As 2016 dawned, Fedor Emelianenko was in a strange place, professionally speaking. The 39-year-old had emerged from three and a half years of self-declared retirement to fight on New Year’s Eve under the banner of Rizin FF, the latest spiritual successor to Pride Fighting Championships, the promotion where he had forged his legend.
The question was what “The Last Emperor” intended to do next. Did he plan to make one more serious run at the top of the heavyweight division—whether in Rizin or elsewhere—or had he merely returned to fight some winnable showcase fights and collect a few large paychecks based on his name and nostalgia value? That his comeback fight had been a ridiculously easy mauling of kickboxer and complete MMA neophyte Jaideep Singh might have pointed towards the latter case, except that even in his prime, New Year’s Eve in Japanese MMA had often been more about celebrating its stars than testing their mettle.
However, when Emelianenko’s next fight was announced as a matchup with Fabio Maldonado in Eurasia Fight Nights (now Fight Nights Global), many eyebrows went up and some eyes probably rolled. The next scheduled opponent for the greatest heavyweight of all time was a habitual light heavyweight who had exited the Ultimate Fighting Championship on two straight losses. With the announcement of the matchup, two things seemed to be clear: Emelianenko was back to pick up some easy wins—starting with this one—but not to do anything to seriously improve his legacy.
Both assumptions would turn out to be inaccurate, starting with the notion that Maldonado would be a walkover. The opening moments of the fight were one-way traffic as expected: Emelianenko came forward aggressively and dominated the early striking exchanges, ripping the Brazilian with combinations to the head and body. Then, 90 seconds in, Maldonado caught Emelianenko coming in with a short right hook-left hook combination. The punches dropped the Russian in a heap; it was the cleanest knockdown he had suffered in his over 30-fight career. Maldonado was all over him, and the remainder of the first round was a horrid beating. In the eyes of most observers in the moment and after the fact, the fight should have been stopped. While Emelianenko survived to regain his feet and even throw back some punches, he was on shaky legs for the duration of the round. The lack of a stoppage was made worse by the EFN commentary booth, which openly cheered for Emelianenko, pleaded with him to get up and burst into effusive praise any time he threw a punch.
Emelianenko recovered well between rounds, and appeared to win the second and third frames. However, considering that the first round should have been a 10-8 round for Maldonado at the very least, the best possible outcome for the Russian legend appeared to be a draw. When the scorecards came back and the result was announced as a majority decision win for Emelianenko, the screw job—in the eyes of many—was on. The facts that the referee could easily have stopped the fight in the first round with ample justification, and that only one of the three judges scored the round 10-8, were glaring in light of the fact that Emelianenko was the sitting president of the Russian MMA Union; i.e. their boss. He was also, as demonstrated so eloquently by the commentary booth, a national sports hero fighting on his home soil. Maldonado cried foul afterwards, as did an overwhelming majority of media outlets covering the sport—especially outside Russia—and the WAMMA even reversed the result to a draw, a ruling that the Russian MMA Union has thus far exercised its right to disregard. The fight went down as Sherdog’s “Robbery of the Year” for 2016.
Happily, a very controversial decision win, in a low-profile regional event, over a game but somewhat anonymous opponent, was not the last we saw of Emelianenko. After EFN 50, the Russian signed with Bellator MMA, where he reunited with Bellator president and former Strikeforce honcho Scott Coker. Emelianenko entered Bellator’s 2018 Heavyweight Grand Prix—another trademark of Pride as well as Strikeforce—and made it to the finals before running into the younger, fresher Ryan Bader. In Bellator, Emelianenko has managed to write a nice final chapter to his legendary career, asserting his historical greatness with decisive wins over other big names from his era including Frank Mir and Quinton Jackson.