Perhaps one of the main reasons why video games are so popular among fight fans is that it allows them to seamlessly bridge one era with another; pitting the best of yesterday (or yesteryear) against the best of today.
In this digital medium, Muhammad Ali can face Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Robinson can meet Sugar Ray Leonard, and in the world of MMA, the best heavyweight today, Cain Velasquez, could fight the greatest heavyweight ever, Fedor Emelianenko.
Sadly, the prognostication abilities of games still are not so good that we can sit back and watch and learn who really would win between Velasquez and a prime Fedor, but it would have been glorious.
For many, Fedor was hands down the best heavyweight. For those of us that saw him in his prime, year after year, we can understand that point of view. Fedor had so many advantages that during his reign it almost seemed unfair.
He had brutal power in his fists, shocking speed, exceptional grappling and submissions and he seemed utterly indestructible. For nearly a decade Fedor was undefeated. While he was indeed spoon-fed more than a few questionable fighters in Pride, he also defeated some excellent competition in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic; two fighters who were constantly rising to the top of the division and stood alone as his closest rivals.
In addition, he bested men like Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia. With the exception of the Randleman bout, Fedor made it look terribly easy. While his is not that of a true world beater, the simple fact is that during his prime, he was hands down the best heavyweight in the world, bar none.
Ironically, the best heavyweight of today—which is indeed Velasquez, without question—is suffering the same kind of competitive shortcomings that Fedor did. Aside from Junior Dos Santos, Velasquez has no true rivals and he now rules a division that is desperate for some true contenders.
While Velasquez may not have the same punching power that Fedor enjoyed in his prime, the current UFC heavyweight champion is a hard puncher who is good with his strikes. Above all he possesses an excellent grappling game and is perhaps the best conditioned athlete in the sport today, save for Nick Diaz.
Velasquez has been running over all competition since winning his title back from Dos Santos at UFC 155. Now that he has thoroughly thrashed the only man to defeat him not once but twice, he is poised to become the longest reigning UFC champion in the division’s history.
Imagining a bout where the best Velasquez met the best Fedor is tantalizing for all the right reasons. Both men are humble and reserved outside the cage and monsters when the fight begins and both can end a bout quickly or pound their opposition relentlessly for the duration of the contest.
So, who would have won between these two excellent fighters?
As with all combative sport contests, it is the clash that holds many of the possible answers, and the chief among them revolves around the takedown. It seems clear that the winner of the bout would be decided upon where the fight was fought.
If Velasquez could take Fedor down quickly and continually, odds are he would get a unanimous decision given his incredible work rate, excellent positional grappling and limitless cardio. If Fedor could stop the takedowns, odds are his punching power and speed would allow him to land his heavy punches often, eventually knocking Velasquez out or hurting him bad enough to prompt the referee to stop the bout.
And in truth, neither man would have an easy time implementing their areas of advantage. Fedor was very hard to take down and in his prime he never folded or panicked in pressure situations; he seemed ready for any position. Velasquez, for his part, is good enough with his hands to utilize the striking tools and combinations he’s been taught and knows how to move around the cage in a slugfest.
Neither man suffers the kind of vanity that would see them do anything other than try to attack from their areas of advantage; both would be incredibly wary of the abilities of the other, constantly moving and looking for the moment to strike without lingering too long in dangerous territory.
Fights like this can go one of two ways. They can be incredibly boring with both fighters being overly cautious. Or they can be brutal fights that see both men attack each other relentlessly, knowing their best chance comes from being offensive rather than defensive.
Then, there is the locale of the event. Does it happen in the UFC cage or the Pride ring, where knees and kicks and stomps to the head of a downed opponent are allowed?
To be honest, I believe that if the fight happens in the Octagon, Fedor has the advantage as he is protected from the knees and kicks to the head when he is down. This may sound odd, but imagine Velasquez earning a takedown and securing a cradle on Fedor. In the Pride ring, he would be free to attack with brutal knees to the head, much like Tito Ortiz did in his rematch with Guy Mezger in the UFC, way back when.
Yet even as we dig deeper into the variables, we come back to the question of the takedown. If Velasquez can get it repeatedly, he wins. If he cannot, Fedor wins.
