Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Bellator 290: Fedor Emelianenko gets the rare chance at a storybook ending in final fight of legendary career

If you’ve ever seen the face Fedor Emelianenko makes when sitting down for an interview, it might be a familiar sight. In fact, it’s the same face the heavyweight MMA legend makes pretty much anytime he’s in the public eye, whether he’s fighting or walking to and from the cage. 

Distant. Cold. Unapologetically succinct in every way. 

If it wasn’t for a few passing grins in response to overly animated questions — a rare glimpse into who the well-guarded family man, known for his humility to the few in MMA who really know him, might actually be — one would be hard-pressed to realize that this weekend was anything but just another fight in the unparalleled 23-year career of a fighter almost universally regarded as the best heavyweight in history. 

But for Emelianenko, the 46-year-old native of Russia, this Saturday is ripe for the possibility of a storybook ending that few combat sports athletes ever get to see, especially within such an unforgiving sport where disastrous endings — even for those like Emelianenko, who will gallup into full-time MMA immortality regardless of the outcome – have become commonplace. 

Emelianenko (40-6, 1 NC) will challenge heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in a title rematch headlining Bellator 290 (9 p.m. ET, CBS) inside the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California. The fight, set to air live in prime time on network television, also marks the return of MMA on CBS following a 13-year gap that dates back to a time when current Bellator MMA president Scott Coker, then the head of Strikeforce, brought Emelianenko to America amid heavy competition with the UFC.

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Win, lose or draw against Bader (30-7, 1 NC), Emelianenko has assured media members that this fight will be his last. And considering how negative the headlines produced by the MMA news cycle in recent months have been, the possibility of an Emelianenko walk-off win and his first time winning a championship with a major American promotion (after initially creating his legend under the Pride banner in Japan) is about as wholesome as this sport gets. 

But if you’re wondering whether the romanticism of his final bout might make Emelianenko any extra emotional, you simply haven’t been paying close enough attention to who this man really is.  

“With God’s help, if I am able to win, of course, I will be happy,” Emelianenko told CBS Sports HQ on Wednesday. “I have different thoughts in my head. I am trying not to overthink it so I’m not trying to think about the fight at all. 

“That’s it, I’m sorry.”

Avoiding emotion, at least from an outward sense, has long been a secret to Emelianenko’s success. Armed with the dissociated eyes of a hitman and an expressionless stare that’s frightening enough to produce goosebumps from those watching at home, Emelianenko’s calm baseline has also helped him routinely escape from incredibly precarious situations — like being famously dropped on his head by Kevin Randleman in 2004 — only to retain enough presence of mind to find a path to victory that, seconds earlier, simply wasn’t there. 

“Thank God I didn’t lose consciousness,” Emelianenko said about his 93-second victory in the quarterfinals of the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix, in a rare answer that exceeded merely a handful of words. “I knew what to do. I regrouped and I was feeling pretty good at wrestling. I wanted to change the position to a way better one. And once it happened, I knew I won. But the most important thing is that I didn’t lose consciousness.”

But Emelianenko’s stingy ways inside the fighting surface have long mirrored his unwillingness to let reporters know more than the simple foundational aspects of his character that he’s willing to share: he loves his family, he loves his country and, as a devout Orthodox Christian, he loves God and regularly credits that spiritual connection for his many memorable victories. 

And if you ask Emelianenko about whether there’s anything in his personal life that causes him to break his iron stare and unleash his true feelings to those around him, he shares just enough to confirm that he is, in fact, human and not a robot. 

“No, no, I have many different emotions,” Emelianenko said. “The best emotion I ever had was when my kids were born and when fighters on my team win belts or get regular wins. I definitely have regular emotions.”

One thing Emelianenko has never done is lose to the same fighter twice, which gives the 39-year-old Bader, who told CBS Sports on Wednesday that he initially balked at the idea of the rematch citing nothing to gain, a shot at history. But a key part of Emelianenko’s storied longevity has been his ability to not let the losses — especially the physically damaging ones — affect his confidence or motivation.

