Fedor Emelianenko will be 39 years old when he returns to Japan to fight on New Year’s Eve. His comeback will be promoted by an organization so new that it only announced its name—Rizin Fighting Federation—after announcing the fight. His most recently rumored opponent is a relatively unknown, used-to-be-decent kickboxer named Jaideep Singh who had one professional mixed martial arts fight in 2013, which he won, for what it’s worth.
The people who care about the announcement that a long-retired fighter (whom fans brought to the sport by Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor may never have heard of) will be fighting for an until recently nonexistent Japanese promotion do so because Emelianenko was once great. He was the best heavyweight in the world and maybe the greatest fighter the sport had seen, though it’s not worth arguing about and it was a long time ago anyway.
By any fighting standard, Fedor is an old man, and assuming he returns as scheduled, his last bout will have been three and a half years ago, when he finished his retirement tour styling on an overmatched Pedro Rizzo. His last meaningful wins at the top of the heavyweight division were in 2009. They came in fights where he looked hittable and visibly less sharp than at his peak, but where he eventually landed cinematic, night-ending right hands.
He followed those dubious performances by diving into a Fabricio Werdum triangle choke in just over a minute, crumbling under a brutal mauling by the enormous Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and finally being punched into oblivion by Dan Henderson, a man who is also a thousand years old and is small even at light-heavyweight. Those losses ended Emelianenko’s relevance as a championship contender; the last came in July, 2011.
Vladimir Putin greets Emelianenko at his most recent bout, in 2012. Photo via AP
Even so, the announcement that he would be coming out of retirement was still highly anticipated, because fight fans are jackals. The fact that he will be returning was met mostly with questions about who’s out there for him to fight, and whether or not this scenario can ever fulfill various sports-movie fantasies. The general sentiment seems to be that the whole thing is bittersweet and disappointing. The world will get another chance to watch Fedor perform, and maybe even recapture something magical, but it’s probably not going to be against contenders, and at least right now it won’t be in the UFC. There are plenty who feel cheated, and plenty who feel their certainty that the man’s entire career was a sham is now validated.
Fedor Emelianenko is not really a person in these calculations. He’s the last remnant of the incredibly stupid Pride FC vs. UFC rivalry, giving maniacal fans on both sides stakes in his success or failure. He’s a window on some rose-tinted reminiscence of a different fighting landscape. He’s a source of concern, but in the way that one might be concerned that Yasiel Puig flipping a bat tarnishes the game of baseball or that athletes getting paid for their labor would tarnish collegiate sports, the concern is that he might somehow tarnish his legacy. The fact that a chubby, middle-aged politician whose prime was a decade ago and who seems to have other available revenue streams probably doesn’t need to get punched in the head anymore is, at best, a secondary consideration.
Some of this is due to the level of Emelianenko’s dominance. For more than eight years and 28 fights, Fedor went undefeated. He was labeled invincible and seemed less like an individual and more like an anthropomorphic force of nature. It was captivating and awe-inspiring, but that fighter and the world he lived in no longer exist.
For perspective, Emelianenko began his professional MMA career in 2000 in a Russian branch of RINGS, a Japanese pro wrestling outfit founded by notorious hardass Akira Maeda, which eventually transitioned to more-or-less legitimate fights. The RINGS ruleset did not allow strikes to the head of a grounded opponent, so Fedor just threw ridiculous, thudding body shots.
In 2002 he moved to Pride FC, at the time the UFC’s main rival. Pride was thriving and fat with crime money in the midst of the Japanese kakutogi boom. It was, for a short window, an absolutely unique and massive mainstream market ,and Pride served it with pyrotechnic stadium shows and flamboyant matchmaking.
Emelianenko was matched against former UFC champions, Olympians, pro wrestlers, a gigantic kickboxer, and a man not that shy of 400 pounds whose claim to fame was that his dad once fought Rickson Gracie. Some of these people were all-time greats; some of these people had no business in the ring. Whether MMA history remembers it or not—it for the most part doesn’t, for it remembers precious little—many were legitimate contenders. An expressionless Emelianenko handled them all. Most importantly, he defeated first Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and then Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, who had or eventually would beat pretty much everyone else worth beating.
Emelianenko in his prime, against Mirko Cro Cop in 2005. Photo via Getty
The Fedor of that era was phenomenal. He was fast, deceptively strong, and punched so hard that when he hit people crowds would audibly gasp in unison. He also never fought in the UFC. On the one hand, that doesn’t much matter. In his prime, he was the best fighter in the best heavyweight division in the world, and if he didn’t face Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir, or Randy Couture around 2008, well, that would have been a lot of fun, but he was fading even then, and those fights are gone. On the other hand, it matters a lot. There was always the fantasy of seeing the greatest fighter alive step into the octagon, and even if that fighter is gone and no contract negotiation or holiday pomp and circumstance will bring him back, the fantasy endures. People want to see him in the UFC, and they’re disappointed that he’s coming back to fight in Japan.
This is a man who should probably not be fighting at all. Instead of acknowledging that fact—or the fact that if he’s going to fight, he’s more than earned the right to do so in a lucrative, relatively safe manner—a lot of people are downhearted because we can’t wring another myth out of him.