So, would he be able to get the takedown on a prime Fedor? Odds are he would get a few, but he wouldn’t get them all; he’d be doing great if he got half of his attempted takedowns to be honest.
In his third fight with Dos Santos, Velasquez saw many of his takedown attempts thwarted. Fedor has a better takedown defense game and is also closer in size to Velasquez, which would help prevent the UFC champion from lodging his head under the chin in order to help pin the Pride legend against the cage. That is a technique Velasquez has used more than a few times in his career against taller fighters.
In addition, keeping Fedor down would be incredibly hard, as would pounding him out for the stoppage. Fedor was incredibly durable; one need only witness how he recovered from being slammed directly on his head by Kevin Randleman to see this as fact. He was also very fast in transitional scrambles and his submission acumen was shockingly high. A prime Fedor would come close to giving Velasquez the submission nightmares many were expecting him to face against the shopworn Nogueira back at UFC 111.
Velasquez is, as of now, a fighter still growing into his potential. The fact that he is so dogged is one of the things that show him to be a fighter of great promise. Many fighters abandon their game plans when they suffer from a hard shot or many, but not Velasquez.
When he is hit (as he has been by Brad Morris, Cheick Kongo and others), he goes right back to his bread and butter, utilizing his best weapons instead of moving about the Octagon, suddenly unsure of himself or what to do next. He’s an unflappable fighter and that kind of grit and determination cannot be taught. Two years from now he may indeed be the greatest heavyweight the sport has ever seen given his dedication to training and his clear desire.
However, if prime Fedor would have met the current version of Velasquez, eventually Fedor would catch him with enough shots to find his range and from there he would land more and more until he finally stopped Velasquez by KO or TKO. While this may sound incredibly unfair and even implausible for Velasquez fans, the simple facts are that the current UFC champion is a very hittable fighter.
Velasquez has been needlessly caught by many opponents because of his lack of head movement, his tendency to try to force striking techniques and combinations into every situation and his sheer willingness to run headlong into any show of offense, determined to seize any and every opportunity to land the heavier counterpunches. His lack of head movement and his overaggressiveness combine at the moment he chooses to attack or counterattack and the result is that his head floats up like a balloon, waiting to be popped.
In Fedor, Velasquez would be fighting a man with a vast array of skills, each one shockingly high and empowered by a keen mind and an able body. While it is true that Fedor did possess both incredible punching power and a very fast frame, his true strength was how all his advantages came together and how he was able to marshal them into a veritable war ensemble.
His footwork was excellent, his head movement and overall striking defense were equally excellent, his ground-and-pound was the best the sport has ever seen, his timing was very good, he mixed his striking attacks with both head and body shots and he was nearly seamless in his blending of a fast and violent offense with a sound defense.
Like many good strikers, Fedor threw punches in bunches, but there was an underlying science between his flurries. They were not just thrown with the intent to land (or “touch" his opponent), but to set up the next punch or flurry, or the underutilized punch-and-clutch, which would see him lead with a power shot and slide into a body lock via commanding underhooks or strong hip control. Fedor was able to string it all together with a means to and end that saw him employing both an accurate offense and a sound defense without compromising position or giving up an easy takedown.
And when he landed once, more often than not he did significant damage. From there, a whirlwind of strikes would follow, each carefully aimed and delivered with blistering speed and sound footing. He also had an uncanny grasp of his range, knowing just how deep he could step into the pocket and throw with full authority before sacrificing any defensive advantage. His one failing in this area was his bout against Kazuyuki Fujita, when he got caught by a heavy punch that had him stepping into post-holes.
During this moment, Fedor closed the distance quickly and tied up with Fujita, recovering his wits as he was taken down to the ground. Never once did he panic and when he got back to his feet he went back into the fight as if nothing had ever happened.
Fedor’s detractors can say what they will about his competition in Pride or how his reign abruptly ended and thus he was never really all that good to begin with, but that simply doesn’t hold water. When he was in his prime, he was the best in the world, and he would be too much for Velasquez to contain for the duration of a title bout.
But while it lasted, it would be glorious, for sure.