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The Rise and Fall of “The Last Emperor” (Part 2)

Fedor Emelianenko announced his retirement from MMA following last week’s win over Pedro Rizzo at M-1 Global: Fedor vs. Rizzo. “The Last Emperor’s” career began in Ekaterinburg and ended, ironically, in St. Petersburg. MMAFrenzy continues our look at Fedor’s career and legacy by examining the fighter’s fall. Click here if you missed part one of our three part series.

One thing that is impossible to ignore when discussing the fall of Fedor actually has little to do with his fighting ability and more to do with those he entrusted to handle his business. Fedor has always been known as a humble fighter who was more intent on spending his time with his family and his training rather than on self-promotion. He grew up extremely poor, having to share a single sweater with his brother, Alexander, to stay warm during the notoriously cold Russian winters. He admits that he only got into fighting because his family needed money and because he needed something to fund his grappling career. With all the time spent training he put his trust in managers to handle his career.

Unfortunately, his luck with managers has not been so good. Fedor came into MMA as a member of Russian Top Team, however a nasty fall out between him and manager Vladimir Evgenevich Pogodin led him to sign with current manager Vadim Finklestein. Miro Mijatovic also managed Fedor in his early PRIDE days until they decided to leave PRIDE unsuccessfully. As Mijatovic told Dan Herbertson (amazing interview that needs to be seen), Fedor was a huge key to PRIDE’s success and the Yakuza were major financier of PRIDE. When Mijatovic signed Fedor to Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye’s 2003 New Years event the Yakuza responded with near-deadly force. Mijatovic was essentially abducted by the Yakuza and told to give up his rights to Fedor or be shot to death. Mijatovic eventually relented after a lengthy negotiation in a hotel that was literally “under the gun,” a move that lead to Fedor only being able to compete outside of PRIDE if it occurred on Russian soil. Leading Fedor to stay with PRIDE until their 2007 deal with Zuffa LLC.

The 2007 Zuffa purchase would signal the beginning of the second decline in Fedor’s career, though this one had nothing to do with health or ability. The negotiations with the UFC did not go well. When the negotiations fell through, UFC President Dana White clearly took it personally. Fedor’s management group, M-1 Global, wanted a more flexible contract than the UFC was willing to offer which led to a breakdown in communication. While the UFC is known for having very strict contracts, it began to lead a false perception that Fedor was just a puppet of his “crazy” promoters. The reality is that M-1 Global is the largest promoter in Russia and that they controlled a fighter that the UFC’s poster boy Randy Couture was willing to throw away his long relationship with the promotion for a chance to fight Fedor. Both sides had valid points, but Fedor was not going to leave M-1 due to legal reasons and out of loyalty to the group that got him out of a terrible situation with RTT.

With the two sides standing resolute, a battle began that caused plenty of collateral damage with the UFC banning anyone who did business with the Russian. The UFC made up shows to counter program Fedor’s fights, and purchased two separate domestic promotions that housed the Russian fighter. All of that was done for a fighter that White would go out of his way to call overrated, belittle his accomplishments, yet still found him important enough to ban popular MMA sponsors RCVA, Affliction, Clinch Gear, and nearly TapouT. While Fedor kept a large part of his fan base, many new fans to the sport and those that were exclusively UFC followers, were swayed more in line with White’s view, even though many of his fighters disagreed.

With this battle going on, Fedor was beginning to show signs of fatigue from mounting injuries, increased domestic popularity, age, marital issues, and travel that were largely ignored. A warning sign for Fedor’s slide was his 2008 loss at the SAMBO world championships to Blagoi Ivanov. Fedor had clearly lost a step and it was fairly obvious to those that saw the match that he was not the same he once was.

Fedor would remain victorious in MMA for a while longer against a then-resurgent Andrei Arlovski and Brett Rogers, but the chinks in the armor were becoming more evident. By the time the Russian signed with Strikeforce, he was far from the top form he maintained so long. While it was nice for his many fans to see him stateside a bit longer, though he was not the same fighter by this point in his career. “The Last Emperor” had clearly abandoned the tactical approach in favor of wild attacks that left him vulnerable but fans happy.

By the time Emelianenko was scheduled to face Fabricio Werdum, it was understandable why he would have been pondering retirement. Fedor would fight twice more (and lose) with Strikeforce after losing to Werdum, and while he teetered on the brink of retirement each time, he was unable to walk away. The lasting image of Fedor’s fall has to be the Antonio Silva fight. While Fedor held his ground in the first, he was dismantled in the second round of the fight. Even after being destroyed most of the round, Fedor still attempted multiple submissions that Silva evaded with a smile on his face. The image of a crushed Fedor desperately clinging to the hope of a miracle victory embodied the feeling of most of fan base at this point in his career.

The Russian would fight four more times following the Silva fight. Emelianenko would face fello PRIDE legend Dan Henderson in his final Strikeforce bout in one of the most exciting rounds in recent MMA history. While Fedor would drop Henderson twice in one round, he would eventually suffer the first true KO loss of his career. Fedor would finish his career with three straight wins that saw him go back to his more tactical roots against competition in the same levels of their careers. While the wins were nice, the events following last Thursday’s bout made it clear that this was a man to whom the wins were no longer his top priority.

Make sure to join MMAFrenzy tomorrow as we conclude our look back at Fedor’s career by examining his legacy.

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