Fedor Emelianenko didn’t lament his losses like his fans did, and he didn’t smite his chest as the world’s greatest fighter back when people argued he was just that. He never talked smack to his opponents, and didn’t tweet smiley faces when bad things happened to business foes.
He’s always been a picture of complicated calm that, realistically, has very little in common with American impulse. Fedor was a vault. He was unknowable. He traveled to his fights with priests who wore beards like Dostoyevsky. There was unnerving depth in his eyes, and when he spoke to you those eyes communicated the cathedral hush of his mindset. When he stepped in the cage, his expression never changed. The world could be falling down around him and he’d still look only mildly bemused.
Such was his faith in what happens.
Where did he summon the violence for that decade when he didn’t lose? Didn’t matter. He used logs, rocks and terrain in his native Stary Oskol to show up in burly, no-nonsense form. Sometimes he showed up a little flabby. Maybe most of the time. But he carried anvils.
One way to look at him was that he was a picture of poise that derived from the better qualities of martial arts. The other was that he was a cold-blooded tyrant with no conscience.
Most the time he was both. He marketed himself by barely saying an unnecessary word. This is part of what made him an almost mythological figure in MMA for the last dozen years. And it’s one of the reasons he’ll be missed.
Emelianenko retired after defeating another fading star in Pedro Rizzo in his native Russia. To watch it in the States, you had to find a stream. And just like everything with him, he didn’t make a big deal of it. It was preconceived but not fussed over. Simply put, Fedor wanted to be around his daughters, whom he said were growing up without a father. After 39 MMA bouts, Sambo titles and a dozen years of lore, he said it was time.
And as expected, it took the 35-year-old Emelianenko a minute and change to knock out Rizzo. Most people thought he’d do just that. Just like they thought he would defeat Satoshii Ishii and Jeff Monson, the guys who washed away the bad taste of Dan Henderson and Antonio Silva and Fabricio Werdum, those myth-shattering losses that told the whole truth. To hear Fedor tell it, those losses in the twilight of his career were lessons, and he took them so genuinely that it almost felt like he took them arbitrarily.
Just stuff that happens.
But you know why the whole truth stood out? Fedor never believed in his own myth like we did. He never perceived himself as invincible. I saw him after he lost to Werdum and Silva and Henderson, and it was as if he understood far better than everybody else about his own vincibility. There were never any delusions. It was heartbreakingly simplistic. Delusions belonged to us and his handlers.
So, how will Fedor be remembered as a fighter? That’s as complicated as the man himself.
There are those who will claim that he was overrated. There are those who consider him the greatest heavyweight of all time. Once again, he is probably both. Those fights in Pride with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic and Kevin Randleman were real enough at the time. When he chopped down Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski in Affliction, the accusation was also real -- Fedor wasn’t fighting the biggest names in the sport, at least not in their prime. And the failure of M-1 Global and the UFC to come to terms will forever leave the case unresolved.
Fedor’s legacy is now a matter of speculation and perception. Any you know what? When you think back on it, it’s sort of fitting. Fedor’s career has been fueled by his dominance in the aughts, his ascetic nature, the partition that existed between him and the UFC, and endless talk about where he ranks in the grand scheme. He’s always been fascinating -- winning does that -- and hype swirled around him in Russia, the States, Japan and elsewhere.
He never had much to do with it. His grand scheme was far deeper than sport. If people were carried away by their inflated versions of Fedor, he smiled. When the haters came out in droves and threw words at him like “exposed,” he didn’t disagree. With Fedor, criticism was interchangeable with praise. It’s something that other fighters can learn from. And not just fighters, but media and fans, too.
He was great? Great. He was overrated? Fine. But if to you he was the “Last Emperor,” remember that to him, he was always Fedor.
And if we can agree on anything, maybe it’s that that’s pretty commendable.