Less than a minute-and-a-half into the fight, lightning struck in the form of a right hand. Looping. Powerful. Deadly. With a single blow, and plenty of follow-up bombs just to be sure, a legend ended his fighting career, head held high.
Fedor Emelianenko went out like the champion he was for so many years. So few fighters do that it's worth noting. In his final bout, Emelianenko was the Fedor of old, annihilating both Pedro Rizzo and the memories of two devastating losses to unheralded Brazilians Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva. The win leaves Fedor with a 34-4 record and a contentious place in the sport's history.
Once uniformly considered the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, Emelianenko's legacy has become a topic of increasingly bitter, frenzied and partisan discussion.
To some, particularly old-school fans, Emelianenko's is an enduring legend. He did things his way, refusing to bow to the pressure and join the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which in the middle of his dominant run became the most popular and powerful promotion the sport has ever seen.
Others named him a fraud. They pointed to the overmatched opponents Emelianenko would sometimes demolish to please his fans in Japan, suggesting that Fedor's was a record built on tomato cans and has-beens. Offended that he wouldn't come to the UFC for dream fights with Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar, these fans lashed out at the quiet Russian, a man who mostly just wanted to go about his business outside of the limelight.
It's part of our current culture, a centrist culture, to say that the truth meets these two perceptions in the middle. That's patently absurd. Anyone who watched Fedor fight in his prime absolutely rejects the idea he is anything but the best heavyweight ever.
The Glory Days
In his glory years, no one moved like Emelianenko. Short, at just 5'11", and pudgy, at around 240 pounds, Fedor lured opponents into a false sense of security. He may have looked like your neighborhood handy man, but he pounced like an elite athlete. To see someone with his doughy build explode into action is a memory I won't soon forget.
Emelianenko was one of the first to excel in all areas of mixed martial arts. Sure, fighters like Don Frye and Frank Shamrock showed a modicum of skill in a wide range of technique, but often they were just passable. Fedor was an elite fighter everywhere the fight might go.
A judo champion who fell just short of representing Russia in international play, he had the throws and the submission holds down pat. What he didn't learn in the judogi he added on the Sambo mats, embracing Russia's national grappling art.
But this grappling wizardry was just a small part of what made Fedor great. His hands, it turns out, were made of stone. Like a 240-pound Roberto Duran, he swung often and he swung heavy. Fearless, Fedor cut off the ring with his patented looping punches, often designed especially to leave his opponent right in his clinch, where Fedor's trips and throws were truly deadly.
And once he had you on the ground? Well, that's when the real big guns came out, the most punishing ground-and-pound the sport had ever seen. What was truly magical about Fedor's various techniques wasn't just that they existed—it was how easily he combined them to create an inescapable, impenetrable cone of violence.
To me, Fedor's career plays back in a series of flash frames. In one, he's being dumped on his head by a Kevin Randleman suplex, face never changing expression as he marches back from the brink to secure a win.
Then there's Mark Coleman consoling his daughters inside the ring in Las Vegas. Fedor has beaten Coleman so badly that he barely looks human.
Finally, there's Emelianenko in the ring. Across the way is Mirko Cro Cop, the most dangerous striker in the sport. In my mind, I can see Fedor bringing the fight to him, Cro Cop's face troubled by the unexpected—the Russian judoka was beating him at his own game!
All told, Emelianenko went eight years and 27 fights without losing a bout. And while some of those fights, against the likes of Korean giant Hong-man Choi and pro wrestler Yuji Nagata, were sideshow attractions for Japanese television, he also beat the best heavyweights of his era.
Pancrase champion Semmy Schilt fell. So did the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. And the perennial also ran Cro Cop. Former UFC champions Randleman, Coleman, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were no match for Fedor either. His record stands alone as the best in heavyweight MMA history. He may one day be surpassed. Surely that day is coming. But that time is not now.
After knocking out Rizzo, Emelianenko announced his retirement to the world. It's not the first time that's happened, so we'll see how well it sticks. Fighters usually have to be beaten out of the sport—and Emelianenko never hit rock bottom.
But the time feels right. As a fan, I was elated at his win. But it wasn't the right kind of emotion. I didn't feel like I had witnessed a superior athlete, an artist at work. Joy wasn't what coursed through my body. No, this was a different feeling—relief.
I was thrilled, not to see Emelianenko fight and win, but that he didn't lose. That he wasn't carried off the mat like human roadkill. That we wouldn't have to add one more name to the list of fighters who have beaten the best.
And those aren't the kind of thoughts we want in our head during a fight. It's an opportunity to celebrate human physical potential, the ultimate challenge of both mind and body. We want to cheer for the great ones. Marvel at them. Cheer our favorites when they win and drown or sorrows together when they lose.
Fear, sadness, pity and regret? Those are emotions for real life, not for the fairy tale of sports. Let's hope Emelianenko walks off into forever with his head held high. His fans may not have another fight left in them either.