The Last Emperor Returns

When Russian heavyweight and MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko announced he was returning to the cage, there was endless speculation regarding where he would end up. Would he go to Bellator and make some serious money, or would he try his hand at the UFC? Such questions were driving fans crazy as they salivated over the possibilities.

But then Fedor announced he was signing with Rizin MMA and would be facing unheralded Jaideep Singh on New Year’s Eve, and ever since the same fans who couldn’t wait to see Fedor back in action have directed nothing but venom in the direction of the former multi-title MMA, judo and samba champion. And not just regular venom but pure hate and anger from fans and media alike, who have treated the announcement as if Fedor had declared he was best friends with Donald Trump.

Emelianenko (right) is a legend in MMA.

Before we go into Fedor’s legacy and popularity let’s take a step back and recognize this match for what it is. A 39-year-old athlete who has not competed in over three-and-a-half years is getting a tune-up fight to see if he can still compete at a high level. Someone please tell me why this is such an insult to MMA fans. It’s not unusual for ex-champions to take soft touches after a long layoff. Sugar Ray Leonard fought Kevin Howard two years after he retired and people had no problem with that. George Foreman came back and took on a long series of no-hopers before he eventually fought for the title again.

Why is Fedor coming back? And why with Rizin? Maybe it’s the money, as Fedor is rumored to be making up to 5 million dollars for this fight with a no-name Indian kick-boxer. Maybe it’s the fact that instead of Bellator or UFC, he is fighting for his old Pride FC boss in a new organization. Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing the fact that for fight fans, there has always been a love-hate relationship with “The Last Emperor.”

In the last few years of his career, more than a few fans and MMA promoters didn’t mind seeing Emelianenko getting finished by Fabricio Werdum, Big Foot Silva and Dan Henderson. And an even bigger legion of fans openly wondered if Fedor was always overrated and nothing more than a Pride hype job. Forget the fact that
Fedor had gone a remarkable 27 straight fights without a loss. Or the fact he had defeated a dozen top level MMA heavyweights convincingly. Or that he had beaten by submission guys like Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio “Big Nog” Nogueira.

The Last Emperor rumbles with Bigfoot.

As the new generation of fans like to say: “Until you fight in the UFC, you’re not that great a fighter.” That seems to be the biggest problem with Fedor, in that his relationship with Zuffa has always been one of open hostility. To Zuffa, Fedor represented the big fish they could never get and, more importantly, the fighter who could change the business.

Just like Floyd Mayweather, Fedor Emelianenko was in some ways his own promotion as he and Vadim Finkelchtein helped found and develop M-1 Global. And while the UFC has always wanted Fedor, they had refused to give into the demands of a co-promotion. And that is when the “War of PR” began, with Dana undermining and insulting Fedor and his team at every opportunity. Every time Dana stated that “Fedor has been fighting limited competition,” or dismissed his organization as having “no idea what they are doing,” the legions of UFC fans turned on Fedor and parroted Dana’s insults. And as a result, to this day there is bad blood between Fedor and the UFC.

In a 2013 interview, Fedor stated: “In my opinion, everything was in Dana White’s hands. Because at that moment, I felt like ‘this guy, he just hates us.’ … There were insults coming from Dana White all the time. There were many very loud things said, but … it was [all talk].”

In the years since Fedor’s ill-fated Strike Force run, more and more media members came out to say that Fedor made a mistake not joining the UFC. They refused to acknowledge that to sign with the UFC, Fedor would have had to give in to all of their demands and let Dana White win. As one fighter stated off the record to me: “I can’t blame Fedor for not signing with the UFC. Imagine having to work for a guy who trashed you and made a business disagreement into a personal vendetta.”

Return of the King?
Return of the King?

Putting all history aside, in my opinion, Fedor can’t be faulted for wanting an easy opponent in his first fight back. After all, this is an ex-champion trying to come back at the age of 39, a fighter who is 3-3 in his last six fights and who suffered three violent losses to top tier guys.

Maybe it’s the fact that Fedor doesn’t speak English and always relies on translators to tell his story. Maybe it’s the fact that the new generation of fight fans are used to a certain kind of champion, an anti-hero type, such as Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor with larger than life personalities. Maybe its even the fact that most UFC and MMA fans don’t remember Pride or have forgotten what Fedor accomplished in more than a decade of dominance.

Whatever the case, the hatred towards Fedor’s upcoming fight has become one that boarders on insanity given the MMA landscape. The best heavyweights are all under contract to either UFC or Bellator and neither promotion is going to let their guys fight Fedor without getting a generous cut. And as we know, there is a better chance of Donald Trump and Michael Moore sharing dinner together than of that happening.

So this New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s morning, instead of hating on the Fedor fight, maybe it’s time to just accept it. It’s simply the kind of match that a legendary all-time great who is making a comeback after three years of retirement would take. And all I know is that if it was okay for Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman, then it should be okay for Fedor Emelianenko.                           — Chris Connor

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