Opinion: ‘The Last Emperor’ is Dead, Long Live Fedor

By Jordan Breen Jul 16, 2015

MMA fans rejoice, Fedor Emelianenko is coming back. “The Last Emperor” won't be, though. He is dead. Are you OK with that?

Me? Yes, it's just fine. In the spirit of most MMA retirements, I never expected the greatest heavyweight ever to just quit cold turkey at 36 years old, which is still a fairly youthful and exuberant age by heavyweight standards. Going on 39 now, it's as good of a time as any for Emelianenko to grab what cash he can in this sport before he's fully past his expiration date. I'm a curious man, and I'm very curious what becomes of the man who put Stary Oskol on the map. I mean Fedor Emelianenko, of course. Like I said, “The Last Emperor” isn't coming back.

Sure, in the beginning, “The Last Emperor” was just one of those wacky Japanese puroresu honorifics given to Emelianenko for being the final Rings heavyweight tournament champion. Over the course of his vaunted career, specifically his nine-year, 29-fight unbeaten streak, it came to be more than just another quirky nickname. As Emelianenko spent nearly a decade dominating the sport's big men in unprecedented fashion, the previously seldom-used nickname became an increasingly apt title for the man. Of all of MMA's hallowed nicknames, it's the most outright ostentatious, but it feels right. It adds an epic, cinematic quality to a fighter of epic, cinematic brilliance.

MMA does its best to deny the passing of time, even with nicknaming: witness “Young Assassin” Melvin Guillard and “Young Guns” Scott Jorgensen, both 32 years old. However, time does pass and we're five years removed from Fabricio Werdum shocking the world and triangling Emelianenko in 69 seconds, not to mention his debasings at the hands of Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson. “The Last Emperor” turned into a beautiful catch-all phrase for the otherworldly way in which Emelianenko reigned over the sport. “The Last Emperor” is a legendary character of sporting myth. That character is no longer present, only its author, Fedor Emelianenko, the man who spent a decade crafting it.

In the case of sports unretirements, or even simply illustrious careers that drag on past the point of comfort, the usual anxiety is that the athletes won't be or aren't as great as their former selves, their younger selves, a fear driven by the idea that these athletes will do their legacy a disservice in the process. I don't have that fear, or any fear, in this particular case; if Fedor Emelianenko is to no longer be considered the greatest heavyweight MMA fighter ever, it will be the direct result of the immediate futures of Werdum and Cain Velasquez, not the result of anything Emelianenko might do in the next two years. Unlike most athletes, fighter or not, Emelianenko's legacy is bizarrely self-referential. For many people witnessing the man in his prime, what made Emelianenko so great was just that: He was so great.

Emelianenko is the most mythologized fighter in MMA history, but it certainly didn't start that way. It may seem hard to believe now, but it's not as though Emelianenko kicked open the saloon doors in Pride Fighting Championships in 2002 and took over the place. While he was successful in his aforementioned Rings run, the promotion's rules prohibited the very thing that would become the Russian's calling card, his violent ground-and-pound. He was dominant but not especially inspiring in his Pride debut against Semmy Schilt. Prior to his complete demolition of Heath Herring, most pundits though it was a pick 'em fight. In early 2003, the idea that some pudgy sambo player would dethrone the seemingly unconquerable Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira seemed ridiculous, a thought bolstered by Nogueira's heroic triumph over Bob Sapp, an idea which in hindsight is ridiculous in itself.

The point is, Emelianenko was not some deeply coveted prospect, nor was he expected to be anything more than fodder for Nogueira. He was certainly no instant star. Even upon winning the Pride title, it was not as though the bandwagon took off from Saitama, Japan, at the speed of a bullet train. At this point, his emotionless demeanor, dumpy physique and general Russian “otherness” was a barrier between him and acceptance. However, with every passing conquest, every notch on his heavyweight belt, Emelianenko's dominance took on a life of its own and became the fundamental DNA of “The Last Emperor” character; and it suddenly transformed his previously inaccessible, esoteric traits into quaint, engrossing parts in the character sketch of a superhero.