“When you are always getting into the cage, you are trying to win but sometimes it’s out of your hands,” Emelianenko said. “I’m a very religious person and I try to take it that what happened is God’s will. That’s what happens so I’m not really trying to think over it. This is why I take everything as it is.”

The fact that Emelianenko is still fighting at all at 46, and competing in a major title bout, is remarkable enough. As was his ability to bounce back from a three-fight losing streak under the Strikeforce banner in 2001, all three via stoppage, that had many calling for his retirement. 

Instead, Emelianenko has gone 10-2 since that point in an extended career twilight that has featured multiple renaissance moments, including a run to the finals of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix opposite Bader in 2019, and his upset knockout loss of former title challenger Timothy Johnson in 2021, which made the idea of this weekend’s title rematch possible. 

Bader made quick work of Emelianenko the first time around, finishing him with punches in just 35 seconds. True to form, Emelianenko made no excuses when asked to reflect upon the lessons learned in that fight. Although, he might’ve actually sprinkled a rare amount of Fedor humor into his answer while explaining. 

“I got old and now I am four years older so things change,” Emelianenko said. “Of course, I want to be younger. I just got older. The camp [for the rematch] was pretty good so we will see with God’s help, everything is going to be fine.”

Emelianenko is such a unicorn as a fighter, that even a one-sided loss to the same fighter can be justified for a rematch such as this because of the remaining attributes that still leave him dangerous. 

No, this is no longer your father’s Fedor, a ground-and-pound machine with a ravenous gas tank hidden behind his trademark dad bod and slightly rotund belly. And a fighter who once went 27-0 (1 NC) over a nearly 10-year stretch that included victories over a who’s who of MMA history. 

But even this advanced version of Emelianenko can still throw hands with a scary mixture of power and speed. And his intention of pulling his opponent into a firefight off the opening bell has never wavered. 

He’s the greatest heavyweight of all-time and still on the short list of those in the conversation of the sport’s G.O.A.T., which is extra remarkable considering his prime took place multiple eras ago during a time when the sport was much more specialized and less evolved. Even his standing as the best fighter to never appear in the UFC’s Octagon hasn’t penalized his historical rank. 

If Emelianenko has proven anything over his vast career, it’s that he’s timeless. The betting odds for Saturday reflect that, as oddsmakers have given him a respectful puncher’s chance as a small underdog. 

For Coker, whose relationship with Fedor dates back multiple decades, he said this week that he considers Emelianenko’s swan song as the official end to an era that birthed so many of the MMA fans who are still watching today. It’s a big part of the reason why he announced that so many of Emelianenko’s ex-foes and contemporaries — from Randy Couture and Ken Shamrock to Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman, among many others — will be seated at cageside to witness such an historic exit.  

Not surprisingly, Emelianenko wanted nothing to do with trying to ascribe an all-time ranking for himself, or share which fighter he holds in such high esteem, saying, “I’m not trying to analyze anything like that … this is for fan’s to decide or the experts to decide.” But he did break character long enough to share what he hopes his victory meal might be.

“Something like a dessert, something sweet,” he said.

Emelianenko’s legacy is so secure and concrete that as sweet of a victory that Saturday night has the potential to be, it won’t affect how we remember him in either direction. But legends do have a way of reminding us of their greatness from time to time in the sporting world when there’s no reason to hold anything back.

Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points in his career sendoff and John Elway took home the Super Bowl MVP in securing back-to-back titles in his final game. From an MMA standpoint, even Georges St-Pierre came back from a five-year retirement to win a UFC title in a second division before eventually calling it quits. 

But if Emelianenko, at 46, walks away with the Bellator heavyweight championship raised above his head to an arena of adoring fans and the potential of millions more watching from home, there likely isn’t a more storybook way for quite possibly the greatest fighter in history to say goodbye. 

No mic drop will be needed, No revealing sound bite after the fact will be expected. 

Silent but deadly, that’s the Fedor way. The last ride of “The Last Emperor.”

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