In a year that saw Russia admit to an institutional conspiracy to juice up their Olympic athletes and the FBI and CIA conclude that it interfered in the United States presidential election, it seems only fitting that Sherdog’s “Robbery of the Year” took place in the Land of Putin. Japan, the United States, Brazil and a host of other countries produce questionable decisions from time to time, but we are all rank amateurs compared to Russia when it comes to delivering a true world-class robbery. Fabio Maldonado-Fedor Emelianenko at Eurasia Fighting Nights 50 on June 17 was such an over-the-top travesty against justice that for many it crossed over from outrage into comic farce, more fun Cold War flashback than affront to general fairness.
Going into Emelianenko’s fight against Maldonado, there probably was not a lot of discussion about how to make sure “The Last Emperor” won. After all, the matchmaking itself was designed to assure that goal. Maldonado was a 36-year-old fighter from a lower weight class who had lost three of his last four. He was picked specifically because he was unlikely to present too much difficulty for the legendary Emelianenko. It is thus impressive how quickly the judges and referee in St. Petersburg swung into action when Maldonado began to batter Emelianenko in Round 1.
In a lot of fights, a referee will mean the difference between victory and defeat. The decision to stop a fight or let it go on is crucial in a sport where there are so many ways to win and the tide can turn quickly. In many other fights, judges will play the deciding role. They after all have the final say in any decision, and their views do not always sync with general opinion. Most historic MMA robberies have involved judging travesties, but Emelianenko-Maldonado was the rare robbery that needed both dubious refereeing and judging in order to occur. Without both, the Russian legend would not have had his hand raised.
In the first round, it is hard to know what Maldonado could have done to get the referee to stop the fight. It appeared at one point that Maldonado knocked Emelianenko unconscious on the ground, only to wake him up with even more punches. At another point, the former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder lumbered across the cage on rubbery legs like an extended deleted scene from his fight with Kazuyuki Fujta. All that was missing was Vladimir Putin getting up from a front row seat to snatch the bell from the timekeeper and yell to the referee that this fight must not be stopped.
Even after that first round, Emelianenko still needed additional assistance to have his hand raised. The second and third rounds were much closer, and he first needed to get the benefit of the doubt there. He did, with all six judges’ scorecards going for “The Last Emperor.” There was then the issue of the scoring of the first round, a more brutal beatdown than the vast majority of 10-8 rounds in the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- and perhaps most actual TKO stoppages, as well. Whether or not there was anything Maldonado could have done to receive a 10-8 round is unclear. The judges again gave Emelianenko what he needed: With two 10-9 scorecards out of three, he was declared the victor.
It was the only fitting result at a card where Putin T-shirts were as ubiquitous as Affliction T-shirts at a UFC event in 2007. The event after all was regulated by the Russian MMA Union. The president of that Russian MMA Union is Emelianenko himself. It’s not like there weren’t signs going into this event that everything might not be on the up and up. The Russian MMA Union’s head of judging, Radmir Gabdullin, responded to Maldonado’s appeal by declaring it “an unfounded attempt to take away a well-deserved victory from Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko.” There is no confirmation that he then winked at reporters and let out a hearty laugh.
In another context, there might have been more rage over the heist that was perpetrated at EFN 50. However, the robbery was so overt and superficial that it was almost charming. It fit into the nostalgia for some cheesy Cold War movie. Besides, who can be that upset with Emelianenko, one of the most beloved icons in the history of the sport? It would have been like Randy Couture getting the judges’ decision against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Oregon at UFC 102 -- patently absurd but more likely to elicit shrugs than raised pitchforks.
The one big loser was Maldonado. While he received a lot of sympathy for what happened, it did not end up advancing his career at all, and he lost what would have been the most impressive bullet point on his resume. He deserved better. Still, he can take some solace in being a part of a truly memorable event against one of the all-time greats, now acknowledged as the year’s biggest robbery.