“The Last Emperor” is not human, of course; humans are fallible and they lose. Despite the nicknaming of Cristiane Justino and even Lyman Good, no fighter has engendered more tongue-in-cheek-verging-on-quasi-serious discussion of being cybernetic than Emelianenko. At the height of his reign, the “Fedor = cyborg” meme was as potent as “Rickson by armbar” in its respective day. For context's sake, look at these two archived Sherdog forum threads. It won't hurt, I promise.

In the first thread, we have a poster who wants to critique the idea that Emelianenko is superhuman for withstanding Kevin Randleman's infamous suplex and dismisses the “cyborg” trope, only to be stormed by dogmatic Emelianenko lovers defending the concept that he is a T-800, just like their avatars suggest. In the other, the poster is legitimately interested in Emelianenko's diet and is forced to preface his earnest question with “please no responses saying he's inhuman/ cyborg etc.” By 2006, it is next to impossible to have a conversation about Emelianenko that doesn't devolve into some sort of battle between rancorous skepticism and breathless worship.

The most famous piece of Emelianenko merchandise is his face spliced alongside the numero uno, with the tagline “Nobody beats me” resting beneath it. He wears a dorky striped sweater? Doting fans calling the vestiment “the glorious sweater of absolute victory.” Kazuyuki Fujita nearly knocks him out? He just caused an electrical surge in the Russian's central processing unit, temporarily causing power loss. He is the only fighter I'm aware of with a positively insane Uncyclopedia entry. “The Last Emperor” is a robotic Bill Brasky, eating two ice cream cones at the same damn time.

Whether or not his demigod alter-ego is dead, Emelianenko's services are still in high demand. The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA are already in talks, and for both companies, his signing would be a coup. For Bellator and Viacom, it would be another way to utilize a star in a unique circumstance and leverage it into cable television ratings. For the UFC, it satisfies the completist and entitled fan components of UFC President Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta's personalities, finally catching the rarest and most legendary Pokemon for themselves, the one that has eluded them and openly scoffed at their advances for years. Not only would Emelianenko add desperately needed juice to whatever pay-per-view he showed up on, but the UFC could finally do a major show in Russia. Yes, it could do one without him and rely on its outstanding roster of talent from Chechnya and Dagestan, but an ethnic Russian is a huge asset to promoting within the country and it doesn't hurt when you're promoting a fighter who, upon announcing his return to the sport, prompted Russia-2 to show a selection of his past fights on national television. This man is a legendary sportsman.

Again, this is not some screed about how Emelianenko will irrevocably taint his career should this whole adventure turn sour. That's irrational. In fact, the logistics of it all are relatively favorable to the Russian. His return bout will almost certainly be a tune-up fight in Russia, promoted by M-1, or in Japan on New Year's Eve, if former Pride promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara can find folks to bankroll the venture. He will win, and people will be excited.

From there, you're looking at two to three fights tops over 18-24 months for either the UFC or Bellator. By the relative standards of either promotion, he's due for slightly preferential matchmaking; he's not going to stick until he's 45 and be your middle-aged champion. The UFC would prefer rematches with Antonio Silva, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Andrei Arlovski. Bellator fantasizes over actualizing Emelianenko-Randy Couture, finally, if “The Natural” could find a way out of the fights he still owes on his UFC deal. He doesn't have to fight souped-up Fabricio Werdum.

For those whose supposed love of the fighter was bound up in cyborg fairy tales, the excitement of nostalgia is mixed with the fear of disappointment, the fear of seeing Emelianenko lose again. Me? I'm OK with all of this. I'm intrigued by where Emelianenko will sign, who he will fight and when and what it will look like. Perhaps I'm even a tad excited. People loved “The Last Emperor” so passionately, almost religiously, because he was a superhuman fighting fable that could never ever lose, but I always preferred the all-too-human Fedor Emelianenko, who even in the face of extreme adversity, found a way to win.

Fedor Emelianenko isn't Superman any more. At this point, there's nothing wrong with him just being a guy in tights.


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