It’s been a bit more than five years since Pride Fighting Championships collapsed under the weight of its own shady business dealings.
The promotion that had been the gold standard in mixed martial arts throughout the early part of the 21st Century vanished under a shroud of scandal and corruption in 2006-07. In what would go on to become the exit strategy of choice for failed MMA impresarios, Pride’s ownership group sold the once mighty company to the sport’s new American overlords for a song in spring, 2007. Six months later, the new owners shut it down and hardcore MMA fans rightly marked the occasion as the demise of an era.
Regrettably, for many of the fighters chiefly responsible for building Pride’s legacy, the end was not quite so cut-and-dried.
For guys like Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva, their careers didn’t wrap up with the neat efficiency of a storybook ending (albeit a tragic one) when Pride shuttered its doors a half decade ago. Because this is real life and not the final scene of some movie, there was no fade-to-black, credits didn’t roll.
Instead, Pride’s two most fearsome champions awkwardly fought on, even as the MMA landscape changed around them and their skills deteriorated with age. They fought on, opting for markedly different career paths until (in one of those weird and wonderful little coincidences we occasionally get in sports) the stories of both “The Last Emperor” and “The Axe Murderer” effectively reached a shared conclusion last week.
Emelianenko never quite seemed to make peace with MMA’s brave new world. After Pride buckled, he made a series of increasingly uncomfortable pit stops in flailing organizations like BoDog, Affliction, Strikeforce and his own M-1 Global without ever setting foot inside the UFC’s Octagon. A miserably poor choice of management groups led to what seemed like a near constant stretch of contentious and eventually futile negotiations with Zuffa brass, until a three-fight skid during 2010-11 convinced the Americans to trumpet from the rooftops that they had never wanted him in the first place.
Because of this, and because he didn’t appear to care either way, Emelianenko never got the chance to match his skills against the best fighters of the new generation. Whether that was a good or bad thing probably depends on who you ask. On one hand, it allowed him to preserve his singular mystique long after it likely otherwise would have been snuffed out. On the other, when the end did come it was particularly brutal, casting him as a foil for lesser fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva and as a signpost on Dan Henderson’s march into MMA legend.
By the time he righted the ship with a trio of victories over B-listers like Jeff Monson, Satoshi Ishii and Pedro Rizzo, it felt more like an epilogue than anything else. When Emelianenko announced his retirement last Thursday after an 84-second blitzing of Rizzo on an untelevised card in St. Petersburg, Russia, he did so on his own terms, both for better and worse.
By contrast, Silva has had a much easier time adapting to a UFC-centric world, though it hasn’t necessarily landed him in a more advantageous position. For him, there were no prickly contract disputes after Pride closed and he returned to the Octagon for the first time since 2000 a scant 10 months after his final fight in Japan. He’s been a mainstay in the UFC light heavyweight and middleweight divisions sever since, has fought in the main or co-main event in seven of the eight events on which he’s appeared and five times has been honored with a financial bonus for having the "Fight of the night."
However, if there’s good news about Silva’s post-Pride UFC career, that’s probably where it ends. Truth is, he’s just 3-5 since making the jump back to the cage in 2007, has demonstrated an increasingly tenuous chin and only staved off a forced retirement by virtue of his win over Cung Le last November at UFC 139. He's still a bankable commodity for the UFC -- appearing as a coach on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” this year -- but that’s about all.
Like Emelianenko, fans have been forced to watch him transform into something less than himself during the last five years. If his unanimous decision loss to Rich Franklin in a 190-pound catchweight fight on Saturday at UFC 147 proved anything, it was that the “Axe Murderer” we knew and loved in Pride was only capable of showing himself for two of the fight’s relatively tepid 25 minutes.
Unlike Emelianenko, Silva didn’t announce his retirement last weekend (although he arguably should have), as his time as a top-tier fighter is obviously well passed. When he does finally call it quits, will he feel any more or less satisfied as Fedor about the path he chose? And how will the sport's history remember him for it?
Guess we'll have to wait and see.
At its best, Pride straddled the odd space between the final days of Vale Tudo and the comparably sterile, but ultimately preferable modernism of the Zuffa-led UFC. With one of its top champions now officially hanging it up and the other hanging on too long, any last vestiges of that era likely also flickered out last weekend.
As usual, the end of the story did not come easy for its heroes.