This may be a condition of fandom in a sport that’s heavy on people getting hit in the head and having their joints intentionally turned inside out. Fighting is, on the whole, not good at things like nuance or introspection, perhaps in part because following it requires justifying horrendous violence being committed in the name of capital and amusement. Maybe to be fans, we have to ignore the obvious danger and assume that if these people are going to make the decision to fight for money (or quit and make that decision again, as they so often do), we may as well hope to exact the maximum amount of entertainment from the aftermath. Maybe we are just savages.
I don’t know who should tell a fighter when to stop fighting, especially one as good at it as Emelianenko. Perhaps no civilized society should sanction prize fighting to begin with. Perhaps it should be governmental athletic commissions, though many of them have proven woefully incompetent at doing even the most basic jobs, let alone one this serious.
Perhaps it should be no one. It certainly shouldn’t be me.
In the case of most top-level professional fighters, asking them to stop is asking them to give up a competitive art which they love and for which they have something near genius. In the case of the broad run of pro fighters generally, you’re telling them to abandon their primary source of income, one they may not have opportunities to replace. In this case specially, you’re asking someone to turn down a barge of money—$2.5 million, as reported by Dave Meltzer, though promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara disputes the figure. Whatever it is, it’s assuredly an enormous amount.
That money doesn’t do all that much to assuage the way that it gets harder for me to watch as a fighter gets further from their athletic prime, as their bodies slow down and the mileage from fights and training camps add up. I find myself cringing more, waiting for the inevitable moment when they meet someone with better reflexes and get hit with something terrible that they are no longer quick enough to avoid or healthy enough to rebound from. This isn’t because of any entitled bullshit about legacies, but because what little we know about CTE so far is awful, and because of what dementia, depression, and memory loss do.
Doom isn’t inevitable here, though, and you can see why Fedor—an elite athlete who’s probably more confident in himself than he should be, but is also more cognizant of the risks fighting poses to him than anyone else is—would take the risk. It isn’t theoretically impossible that he can recreate the magic that people are hoping for. There’s a remote chance that renewed focus, revamped training, or (more likely), a careful selection of opponents results in Emelianenko returning, staying relatively healthy, and maybe even looking good. The heavyweight division has always been the sport’s thinnest, and some of his contemporaries are still fighting, even thriving. A well-rounded, technically proficient talent like Emelianenko might be able to get off his couch and outclass C-level opposition, especially kickboxers being brought in to lose in an entertaining fashion, for another 10 years or more.
Even then, and especially if it goes much beyond that, this is far more likely than not to end with an old man who has spent much of his life giving sports fans joy taking an unnecessary beating. A Fedor renaissance is beyond unlikely, even less so if he were to ever find himself across from, say, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, or a dramatically retooled and improved Fabricio Werdum. This will not stop people from watching or hoping. It rarely does.
Emelianenko struggles against Dan Henderson in 2011. Photo via AP
Emelianenko’s return was announced on a Bellator card headlined by Tito Ortiz. Bellator, you may remember, is the company that recently promoted Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice, to considerable success. Ortiz was once the face of the UFC, but is now a 40-year-old with a 3-8-1 record since the end of 2006. Against champion Liam McGeary, Ortiz looked reasonably spry before falling into an inverted triangle choke to lose in the first round.
Just 14 months ago, a 35-year-old BJ Penn—who’d only been inactive for a year and a half—was trotted out of retirement to get destroyed and disfigured by Frankie Edgar, a man with whom he’d had two extremely competitive fights not that long before. Just recently, pound-for-pound great Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto’s fifth attempt at capping his career with a UFC win (0-3, 1 NC in the octagon), at 38 years old, was derailed due to another in a long line of injuries. Fighting’s thirst for nostalgia to venerate is strong but its memory is short, and its compassion is almost nonexistent. Look at what the sport has done—and oh, God, is really going to do again?—to 46-year-old legend Kazushi Sakuraba, now almost entirely enveloped in athletic tape and cauliflower ear. Many are, even now, willing to entertain actress Gina Carano as an opponent for Ronda Rousey, despite the fact that Carano fought a weight class higher, has been retired for six years, and would never, even at her best, have had a remote chance against Rousey. The UFC is willing to give a shot to Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, who will soon be 37, because despite the fact that he’s never fought or even participated in any high-level athletics outside of pro wrestling, they think people will watch.
At least to some degree, they’re right. People will watch, hoping for an inspirational moment of sports impossibility or at least a catastrophe, ignoring the fact that fighting is different than most sports. The stakes are higher, and there are very real, very dangerous differences between a desperate Michael Jordan trying to capture one more ring while dragging the Washington Wizards along behind him, and a spent Muhammad Ali facing Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. I might watch. You might watch, too, in hopes that Fedor Emelianenko is impervious to aging, and that it’s alright to wager his well-being on that hope. Maybe we’ll witness a tragedy or maybe we’ll see something improbable, but in any case, deep down we might suspect the truth: Fedor Emelianenko is old and we are savages.
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He’s on Twitter @HugeMantis.
Top photo via Getty