For the longest time, the consensus was that big men ruled combat sports.
Muhammad Ali paved the way in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the help of Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield led the charge in the 1980s and 1990s, while Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury now represent the modern era of boxing’s “big men.”
Meanwhile, in mixed martial arts (MMA), the land of “big men” gained traction with Fedor Emelianenko, the man many have dubbed, “The Heavyweight G.O.A.T.” His stoic, calm — almost bored-looking — demeanor fooled the naked eye, painting the picture of a man who wanted no part of the fistfight that loomed around the corner.
Once he stepped foot into the combat zone, however, the hard truth was soon revealed in a most vicious, violent and entertaining way.
Ahead of his retirement fight and rematch against Bellator MMA Heavyweight champion, Ryan Bader, in Bellator 290’s main event this weekend (Sat., Feb. 4, 2023) in Los Angeles, Calif., we spoke to a few men who faced Fedor to give us their insight into what it was like to fight “The Last Emperor,” and the legacy he will leave behind once the dust settles in “The City of Angels.”
Fedor spent the majority of his fighting career in Saitama, Japan, enjoying a terrorizing reign as Heavyweight champion and — along with Wanderlei Silva — becoming the famous face of PRIDE FC. And during his undefeated reign, the Russian Sambo specialist bested the best big men in the business at the time such as Mirko Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Mark Hunt, among others.
It was under PRIDE FC’s banner that made a name for himself because, at the time, the Japanese-based promotion was the end all, be all in MMA. Though Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) had the spotlight stateside, if fighters wanted to truly test themselves in the sport, they had to make the trek over to “The Land of The Rising Sun” to prove their mettle.
And Fedor did it in spades.
Years before Dan Henderson (another PRIDE FC legend) and Emelianenko faced off under the now-defunct Strikeforce banner in 2011, the two heavy-handed bruisers spent time running in the same circles in Japan, sharing a total of four cards together, including PRIDE 25, PRIDE Shockwave 2004, PRIDE Shockwave 2005 and PRIDE 32.
While most fans from the outside looking in saw the same stone-faced and calm warrior in front of the cameras night in and night out, some often wondered what the Russian pugilist was like behind closed doors and away from the spotlight.
To hear “Hendo” tell it, we weren’t missing much.
“He was pretty much the same all of the time,” Henderson told MMAmania.com. “You did get a smile out of him here and there. But, I spoke a little bit of Russian with him because I had been to Russia a lot of times back in the day for wrestling.”
Henderson revealed Team Fedor’s post-fight ritual, which he himself took part in on occasion.
“Most of the time when Fedor was there his brother [Alex] was there and he was a lot more social,” Henderson said. “I would talk to his brother quite a bit, but Fedor would crack a smile here and there. His coaches would always bring a bottle of vodka, and we’d take shots in the back after the fights.”
Aside from sharing some of Russia’s finest (and perhaps strongest) vodka, they shared a few common opponents, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, with Henderson going 1-1 against “Big Nog,” and Fedor 2-0-1. Henderson later revealed that the opportunity to face each other in the ring never materialized during MMA’s heyday, even though the Japanese-based promotion was big on Openweight fights.
“Never in PRIDE,” Henderson explained. “They did call me last-minute to fight ‘Big Nog’ because I beat him before that. I don’t think it was ever a thought for me to ever fight Fedor in PRIDE … and for him either.”
For many, fighting in PRIDE meant combatants were the best of the best, and some say it was the best era in the sport. Matt Mitrione — who fought Fedor in 2017 — shared that sentiment. So, when it comes down to brass tacks, the fact that Fedor never fought inside UFC’s Octagon doesn’t mean much because he was fighting the best in his prime.
“I don’t know if I really thought about that,” Mitrione told MMAmania.com. “But, I don’t think it does [affect his legacy]. I think he fought the best that MMA almost ever had to offer in PRIDE and in its rules, the most gangster era in MMA. I think all MMA should be Japanese rules, but it’s not. They don’t reward complacency rather than going for the kill.”
PRIDE was notorious for docking fighters a portion of their pay for non-action, which led to several memorable fast-paced bouts. And even though Emelianenko defeated tremendous wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman inside the PRIDE ring, “Meathead” says it could’ve been different in other organizations.
“Fedor would have been a victim of Coleman or Randleman [in other rule sets] because they would hold have just held him down,” Mitrione surmised. “So someone like Cain [Velasquez], though, he was a gangster and he would have given Fedor trouble and been able to ground and pound him.”
