Last week I waxed whatever about Cuban boxer and fight-sport political martyr Guillermo Rigondeaux, the tragedy of whose career is that he’ll likely go down as a mere footnote when, in reality, he’s due some measure of superstardom.
This week, I’d like to do the opposite, and throw a little shade at an all-time great: Fedor Emelianenko.
I’ve written about Emelianenko before, mostly to sing praises, some of which are justified. This is a man who not only holds victories over the likes of prime-era Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring and Mirko Cro Cop, but who effectively wrecked fellow legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for life in the span of two brutal beatdowns in PRIDE, battered former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia back when that meant something, and literally KOd Andrei Arlovski, at the time rightly thought to be Fedor’s greatest challenge, right out of mid-air.
Notably, Emelianenko did all of this while looking, frankly, kind of like a grown-up baby: usually undersized in fights against fellow heavyweights, Fedor typically weighed in around 230 pounds, a good 25 pounds of which was probably made up of ice cream. He carried that weight on a 5’11’’ frame, which is only about half an inch taller than me, and I clock in about a buck-fifty post-Golden Corral. He could have fought at light-heavyweight or even middleweight if he cared to, but that was part of the mystique: this doughy, stoic Russian who could easily have been a high school social studies teacher was ritualistically dismantling world-class fighters who looked like the Marvel art staff had a Thor-drawing contest and everybody won.
Of course, as happens with most fighters, Fedor experienced a fall. Prior to it, the signs were there: he signed with Strikeforce, a major rival to the UFC before being bought out, and was immediately matched against power-puncher Brett Rogers. Fedor KOd Rogers in the second round, but not before being significantly roughed up and rocked by the heavy underdog. Prior to that, Fedor had been tagged cleanly by Arlovski in their fight, and might have even been beaten in the first round had Arlovski not elected to go for a jump-flying everything move.
In any case, it started with a loss to Fabricio Werdum, at the time considered a top-level heavyweight, though no threat to Emelianenko. But, despite being knocked down in the first round, Werdum secured a triangle choke-armbar combination and Fedor was, shockingly, forced to tap. After that, Fedor suffered a second-round TKO loss by doctor stoppage to Antonio Silva; Fedor’s right eye had swollen shut, rendering him unable to see. Finally, after losing by first-round KO to career middleweight Dan Henderson, Fedor called it a career.
Only he didn’t. Because of course he didn’t. He came out of retirement to record wins against aged punching bags Pedro Rizzo and Jeff Monson in glorified squash matches, plus a KO victory of Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii, before again announcing his retirement.
And if Fedor’s career had ended there, there wouldn’t really be much justification for writing this column. But a few months ago, he and his team announced that he would be starting a training camp to get back into fighting shape, and that he was, at the time, negotiating with both the UFC and Bellator. It was exciting on paper, but everyone who had followed Fedor’s career knew that there was no chance in hell he’d sign with the UFC. In any case, the only viable fight to offer him would be against Brock Lesnar, because he likely wouldn’t agree to any sort of long-term deal, effectively taking a title shot or contendership off the table. Bellator seemed more likely; Fedor had fought for Scott Coker when the latter ran Strikeforce, and the two seemed to have a good relationship. In addition, a freakshow fight with Kimbo Slice seemed to fit right in with what Bellator was doing these days.
But a few weeks ago, lo and behold, Fedor announced he would fight for upstart promotion Rizin Fighting, run by former PRIDE executives. It raised a few warning flags, for sure: Rizin had at that time secured no other name fighters, so Fedor’s opponent would obviously be poached from the the regional scene, bygone era or obscurity. Or, in the case of Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, all three.
Strictly speaking, Kohsaka isn’t some scrub. Though his official record stands at 28-18, he was typically fighting much larger men in the Wild West-style early years of professional mixed martial arts. He holds impressive wins over Mario Sperry, Gilbert Yvel and Pete Williams, and fought three times for the UFC, even challenging for the vacant heavyweight title in a spirited, yet losing effort to Bas Rutten. He’s also responsible for Emelianenko’s first ever professional loss: in a RINGS tournament, Fedor suffered a cut due to an accidental elbow from Kohsaka early in the fight. Since the tournament format required a winner and a loser, Kohsaka was able to advance.
Some years later, Fedor avenged the loss, completely eviscerating Kohsaka at PRIDE Bushido 6. Afterward, Fedor went on to have one of the greatest fighting careers in history, while Kohsaka went on to a couple more wins, and few losses, pro wrestling, and retirement in 2006. Obviously, there is unfinished business here.
So yeah, on New Year’s Eve in Japan, arguably history’s most dominant sports combatant will fight in a “rubber match” against an aging footnote who hasn’t fought in 10 years. Let me put this into a couple of other contexts: that would be like Nolan Ryan coming back one season after retirement to throw grenades a Pee Wee League team; it would be like Muhammad Ali retiring after the Foreman fight, then riding a time machine into the future to rid us all of Shia LaBeouf.
A lot of people are going to watch this, because a lot of people are too ashamed to admit that they’ve always wondered what would happen when you throw an elderly man into a lava pit filled with fire-retardant sharks. At this point, maybe this is Fedor’s idea of a good time; he definitely doesn’t need the money or notoriety, as he’s a much-revered figure in Russian culture as a whole, not to mention (disconcerting) BFFs with Vladimir Putin. This, combined with Fedor’s rather dated — if quietly uttered — views on women’s rights and religion, is going to tarnish his reputation on the whole.
It’s difficult to articulate why I care, or why anyone should care. The reason, I think, has to do with an attempt to circumvent disillusionment. The older we become, the more we realize that the world doesn’t work according to the rules laid out for us earlier in life, and so we constantly look for outlets, for something that operates according to an ideal, something onto which we can project our ever-diminishing optimism. For the Fedor saga, there is that added air of nostalgia, which makes it even more disheartening when the situation seems to fail us and our expectations.
At some point, the question of how often we can allow ourselves to be fooled becomes too depressing to address.