Well, our part of the world, anyway.
Emelianenko was still in the ring, getting his hand raised in victory by referee John McCarthy when Grande and Smith hit the fast forward button. The two American broadcasters understood that Fedor’s three-minute, two-second dismantling of the overmatched kickboxer would elicit little more than shrugs on our side of the Pacific, so they wasted no time spinning things forward.
“In his return to MMA Fedor Emelianenko leaves the Internet just one question to begin discussing,” Grande said. “Who’s next?”
“It can’t be another softball,” Smith responded. “He has to step up.”
Muhammed Lawal apparently agreed with that assessment. The winner of the Rizin Fighting Federation’s heavyweight grand prix took to social media this week to invite Emelianenko back to America to meet him in the Bellator MMA cage.
On Thursday, he reiterated that challenge (of sorts) to MMA Junkie.
“Bellator let me go out there [to Japan] and showcase my skills,” Lawal said. “So now, I want to do them a favor. I want to help them out by bringing Fedor over here and fighting free on Spike TV … Fedor’s a legend. People want to talk bad about him and say he’s fighting nobodies, but Fedor’s a legend and me versus Fedor would do numbers.”
And so we once again return to the defining question—and principal disconnect—in the long, twisting saga of the greatest MMA heavyweight of all time: What, if anything, can we expect from Fedor?
Now that he’s really, truly back, American fans want to see Emelianenko tested against a relevant opponent. Lawal—a natural light heavyweight who will clearly go anywhere he thinks he can find a big fight—fits that bill nicely.
But what of Emelianenko himself? And what of his new/old bosses at Rizin? As usual, their wants and desires remain as inscrutable as ever, though, it seems plausible their goals don't mesh much with our own. At this stage of his career, it’s hard to believe Fedor will trouble himself at all with what fans in the West think.
In America, the announcement of Singh as Emelianeko’s first opponent since 2012 was met with disappointment. Likewise, watching the inaugural broadcast of RFF on New Year's Eve morning felt like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
The event kicked off at 10 a.m. ET and from the moment Rizin general manager Nobuhiko Takada whipped off his black druid robe and pounded a drum with a baseball bat, the message was clear: This wasn’t for us.
Even with Grande and Smith talking us through the action on the tape-delayed SpikeTV broadcast, it was obvious this show (and, make no mistake, it was a show) was aimed at a largely Japanese audience.
With its over-the-top pageantry, nonsensical subtitles and nostalgic matchmaking, Rizin was likely right in the wheelhouse of Japanese families who traditionally gather at home on New Year’s Eve to watch hours-long fighting and pro-wrestling cards. If fans stateside had nothing better to do before our own, likely quite different New Year's plans jumped off, we were welcome to tag along.
But nobody was going to hold our hand.
Emelianenko’s cakewalk against Singh made a fitting climax to the morning/night of high-concept fights. It somehow just felt right to see Fedor back in a big, white ring, blasting some handpicked fall guy while a crack team of officials in latex gloves tried to keep them from grabbing the ropes and/or tumbling out.
How did it feel to Emelianenko? Impossible to know, since he almost never breaks from his stoic, unreadable stare. Still, it’s easy to imagine that Rizin feels like home to him. This is his scene, and these are his people.
Now reunited with the old honchos from Pride FC, it's possible he wants nothing more than to distance himself from his foray into American MMA from 2008-11, which ended with a trio of disastrous losses.
Maybe he was always going to wind up back here, picking the bones of the once-great Japanese MMA scene in front of an international fanbase that doesn't seem to want much more for him. The Last Emperor is suddenly riding a four-fight win streak now—all of them against overmatched or fading competition in either Japan or his native Russia.
The idea that Emelianenko would journey back to the United States to fight Lawal in the Bellator cage might make American eyes light up, but you can’t really blame him if he takes a pass.
At 39 years old, he might have no business fighting MMA’s current generation. He might know that. He might be perfectly happy continuing to make big bucks cleaning up scraps in front of an appreciative audience in Rizin. All seems possible in the world of Emelianenko.
But if Fedor is interested in fighting again—and even interested in fighting someone most MMA fans have heard of before—his return certainly comes at an interesting time. The UFC still holds a death grip on most of the world’s top talent, but there is better opportunity to find saleable fights now than anytime since the death of Pride in 2007.
There is obviously no shortage of suitors and out-of-the-box possibilities for Fedor’s next fight.
In addition to Lawal, Bellator possesses a wealth of talent that could interest Emelianenko. Kimbo Slice got himself back in the win column during 2015 with a first-round knockout of Ken Shamrock. Shamrock is slated to fight Royce Gracie on February 19, and the winner (or loser) could easily find himself headed to Japan, where weight classes seem like mere suggestions and recent resumes aren't all that important.
Alistair Overeem recently fought his way out of his UFC contract and into free agency. Signing him and slating him against Emelianenko in a main event in the spring would likely be the biggest and most relevant heavyweight fight Rizin could pull off right now.
It also might be the most competitive, which is a good reason why it may not happen.
Former UFC heavyweight Shawn Jordan also threw his hat into the ring this week on his Intagram account.
Then there is the Holy Grail of nostalgia opponents for Emelianenko—Randy Couture. Couture is involved in a production and “brand ambassador” deal with Bellator and might be closer to a bout with Fedor now than when he held out of his UFC contract to try to make it happen in 2007-08.
Of course, it would also require Couture to return to the cage after a five-year absence and at 52 years old. Still, crazier things have happened.
Rizin also appears to control enough of its own talent to keep Emelianenko flush with bouts as long as he wants them. Of the 27 fights the company put on during its first two events last week, 13 of them were either heavyweight or open-weight affairs.
Bob Sapp is there and coming off a win over sumo legend Akebono. Tsuyoshi Kosaka is there, as well as Satoshi Ishii (both of whom Emelianenko has already defeated). James Thompson fought there and so did UFC retread Goran Reljić. Former UFC and Pride fighters Mark Coleman and Heath Herring appeared at ringside while Emelianenko dispatched Singh.
Then there is Baruto Kaito. The 6’6”, 400-pound Estonian former Sumo star was rumored early on to be Emelianenko’s opponent at Rizin. When the Singh fight was announced, Baruto was scheduled to make his MMA debut against former K-1 star Jerome Le Banner. After LeBanner pulled out at the last minute, he defeated Peter Aerts on very short notice—and over a trio of three-minute rounds.
If Rizin wants a bout that Emelianenko can probably win and that would create a stir in Japan, Baruto is probably the guy.
No matter what happens, we can rest assured that it will happen on Fedor’s terms. He has always and will continue to march to music no one else can hear. As he begins to negotiate the twilight of his career, don’t expect that to change.
Sentiments like the ones expressed by Grande and Smith are nice. They likely echo what many stateside MMA fans are thinking right now.
But expecting Emelianenko to hear or care about our cries is foolhardy.