the MMA world. Maybe even a fight with the surging behemoth Alistair Overeem would have been enough to satisfy my desires, but that one didn’t materialize, either. When the night came for Fedor’s career to take its turn against Fabricio Werdum, us Poles couldn’t even bear witness, with no way to watch it live in the middle of the night.

Ryan O’Leary: Fedor seemed to have come from and exist in some alternate universe. He grew up in Russia, made his name in Japan, and soon after was hanging out with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The small, pudgy prize fighter never showed emotion as he made a habit of violently smashed bigger and more athletic opponents. When I think of the legend’s career, I remember the Cro Cop and Big Nog battles, the cartoonish Zuluzinho and Hong Man Choi match-ups, dispatchings of wrestlers Randleman and Coleman, the Couture and Barnett showdowns that never materialized, and the right-hand bombs against Arlovski and Rogers. “God’s will”... wow.

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