On Friday, on the other side of the world, the best fighter never to fight in the UFC will walk back into a cage for a promotion named Eurasia Fight Nights. Do you care? You should care, if only because Fedor Emelianenko is probably the best heavyweight mixed martial arts has seen, and his time is running short.
The Last Emperor is 39, and after a short tailspin that saw him lose three straight, he has returned to his winning ways, in the process reigniting the hope that he may one day cross off the last remaining desire of his longtime fans and grace the UFC Octagon with his presence.
Emelianenko did his share to reignite the flame when he visited with Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. Asked if we could possibly see him fighting under the UFC banner by the end of the year, he said through his interpreter, “Yes. To answer you question in a word, ‘Yes.’ That possibility does exist.”
And with that, a million headlines were born.
To be fair, however, up until that point, Emelianenko had mirrored his fighting style by showing calculated restraint in broaching the subject. There are and always have been obstacles between the sides. Here’s hoping that time has eased them enough to make the road passable.
We’ll find out soon enough. Emelianenko has the Friday date with ex-UFC fighter Fabio Maldonado on his slate—ironically, the bout airs on UFC Fight Pass—and after that, he is a free agent.
“On June 18,” he said on The MMA Hour, “I am open for negotiations with all organizations.”
We've heard this kind of thing before, going back about a decade, since the last time Emelianenko fought for his longtime home, PRIDE. Since then, he’s fought for a gaggle of promotions that are now defunct and a few others that have only made small dents on the international scene. He has basically been MMA’s top ronin, plying his trade for the top bidder in faraway lands.
It’s made him a good living and, along with his ridiculous decade-long win streak during his prime, made him something of a mythical figure in the larger MMA world. But while the fight world has expanded geographically, money isn’t as plentiful as it once was. When Emelianenko goes looking for his next deal, there will be only a few bidders able to match his price.
Say what you will about the UFC’s unwillingness to bend on some of Emelianenko's negotiation points and its inability to strike a deal with him, but the organization has always come to the table.
There are indications that will continue. A source with knowledge of Emelianenko’s free-agency process told Bleacher Report that the UFC has had discussions with him “multiple times” in the past, including in recent months.
The UFC has also indicated an interest in producing a show in his home country of Russia, an event that would certainly benefit from his presence.
At least one major obstacle—perhaps the largest between them—is gone. Emelianenko’s longtime manager Vadim Finkelchtein is no longer by his side. Finkelchtein is the man who always insisted that any promotion of Emelianenko had to be a co-promotion with his organization, M-1. That was always the key barrier between sides, a sticking point that UFC brass would never agree to. No matter what you bring to the table, the UFC won't split the pie down the middle.
With Finkelchtein gone and his demand along with him, the chances of both sides reaching a deal increases infinitely.
Maybe it’s meant to be.
Emelianenko has already had luck on his side in that he competes in the oldest division in the UFC. Among the heavyweight Top 10, there’s not a single one under the age of 30. The youngest of the bunch, former champion Junior Dos Santos, is 32.
In the last few years, we’ve seen the resurgences of 42-year-old Mark Hunt, 37-year-old Andrei Arlovski and 36-year-old Alistair Overeem. Just as importantly, there’s no real signs that the division is about to turn over. There is some younger talent, but Ruslan Magomedov (29), Francis Ngannou (29) and Stefan Struve (28) are the only 20-somethings threatening to crack the Top 10, and none of them are looked at as surefire title contenders.
The division has always skewed old, and it’s aged right alongside Emelianenko. That means the opportunity is there not just to come in, but also to make some noise. While it would be irresponsible to suggest that someone of his age will definitely make a run at the belt, he brings a history that might bring with it special treatment. A win or two would probably vault him near the top of the pack. It's a short way to the throne when you're The Last Emperor.
The thing is, he may not even care so much about adding another belt to his extensive collection. He might simply be interested in fighting for the world’s biggest promotion. Even legends have bucket lists.
Judging by his words, it seems like the UFC is on his. Twice during his interview, Emelianenko said he would like to fight for the UFC before he hangs up his gloves for the last time.
Judging from the UFC's actions, it's interested, too. Emelianenko is the one who got away, the one who can help push a Russian expansion.
A union works for everyone. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's just the inevitable finally coming to fruition. Either way, both sides are just about out of time.
For Emelianenko and the UFC, it’s now or never.