There is far, far too much thought and debate right now when it comes to the discussion surrounding Fedor Emelianenko's place in MMA history. Now that he has fought his alleged final fight, pundits are scrambling to figure out where to put “The Last Emperor” in comparison to past, present and future stars.
The thing is, for all the keyboard sparring, and all the wild opinions, the answer is so terribly simple.
Fedor is, and should be remembered as, the best of his time. The best in MMA history to this point? Maybe, but probably not. The best there ever will be? No.
That is it. There should be absolutely no debate about this.
Fedor should be viewed through the same lens as many other legendary athletes from football, baseball, basketball or hockey. The best example in this writer's mind is Johnny Unitas.
Unitas' name will, or at least should, pop up in any given discussion when it comes to the greatest football quarterback of all time. Unitas set many of the early records in the NFL at his position, and owns several timeless achievements like hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, making the Pro Bowl ten times and winning the NFL MVP Award three times.
While Unitas is universally respected and held in high regard, his statistics have more in common with the pariah, Joey Harrington, than the superstar, Tom Brady. On top of that, players in the 1950s and early 1960s were nowhere near as fast or as strong as players from twenty years later (who, in turn, are nowhere near as fast as players from today). Some still played on both offense and defense. Some still did not even have the NFL as their chief source of income.
Should Fedor Emelianenko be remembered as the best of his time?
None of this, however, takes away from Unitas' accomplishments. He still earned those MVP awards. He still won the Super Bowl in 1970. Most importantly, he paved the way for the Roger Staubachs and Ken Stablers that would pave the way for the Joe Montanas and John Elways. He brought his sport forward with his incredible accomplishments.
Because of that, he is regarded as one of the greatest of his time. It does not matter that he was shedding tackles from safeties that were 5-foot-8. It does not matter that he was throwing passes over the heads of cornerbacks that lined up at halfback a couple plays later. It does not matter that he never completed 60% of his passes in any given season.
(Any of this sound familiar yet?)
He is remembered for what he did. He is not insulted because of what others could do ten years later. This should apply to Fedor Emelianenko as well.
Would Kazuyuki Fujita, Gary Goodridge, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, or almost any other opponent he faced in Pride, be able to hack it in the UFC right now? Almost certainly not. Would Emelianenko, in his prime, have been able to beat Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos right now? Maybe, but probably not.
But Fedor Emelianenko, no matter which way anybody cuts it, was still hands-down the best heavyweight in MMA from 2003 to 2008. He still had a 31-1 (1) record from 2000-2009. He is still one of the most popular and most hype-generating fighters ever. Those are the accomplishments he should be remembered for, and they are still impressive when paired side-by-side with those of current fighters.
Granted, his record is by no means unblemished with two terrible losses to the “next generation”of heavyweights. The stubbornness of his management team, which ultimately led to MMA aficionados getting the boxing fan treatment, also deserves a chapter in the eventual “Big Book of MMA”.
All that said, he remains the best of his time. Like Unitas before him, 50 years from now, his name is going to pop up alongside whoever happens to break Anderson Silva's title defense record, the guy who ends up holding belts in three different weight classes and the first ever to win an Olympic gold medal and a UFC championship belt in the same year.
Things that seem crazy right now are going to happen, and fighters are going to get progressively better from here on out. That does not mean Emelianenko is not the best heavyweight fighter from 2003-2008. That, though, should be obvious.