If you were a fan of MMA in the early to mid-2000s, there was no scarier-sounding location than Stary Oskol, Russia.
It was the home to the consensus greatest heavyweight to step into a ring, one who didn’t require his surname to follow as everyone knew that distinction was reserved for, Fedor.
In many ways, the antithesis of the MMA stereotype with a mild-mannered, unassuming presence but when the haunting sound of Enae Volare Mezzo permeated the Saitama Super Arena, you knew you were in for the MMA equivalency of a religious experience.
The man became one of legend and fantasy in a world that preached “as real as it gets” as Emelianenko routinely negotiated with mortality – no example greater than withstanding one of the scariest slams in the sport’s history by the grip of Kevin Randleman. Nonplussed, Fedor unfolded his neck and worked to top position, and secured the fight-ending submission as an audience sat in awe at this Wolverine-like figure.
On Saturday night, it truly is an end of an era while also a throwback as MMA returns to the CBS network as “The Last Emperor” will place his gloves on the canvas and say goodbye at the age of 46 while flanked by some of the sport’s legends.
Fedor has always elicited a different type of environment and feeling among the fanbase and harkens to a period of mammoth production values through Fuji TV, a battle of real-life gladiators inside of a PRIDE ring, and an era of tape trading, dial-up internet connections, and underground forums for the latest fight results.
While Fedor was never the flag bearer of PRIDE to the degree that a Kazushi Sakuraba represented, hardcore fights against the Russian remains the lasting vestige from that era one of the enduring icons associated with a brand of fighting that is so foreign to today’s product.
After coming up through Akira Maeda’s RINGS organization, the 25-year-old amassed a nearly perfect record of 10-1. The lone blemish came in December 2002 when Fedor sustained a cut against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in Fedor’s second fight of the evening. The bout was called off and for years, was as controversial as the sole loss attached to Jon Jones’ record from his fight against Matt Hamill and landing an illegal elbow that led to a disqualification.
Fedor would avenge the loss in 2005 and most considered the heavyweight undefeated until 2010.
At 25, he stepped into the company he would forever be tied to, the Pride Fighting Championship, and taking on K-1 superstar Semmy Schilt. It would be the first of many monsters to fall to Fedor with Schilt being the real deal as compared with attractions like Zuluzinho and Hong-man Choi.
Fedor began ascending the ultra-tough heavyweight ranks and the collision course with champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira came within months of his promotional debut.
The two met in March 2003 at PRIDE 25 and was regarded as a true test for Nogueira, who was a submission ace with additional threats from his dedication to learning boxing and becoming well-rounded as the top heavyweight in the world.
Fedor prevailed over three rounds in their first of three meetings as a new king was crowned and the fighting world understood that this was not just another test for Nogueira, but in fact, the solution.
One year later, PRIDE assembled the deepest heavyweight tournament in the sport’s history. In a follow-up to their successful Middleweight Grand Prix, won by Wanderlei Silva in 2003, the group staged a heavyweight version in 2004.
In the opening round, Fedor survived a takedown and the dangerous ground and pound of Mark “The Hammer” Coleman to submit the former UFC champion and advance to face another Hammer House foe, Kevin Randleman. “The Monster” was coming off one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, stopping Mirko Cro Cop in the first round and drawing an even tougher foe in the second round. This was the fight where Fedor’s human DNA was put into doubt, recovering from the slam that sent many jaws to the floor and a miraculous recovery and seamless transition by Fedor to submit Randleman.
It set the stage for the final four in August where the winner would need to win twice in one night to secure the status of Grand Prix champion. Fedor wasted no time, submitting Olympic silver medalist and major television ratings draw Naoya Ogawa in under a minute as the medalist felt far outside of his depth and quickly being mounted by the superior Fedor.
After navigating his way to the finals through Hirotaka Yokoi, Heath Herring, and a twenty-minute decision win against Sergei Kharitonov, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had his chance at redemption against the Pride Heavyweight Champion in the final.
It was not meant to be that night with a collision of heads ending the final in under four minutes, causing a no-contest and a rematch made for New Year’s Eve – the biggest night of the year for combat sports during this era.
By unanimous decision, Fedor Emelianenko was the top heavyweight in the world as the calendar turned to 2005, but as always, there was always a question regarding the next challenge.
With the Nogueira chapter concluded, the biggest heavyweight fight in MMA was ready to be fought in the summer of 2005 and was a true spotlight moment for PRIDE.
