MMA’s Mount Rushmore

Stoic Assassin

By Todd Martin Dec 18, 2012
Fedor Emelianenko is widely regarded as MMA’s greatest heavyweight. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood/

Fedor Emelianenko

Nationality: Russian
Discipline: Sambo
Years Active: 2000-12
Record: 34-4

In the early days of MMA, most fighters knew just one discipline. Over time, those fighters learned other disciplines so they could better utilize their own. Then, you had fighters who were good at two disciplines. The key to Emelianenko’s long reign as MMA’s top heavyweight was that he was good at everything. The sport had fully evolved.

Against strikers, Emelianenko could use his sambo to take the fight to the ground. Against submission artists, he could use his striking to win. If a wrestler managed to get him to the ground, he used his submissions. There was no comfortable path to victory, and that led to a long, historic period of success.

Emelianenko entered Pride already a highly respected competitor in Rings. Dominant wins over Heath Herring and Semmy Schilt further established his ability. He only had one loss -- a controversial cut stoppage many viewed as illegitimate -- but when he entered his fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at Pride 25, he was still counted out by most. Emelianenko was good but Nogueira was thought to be on another level, as “Minotauro” found a way to submit one elite heavyweight after another. To this day, Emelianenko and Nogueira are still generally accepted as the two greatest heavyweight fighters of all-time.

The Nogueira riddle was finally solved in March 2003. It was not a close decision, and it would not be avenged. Emelianenko simply beat up Nogueira for 20 minutes while avoiding the Brazilian’s much feared submission ability. It took a diverse skill set to get by a fighter as multifaceted and talented as Nogueira.

In the coming years, Emelianenko would ride his reputation forged in the Nogueira fight and the subsequent rematches. A win over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and former UFC champions Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia would further build his aura. “The Last Emperor” did not lose for more than eight years, posting wins over his top contenders for best MMA heavyweight.

Over time, however, detractors began to emerge. During his time in Pride, the promotion was widely considered to have the best heavyweight MMA fighters. Thus, there was little questioning Emelianenko’s status as the best. Following the demise of Pride, MMA’s heavyweight talent began to spread out even further. More talent was present in the Ultimate Fighting Championship than anywhere else, and fans called for Emelianenko to join the UFC and compete against the best.

The UFC made him lucrative offers, and many questioned whether or not the Russian was ducking top competition. Emelianenko then finally lost to Fabricio Werdum under the Strikeforce banner, diving overzealously into the two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist’s guard. He lost his next two fights, as well, and his tenure as MMA’s best was clearly over.

While fans will be left to lament the fact that Emelianenko never fought in the UFC, he attained a level of sustained, long-term dominance that few have ever matched. During that time, he helped to usher in the modern era of fully fledged MMA. It is a legacy in which the humble Russian can take pride.

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