Fedor Emelianenko: MMA's Imperfect Answer to Muhammad Ali?
Alright, before everyone freaks out in a knee-jerk reaction to apparent sporting blasphemy, let me explain.
Nobody's suggesting Fedor Emelianenko is a perfect parallel to Muhammad Ali. That's why the qualifier's in the title and it ends in a question mark. Out of respect for both giants, I'm not suggesting anything about the analogy is a foregone conclusion.
So settle down.
I'm well aware that there are a litany of bullet points that make blurring the line between god and mortal (to date) laughable.
Most importantly, the man once known as Cassius Clay is a justifiable global icon because his influence escaped the boxing ring and crossed racial/national boundaries.
His Shakespearean forked tongue and willingness to spar with the hottest issues of the day made him a hero to people who'd never heard of the Sweet Science.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Ali helped progress dialogues on such topics as the Vietnam War and America's racial divide because he forced the discussions into living rooms where they otherwise might not have existed.
The Louisville Lip was one of those larger-than-life figures that must've been witnessed in real time to completely appreciate and/or accurately deconstruct.
His sociopolitical footprint was too profound to be reduced to digits, video, or print so those of us who never saw him at his height cannot, by definition, totally comprehend his import.
Since I was born in 1978, only a few years before Ali hung up his gloves for the final time, I don't have the credentials to pass judgment on his overall phenomenon.
But isolate the Champ's athletic career and, suddenly, the comparison to the Russian Experiment becomes a much saner exercise.
Similar to Ali, the one reaction you won't find when Fedor's name comes up is indifference. By now, the camps are well-defined.
In the first circle of tents, you have the true-believers.
These will tell you the Russian (though he was born in the Ukraine before it splintered off) is the greatest MMA fighter the sport has ever seen. Furthermore, he will always be the heavyweight standard against which every subsequent champion must be judged. Unfavorably.
The next tier down the ladder of Fedor love consists of his somewhat disillusioned faithful.
Here, nobody doubts Emelianenko's former accomplishments and the love is still strong. Everyone pays appropriate homage to his domination over Japan's PRIDE Fighting Championships back when it was the premiere fight organization in the world.
However, the group has grown uncomfortable with his extended absence from the elite competition offered by the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The UFC is now top dog, but the biggest and baddest pitbull has been a no-show thus far. That doesn't sit well with many aficionados of combat sports.
At the bottom of the ladder are the skeptics.
They call "bullspit" on the Russian Experiment, will jump at the chance to tell you why, and might not stop until a blue face turns purple. The rationale can run the gamut from reasonable to lead-paint-based lunacy, but each individual down here must necessarily subscribe to the notion that PRIDE was always overrated in order to be taken seriously. Especially the 265-pounders.
Beyond the visceral reaction both warriors inspire outside the ring/cage, you can also connect some dots between their respective resumes.
The boxing great won his initial 31 contests before tasting professional defeat for the first time at the hands of Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century. Many of those bouts came against the best the sport had to offer—brutes like George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Zora Foley, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, and Ernie Terrell.
For his part, Fedor has returned victorious from 32 of 34 trips to one enclosure or another and has yet to experience real defeat. The two blemishes are no-contests from illegal strikes, although one went in the books as a loss due to the peculiar tournament format in which it occurred.
Like Ali before him, the 33-year-old earned his stripes against some of the heavyweight division's most accomplished names. Fighters such as Mark Coleman (twice), Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Heath Herring, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (three times), and Kevin Randleman.
Pulling the two all-timers into further concert is a lull of about four years near the prime of both careers.
The Kentucky native was stripped of his boxing license in 1967 following his refusal to enter the United States Army.
He wouldn't fight again until 1970 and it wouldn't be until the next year that he'd return to facing top competition (against the undefeated Frazier) at the age of 29.
Meanwhile, the Sambo and Judo specialist has been on a comparable hiatus (for very different reasons).
When Emelianenko squares off with Fabricio Werdum on Saturday, it will mark his return to elite competition after taking on novelty acts or faded stars since PRIDE closed shop in 2006.
Granted, Werdum isn't Frazier circa '71, but he's certainly the genuine article.
Vai Cavalo's gone the distance against Sergei Kharitonov and Nogueira, only to drop a split decision to the Russian Mercenary and a unanimous one to Minotauro.
He also owns two technical knockouts of Gabriel Gonzaga, submissions of Alistair Overeem and Aleksander Emelianenko (Fedor's younger brother), and a more recent unanimous decision over Antonio Silva—Bigfoot's suddenly become a serious player at 265, though I'm not sure I buy it.
The Brazilian should be a stout challenge for the MMA goliath, just as Frazier was for Ali.
What remains to be seen is whether the two stories continue running on pseudo-lockstep after the evening with Werdum.
Ali rebounded from the Frazier loss and only added to his myth by standing toe-to-toe with his strongest adversaries. He fought and beat the likes of Chuvalo (again), Jimmy Ellis, George Foreman, Frazier (twice, with Ali winning both), Ken Norton (three times with Ali winning twice), Patterson (again), and Leon Spinks (twice, with Ali winning the rematch).
The Greatest proved himself to be exactly that by facing down any and all comers during a golden age of contenders. He never flinched.
Given the resurgence of the UFC's heavyweight division, the Last Emperor has precisely the same chance.
Win or lose on Saturday, he can place his body of work above suspicion by entering the UFC's thickening fray at 265 pounds and emerging with more impressive victories than damaging defeats.
The pelts of Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, and/or Roy Nelson in some combination would end the speculation over his place in MMA history.
Fedor Emelianenko will never rival Muhammad Ali's contribution to social progress outside the arena or his flair for showmanship inside it.
What he can do is continue to duplicate the Champ's domination over his chosen sport.
Maybe even eclipse it.
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