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The Rise and Fall of “The Last Emperor” (Part 1)

Fedor EmelianenkoFedor Emelianenko began his mixed martial arts career in Ekaterinburg, Russia, after a stint in the military and a successful grappling career that left him well trained but struggling with financial hardship. While small by today’s heavyweight standards, the Russian fighter would only taste defeat once (by technicality) for ten years before falling to Fabricio Werdum. Unfortunately, his legacy has been marred due to the fallout of bitter failed negotiations, with his fans clinging to his halcyon days in PRIDE and his detractors using revisionist history to belittle his career. So what is the real legacy of “The Last Emperor?” Well to know that, you have to take a look at the rise and fall of Emelianenko with the understanding of how things were then.

Fedor’s hype did not come from garish entrances, self-promotion, or any other forms of marketing. While it helped to have an absolute master of hyperbole in Mauro Ranallo calling many of the man’s fights for US fans, the Russian fighter never once came across as boastful or arrogant. The aura of greatness came from cutting a swath through the heavyweight division like no one has or may ever do again. While a lot has been said about the competition he faced, it is important to consider for a moment that Gan McGee, the late Justin Eilers, “Tank” Abbott, etc. all challenged for the UFC heavyweight title during the same period. Also keep in mind that Fedor typically weighed around 225lbs in a division with no weight limit. Just about every heavyweight drops a bout early in their progression no matter how good they are, but only a technicality would give Fedor a loss for the first ten years of his career.

Heavyweight (and MMA in general) was one or two-dimensional everywhere at the time of Fedor’s reign, with guys specialized in one or two areas but rarely having it together like today. The fact that Combat SAMBO is a comprehensive martial arts system enabled him to be a rare, well-rounded fighter in the early days of MMA (it helps that Fedor is considered the best to ever don the kurtka). Fedor gained the hype by defeating the best out there in multiple disciplines, often by turning what made a fighter good into a weakness.

With that said, it takes more than just skills in this sport. Fedor’s ability to take punishment and then gain an advantage is a large part of what propelled him up the ladder. A perfect example of this was his 2004 defeat of former UFC heavywight champion Kevin Randleman, who had just defeated Mirko Cro Cop. Fedor was slammed in one of the most horrific positions imaginable, yet less than a minute later the former UFC champion was tapping to a kimura from Fedor. That ability to make a dramatic shift happen anywhere in the ring is what elevated him to mythical levels. Of course, all of that adds up over time and it is what began the Fedor’s fall as a top heavyweight.

Fedor was a fighter who entered into his prime with the demise of RINGS and the ascension of PRIDE FC. From about 2002 to 2005 Fedor fought a staggering 15 times against some of the best the heavyweight division had to offer. During that same period he also won two World SAMBO championships. To put that in perspective, Junior Dos Santos has fought 16 fights in his nearly six-year career. The amount of wear and tear on the body while fighting so often in a short time span is tremendous. So there is perhaps little coincidence that after that period Fedor only fought more than twice a year once. Couple Fedor’s growing injuries with the deterioration of PRIDE’s finances, and the rise of the UFC, and it was clear that times were changing.

Make sure to check back tomorrow as we look back at Fedor’s complicated fall from the top of the heavyweight ranks.

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