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The Legacy of Fedor

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Fedor Emelianenko’s loss to Antonio Silva on Saturday, February 12 was just the third in his eleven year career.  Most, if not all, MMA pundits and fans discount the first loss as the fight was ended due to a cut.  The second loss occurred in Fedor’s second to last fight, where he was submitted by Fabricio Werdum in June 2010.

Prior to these two losses, many felt that Fedor was unbeatable and undoubtedly the greatest heavyweight ever.  Most chalked up the loss to Werdum as a hasty tactical error which means little to Fedor’s legacy.  The Silva fight is another story, as “Big Foot” manhandled Fedor in the second round after a competitive first, swelling the Russian’s right eye shut and effectively ending the fight.

These losses have called into question the legacy of the former PRIDE and Rings heavyweight champion.  Let there be no doubt that Fedor Emelianenko was one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in MMA history.  Fedor dominated just under two years in Rings up until the promotion’s closure in 2002.  His time with PRIDE was even more impressive, winning more than a dozen fights with just a single no contest on his record.  PRIDE’s closure has allowed Fedor to explode into America, fighting for BodogFight, Affliction, and now Strikeforce.

Noticeably absent from the list of Fedor’s suitors include the UFC.  Fedor has famously spurned MMA’s flagship company, the most recent instance occurring after Affliction’s collapse in 2009.  It is unclear how much of the failed negotiations are due to the UFC, Fedor as an individual, or Fedor’s management, but if Dana white is to be believed, M-1 Global has very unrealistic expectations of co-promotion with the UFC.

Ultimately, this is where the legacy issues come from.  Because Fedor has never competed in the UFC, many consider his resume to be incomplete.  The opinion is that since UFC is the home of the best fighters in the world, Fedor’s failure to “step up” and take on the best of the best is damning to this MMA legend’s reputation.  Frankly, I don’t buy that.

There are two parts of the Fedor/UFC argument that need to be explored: quality of competition and popular opinion.  To a certain degree, both of these concepts are subjective, though quality of competition can more easily be quantified.  By popular opinion, I mean how Fedor’s career is viewed by fans, pundits, and other figures in MMA.  More specifically, I’m curious about the arguments made by those in the anti-Fedor camp (including one very vocal UFC President.)

Regarding quality of competition, we need to look at Fedor’s prime years.  That certainly wouldn’t be in the recent past, as Fedor was 32 when he made his Strikeforce debut.  Most athletes peak in their late 20’s, which happens to coincide with Fedor’s time in PRIDE in the early to mid-2000s.  Fedor defeated fighters such as “Minotauro” Nogueira, kickboxing star Semmy Schilt, first ever UFC Heavyweight Champion Mark Coleman, and Mirko Crop Cop.  Comparable UFC fighters during this time were Tim Sylvia, Ricco Rodriguez, Frank Mir, and Andrei Arlovski.

The UFC may be the premier promotion today, but as far as I’m concerned, Fedor fought and defeated the best heavyweights in the world during his prime.  Today, Arlovski, Sylvia, and Rodriguez are all having severe difficulties outside of the UFC, while Cro Cop and Nogueira are still around.  The fighters that Fedor competed with have had incredible longevity, though both Cro Cop and Nogueira are not the fighters they once were.  The top of the UFC heavyweight division from 2002 through 2006 are either slumming it in smaller promotions or being repeatedly knocked out, with the sole exception being Frank Mir (yuck.)

If you want to judge Fedor’s career accomplishments, you have to look at his work in PRIDE above all else.  At his peak, Fedor was literally unbeatable.  He went nine years without being defeated by a single fighter while competing in the most competitive MMA organization in the world.  While it was around, PRIDE was the number one spot for MMA while the UFC was still working to grow.  Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, Fedor, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, and Cro Cop were all better fighters than anyone the UFC could offer, which includes Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes.  That Fedor was able to accomplish so much in PRIDE is just remarkable.

Dana White has attempted to capitalize on Fedor’s recent failures, stating that the Russian hero has always been overrated and never done anything for MMA.  White’s revisionist history comes as no surprise.  Since he proved unable to sign Fedor, White has had little good to say about the man.  I’m a big Dana White and UFC fan, but this looks like nothing more than sour grapes.  Fedor’s greatness can’t be negated by a couple of losses toward the later part of his career.

Fedor’s failure to join the UFC is a very calculated move, as this wasn’t done solely for financial reasons.  Someone in Fedor’s camp, or Fedor himself, was smart enough to know that he’s no longer good enough to beat top-ranked heavyweights like he did years ago.  Junior dos Santos or Cain Velasquez would be too much for Fedor now, but that’s to be expected.  That’s what happens to fighters as they age – their skills diminish.  And that’s not to take anything away from the wins by Silva and Werdum, as both men defeated a good fighter, but they beat a fighter who is historically the best ever and not currently the best.

Still, most MMA fans have unrealistic expectations when tuning in to see Fedor fight for Strikeforce.  Watching Fedor now is like watching Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards or Brett Favre on the Minnesota Vikings.  You’re watching an all-time great in the twilight of his career, not an athlete who is dominant in his current state.  It doesn’t help anything that Strikeforce is marketing Fedor as the greatest fighter ever.  Fedor no longer has the skills that made him into the best in the world, but he’s still very good.  That said, I worry that people newer to the sport see Fedor and can’t help but think he’s overrated.

It just a shame that so many fans missed out on Fedor in PRIDE.  His win/loss record couldn’t even begin to tell the whole story.  It wasn’t just that Fedor was great, but how he was great, always managing to slip out of compromising situations to score yet another victory.  Devastating offense by Kevin Randleman and Cro Cop couldn’t stop the stoic Russian from racking up the wins.  Not only did Fedor survive three fights with the dangerous Minotauro Nogueira, but he didn’t lose one of those fights.  Fedor was so good that he seemed barely human, which is something that can be said about few other fighters.

Though his skills are diminished, the mystique around Fedor will likely never fade.  I experienced that first hand when Fedor fought Brett Rogers in the Chicago suburbs and I’ve never been part of such an electrifying atmosphere.  To see Fedor fight is an experience unlike any other.  That is something that will never fade away, as Fedor has truly been a special fighter throughout his career.

That Fedor is still able to captivate crowds today is a real testament to his legacy.  Fedor is the greatest heavyweight mixed martial artist of all time, and potentially the greatest fighter ever.  To go 28 fights without a single loss is an incredible feat worthy of the label of greatest of all time.  And he’s not just the greatest fighter to never compete in the UFC, but the greatest fighter period.

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Categories: Editorial Feature