August 28th of 2005 was the showdown that fight fans of the era will always remember as Fedor Emelianenko squared off with K-1 and PRIDE monster Mirko Cro Cop.
It was the battle of the sport’s two top heavyweights and while Fedor was creating distance between himself and the rest of the division, it was Cro Cop that continually stayed firm in the rear-view mirror and one of the few threats to the moniker of the top heavyweight fighter in the world.
During a period where the UFC heavyweight title was being contested among Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia with a thin division of contenders, it was clear that PRIDE had a dominant hold on the heavyweight picture.
The lead-up to the fight included one of the greatest pre-fight video packages that included Cro Cop visiting the grave of his father as he prepared for the biggest fight of his career.
The fight did not disappoint as Fedor earned a unanimous decision and struck down the remaining few that clung to the word “arguably” when addressing Fedor as the world’s best.
As the UFC exploded in North America, PRIDE continued to thrive in Japan through its state-of-the-art production and assembly of many high-caliber fighters. But the balance of power was changing and the bottom fell out in 2006 when PRIDE was the subject of a scandal and public reporting on ties to the Yakuka that scared off broadcaster Fuji TV, who divested themselves and left PRIDE to fend for its own, but the die was cast, and the company would be out of business by early 2007 and purchased by Zuffa.
It was too little and too late as PRIDE scrambled to expand outside of Japan, staging their first U.S. event in October 2006 that included the rematch between Fedor and Mark Coleman where Fedor dominated the former wrestler with Coleman’s daughters ringside for the fight.
PRIDE was not the brand that UFC was and while they had incredible lineups and marquee fighters, it was not enough to sustain in America and for several months they were gone.
With Fedor’s attachment to his management and by extension, M-1 Global, Fedor’s next fights would take him to the groups that would best satisfy the contingent’s needs. He fought for BoDog in April 2007 taking on a middleweight in Matt Lindland in a card that bombed on pay-per-view. He linked up with Affliction in 2008 as the clothing manufacturer tried to capitalize and expand its business to live fights.
Between Affliction and Strikeforce, Fedor became the ultimate secret weapon for these companies to mount an attack against the UFC, but he didn’t come cheap and his fighting brilliance was often confused with high drawing power, and the two were not always linked, although Fedor would find an audience when promoted on network television toward the end of the decade.
While Fedor made short work of former UFC champions Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski in Affliction, it was not a substitute for seeing the consensus top heavyweight fight for the consensus top promotion in the world, the UFC.
Fedor became the “white whale” for Dana White and the UFC but through an inability to give up exclusive promotional rights and work with Fedor’s management, it never came to fruition despite the gigantic business that fights between Fedor and Randy Couture and later, Brock Lesnar, could have generated and been all-time mega events for the UFC.
Instead, Fedor and his team worked with those they were more comfortable with after Affliction fizzled and linked up with Scott Coker and Strikeforce. This put Fedor on CBS in November 2009 and overcame the striking of Brett “The Grim” Rogers and won the fight in the second round but did exhibit human qualities.
Those “mere mortal” tendencies were fully examined in June 2010 when jiu-jitsu ace Fabricio Werdum handed Fedor the first true loss of his career after using his guard to secure an airtight triangle and force the Russian to tap on national television and leaving the San Jose crowd in utter shock at what they had witnessed.
This began a slide for Fedor with follow-up losses to Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Dan Henderson with many assuming the story of Fedor was over in 2011 – little did we know.
With Strikeforce purchased by UFC, the sides would not come together and Fedor would fight in Japan and Russia for the next five years against lesser opponents. Fedor’s aura diminished after the three losses and being awarded a decision against Fabio Maldonado in 2016 that was unjustifiable given the damage Fedor incurred.
He returned to the U.S. in 2017 with a reunion with Coker, now heading Bellator, and brought the legend to Madison Square Garden where he was stopped by former UFC fighter Matt Mitrione in just over a minute.
But just as those began to write Fedor off again, he bounced back against fighters removed from their prime, stopping Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen before walking too close to the sun and being stopped in 35 seconds by Ryan Bader in 2019 – the man he steps across from this Saturday night in his retirement fight.
In 2023, the idea of Fedor walking away and towards the sunset as Bellator Heavyweight Champion would be a poetic end, but MMA is hardly the outlet for fond farewells. But Fedor Emelianenko is a fighter that didn’t subscribe to many of the trends popularized within his sport. A unique individual who would rather whisper than yell, reflect rather than scream, and for a brief moment in time, will allow fans to remember the roots that have built the sport inside of an industry that often forgets its past.