There will never be another Fedor. It’s time to pay tribute

This article was originally published in Fighters Only March 2020 – Issue 189

Fedor Emelianenko versus Rampage Jackson at the Saitama Super Arena, Tokyo, was a throwback fight. The old master back in his favored hunting ground. A bucket list event for fans, for Bellator and its president Scott Coker. A moment in time, for sure. Fedor and Rampage had never met in PRIDE in the heyday of fight sports entertainment in Japan, and it was a genuine wind-back moment.

In many ways, the Japan event at the close of 2019 was ‘gold level MMA bucket list. As Scott Coker, president of Bellator MMA, told me of the Japan event: “It’s a throwback fight. That’s why the fans reacted. A lot of people weren’t around at that time in Japan from ‘93. Japan was king, then,” explained Coker. “The best kickboxing and MMA fighting in the world. Pride had the best fighters in the world. That’s why the UFC bought them, they knew they were a threat. If they had hooked up with the right guy they would have really taken off. The UFC saw that as a threat. It all started there. For us to independently go to Japan with Fedor and Rampage is huge. It’ll probably be one of the biggest gates in the history of this company and one of the biggest attendance fights.” So it proved, as the fans turned up in their droves, to re-live a youth of beautiful brutality.

For the purists, it was special too. The Russian fought for the 27th time in Japan. He carved his legendary status there, running through opponents with a cutting edge never seen before, demolishing all-comers, in a nine-year unbeaten streak that consistently defied the odds. Victory upon victory, a solemnity defining his every act.

Emelianenko, now 43, is on his retirement tour with Bellator, and it was likely to be his final fight in the country. Given his size, at just under 6 feet tall, and weighing 16 and a half stone, how did he beat all-comers for that sustained period? Speed of thought, action, and self-belief. Or even the belief that God would decide his fate. These are powerful foundations on which to fight. Just as intriguing are the stories and profiles written about a person who very rarely opens up. And it is no ruse. Fedor is a modest, simple man. I’ve witnessed it first hand. He was clearly ahead of his time, but one question will remain: what would have happened if he had gone into the UFC?

Yes, he’s lost a few fights now, but Fedor’s main trademark, his fighting charisma, has never left him. When he comes into the ring, he appears as calm as a monk: no emotions, no great salutations. Ditto – win or lose.

What I have experienced around Fedor rings true when you hear his compatriots talk of him. Fans and fellow journalists. That he is loved by the people of that country for the way in which he carries himself, that he remains a champion of the people and the face of Russian sport. The quiet fighter’s great reluctance to open up beyond a select few has only added to his mystique and enigma.

With Emelianenko’s Bellator contract up, most assumed that “The Last Emperor” had had his last fight. Not so. Emelianenko re-signed with Bellator in June for what was called his “retirement tour.” The bout against Jackson in Japan is the first stop. Win or lose, it’s likely that a final bout in Emelianenko’s home country of Russia will be in the offing this year. There’s also a high likelihood of an elusive bout against on-again-off-again rival Josh Barnett. How much Emelianenko had left against Jackson was anyone’s guess. But the once-great Russian rolled back the years with a spectacular knockout, and it clearly meant so much to be back in the region where he defined himself as one of the sport’s greats.

It makes little difference that Fedor lacks the granite in his chin which once saw him belittle so many in the sport with his belligerent offense, and his vulnerability around the whiskers makes it a roll of the die each and every time he fights. It speaks to us of a different time. Time waits for no man, not even Fedor, so we might as well savor it every time he does challenge himself. Because it will not last forever.