The Last Emperor Strikes Back
It isn’t very often we face a transcendent moment. Where the path of history touches the trajectory of an individual or individuals to a form a unique apex in the present. This weekend, we witnessed that apex.
Fedor Emelianenko is considered by many to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time. He is certainly considered the greatest heavyweight. On Saturday, he came out of retirement (or a long break, depending on how you look at it) to fight once again.
We shouldn’t be ignorant about the significance of such an announcement. Some people will tell you to be excited; Fedor is back. Others will tell you he’s passed it and not a factor in the scene anymore. The latter are cynics. They don’t appreciate the moments in front of them.
This is no less a moment because he’s 1-3 in his last four fights. He could be 1-10. He is still the definitive MMA fighter of our time.
Coming through the ranks of PRIDE FC, this makes him largely like the greatest fighter of an entire era of fighting. Without PRIDE, MMA wouldn’t have made it through the 2000’s. PRIDE was the pinnacle; Fedor sat perched at the top. This makes Fedor the most important MMA fighter there is.
To ask, ‘Who’s the best?’ before Anderson Silva posturized Vitor Belfort had only one answer: it was Fedor Emelianenko. To ask, ‘Who’s the best?’ before Fedor, though? Royce Gracie? Ken Shamrock? Bas Rutten? Sakuraba?
All of those fighters for one reason or another could be undermined in favor of the other. Gracie lacked longevity and was a benefactor of timing (being the first UFC tourney winner and also being picked to represent his family in the tourney over his brother, Rickson, who in hindsight many consider better). Shamrock had a number of losses. Rutten did, too. Sakuraba could probably make the best argument but he lacked a long undefeated run like Rutten.
This makes Fedor the fighter who unified opinion into a consensus. He was the first best we ever had. It was a simple equation. He was undefeated for 28 straight matches over nine years. The only other comparison is a fighter who came after him, Jose Aldo, who is still undefeated through 18 fights over ten years.
Anderson Silva is the best UFC fighter there has ever been. Fedor Emelianenko is the best of the pre-PRIDE era.
Which makes his return to MMA all the more fitting it won’t be in the UFC Octagon. Fedor is not meant for that world — the world of packaged hype videos, Joe Rogan sound bites, and Reebok spandex. Fedor doesn’t fit neatly into their paradigm.
Maybe the only cross-sport comparison in this way is Michael Jordan. Jordan was a unique public figure. He was the first athlete who had a brand, who even the right to be self-referential about the concept. Jordan existed within his own frame of reference. It didn’t matter the game, the broadcast network, which brand he sponsored in whatever commercial, it was always Jordan that was distinct; it was always the Jumpman.
Fedor is much the same. He exists as a larger than life figure in the MMA landscape. He’s fought across so many platforms and in so many promotions, the only constant throughout his career has been that shaved head and laconic demeanor. It didn’t matter whether it was stateside on broadcast television or from Saitama, Japan. Fedor was the constant.
Such a comeback, then, is required to be bizarre and unique. The announcement elicited about the same reaction as when Kevin Randleman dumped Fedor on his head only to reverse the position into a kimura seconds later. The sheer spectacle of Fedor’s return was followed by the curiosity of the arrangement. The ‘Ooooo!’ was quickly replaced by the ‘Whaaaa?’
Though Fedor was introduced at a Bellator event and entered a Bellator cage, he won’t be competing under Bellator. He’ll be competing for an MMA startup promotion headed by former Pride FC boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara that will be working with Bellator. The show will air on New Years Eve on Spike. His opponent is shrouded in mystery (but it isn’t either of these guys) The contract is apparently for only one fight. Or something.
This is typical Fedor from a business standpoint. In a manner, it is very shrewd. His appeal in Asia is great — it’s where he is from and where he built his legacy — maybe more so than his appeal in North America (though the UFC would contend that for their own purposes). A fight in Japan would be a big ticket. By cross promoting with Bellator, he earns the benefit of North American television audience and stays relevant to the UFC or to Bellator for future negotiations. By signing on for one fight, Fedor is betting on himself. He controls his own fate. If he shows up and is some version of vintage Fedor, his negotiate position is bolstered.
The only hope now is one MMA fans are used to: the hope the fight stays intact and Fedor brings the goods. The Last Emperor is back for seconds.