When Bellator MMA announced plans to stage a heavyweight grand prix, many wondered if Fedor Emelianenko would be included. Although widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight in MMA history, “The Last Emperor” was also 41 at the start of the tournament and coming off of a destructive technical knockout loss to Matt Mitrione at Bellator 180. With Mitrione in the tournament alongside other quality fighters like Ryan Bader, Quinton Jackson, Muhammed Lawal and Roy Nelson, it appeared to be an uphill climb for the aging Emelianenko from the outset. However, the former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder has shown he still has a lot left in the tank.
In the quarterfinals of the grand prix on April 28, Emelianenko found himself matched against former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder Frank Mir. Despite Mir coming off of a long layoff and United States Anti-Doping Agency suspension, the oddsmakers set Emelianenko as the underdog. However, Emelianenko put forth one of his best performances in years, as he needed just 48 seconds to catch Mir on the chin and finish him. It was vintage Emelianenko and signaled to the rest of the field that “The Last Emperor” had some life -- and fight -- left in him.
In the semifinals on Oct. 13, Emelianenko was paired with Chael Sonnen, who upset Jackson in the first round of the tournament. This time, Emelianenko was installed as a heavy favorite -- the first time he had been favored to win a bout since his controversial decision victory over Fabio Maldonado in 2016. Emelianenko proved the oddsmakers correct, as he finished Sonnen with punches late in the first round and advanced to the grand prix final. There, he will square off with Bader for the vacant heavyweight championship at Bellator 214 on Jan. 26.
By finishing Mir and Sonnen in less than six minutes combined and punching his ticket to the tournament final, Emelianenko earned the nod as Sherdog.com’s 2018 “Comeback Fighter of the Year.” Considering how many fans and media had written off the Russian as a shot fighter after his ugly fight with Maldonado and his defeat to Mitrione, the fact that he managed to take out a former UFC champion in Mir and a longtime contender in Sonnen in such devastating fashion breathed new life into his career. Faded but not forgotten are his consecutive losses to Antonio Silva, Fabricio Werdum and Dan Henderson; and even though he turned 42 in September, Emelianenko proved he could still compete at a high level and show flashes of his former self.
To win “Comeback Fighter of the Year,” Emelianenko had to beat out several other fighters who had tremendous rebound years in their own right.
Sarah Kaufman lost her job with the UFC in 2015 and then had to chase her employers to pay her purse for a 2016 win in South Korea against Jessica-Rose Clark. She put that part of her career behind her and beat “The Ultimate Fighter 28” finalist Pannie Kianzad and Katharina Lehner in Invicta Fighting Championships to become the all-female promotion’s bantamweight champion. After not winning a fight in more than three years, Lyoto Machida defeated rising prospect Eryk Anders in an upset at UFC Fight Night 125, knocked out fellow legend Vitor Belfort with a front kick at UFC 224, signed with Bellator as a free agent and then defeated former middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho at Bellator 213 to complete a perfect 3-0 record in 2018. Then there is Michael Chandler, who returned from an injury to go 3-0 in 2018 and win back the Bellator lightweight title from the man who dethroned him: the previously unbeaten Brent Primus. Finally, former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos successfully won a battle against USADA and went 2-0, with wins over Tai Tuivasa and Blagoy Ivanov.
However, given the importance of the fights Emelianenko won as part of a tournament and considering how impressively he finished his opponents, he stands out in the crowd. While many had written off Emelianenko as a championship-caliber fighter years ago, he proved with his 2018 campaign that he is not quite done. Now, he has the Bellator heavyweight championship in his sights.