An all UFC vs. PRIDE event was a fight fans’ dream, but other than Chuck Liddell going over and losing in the PRIDE Middleweight tournament in 2003, we never got close to such an extravaganza. Henderson, however, says Fedor would’ve likely prevailed if he took on UFC’s best at that time.
“When he was Heavyweight champion they only had two weight classes in PRIDE, so they had a lot more depth in each of those two weight classes than UFC did,” Henderson explained. “And they pulled more from a worldwide base rather than mostly Brazil and USA with some Europeans back then.
“PRIDE was more diverse, worldwide,” he continued. “So, I would say PRIDE had better fighters in those two weight classes than UFC did.”
Fedor’s last fight inside the PRIDE ring occurred in 2006 and left the promotion with a stellar 14-0-1 record. Henderson — who held the Middleweight and Welterweight titles simultaneously — last fought for the promotion at PRIDE 33 in 2007, which proved to be the last event ever before UFC bought out the company in March of that year and ultimately put it out to pasture after absorbing most of its top talent (Emelianenko excluded).
Fedor was never the biggest guy at Heavyweight, oftentimes going in as the smaller man. Many wondered just how much greater his record would have looked if he was in better shape, or, even if he dropped down to 205 pounds.
Indeed, one can only foam at the mouth imagining the wars we would have witnessed if Fedor faced off against the likes of a prime “Shogun,” Wanderlei Silva or Rampage Jackson.
“I think he would have done very well at Light Heavyweight,” Chael Sonnen — who took on Emelianenko in 2018 — told MMAmania.com when pondering which weight class the Sambo specialist would’ve succeeded the most in.
“I think Heavyweight was the smarter move and I think he was 36-1 at one point,” Sonnen explained. “The way he could control size and as hard as it was to take him down. He was even harder to hold down. His takedowns were unique because he didn’t come out, fake a shot, and go for the double leg like St-Pierre. They all had to do with the upper body, unique techniques.”
Aside from his great wrestling and striking, Fedor had another unmatched weapon for which most of his foes were unprepared.
“Endurance was a big thing with Fedor — he could put a pace on you that nobody could match,” Sonnen said. “There are not many guys who could weaponize pace, and there are not many guys in the sport at all who can make a weapon out of pace. I think it served him better with the big guys.”
Before Sonnen took on Fedor at Bellator 208, “American Gangster” admitted he eyed “The Last Emperor” from time to time, and his size outside of the cage compared to inside was noticeable.
“He stands a little under six feet tall and when I was around him in press conferences and all, you kind of eyeball him a little bit and say, ‘Man this guy is not so big. Maybe size isn’t going to be a thing against this guy.’
“And he fought some of my friends over time — [Dan] Henderson, Matt Lindland, Kevin Randleman — and he sure looked big against those guys,” Sonnen continued. “Regardless of what the scales said, he has a way of looking big.”
Henderson, meanwhile, competed for his entire career at 205 pounds and faced the best of the best in PRIDE and UFC, so he has an idea of what kind of damage an in-shape Fedor would have done had he dropped down a weight class.
“He would have done very well,” Henderson remarked. “He wasn’t too big and he was very quick for a Heavyweight, so he wouldn’t have been slow at Light Heavyweight. I think having to trim down and get in better shape would have made him an even better fighter.
“Not that he was ever too tired when he fought at Heavyweight, but he never had to fight the distance that much,” Henderson concluded.
While many fighters idolized the legend from Stary Oskol, fighting him must have been a dream come true, an illusion, almost. For Mitrione, it was anything but. It wasn’t that “Meathead” didn’t respect “The Last Emperor.” He did. It was just that Mitrione was too busy with his professional football career while Fedor was knocking heads in Japan in the prime of his fighting career.
“It’s because I played football and I was never a fighter,” Mitrione explained. “So, since I was a football player I was never really enthralled by the mystique of Fedor. There was a time when I didn’t know much about him early on, but I knew the name of Fedor. It was never really a legacy to me, I was just fighting some other dude.
“I think it also helped me because I never had that adoration for him like everyone else did before I fought him,” he continued. “It was another day at the office, I just got paid more.”
For Henderson, despite facing several living legends of the sport such as the aforementioned Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Quinton Jackson, Anderson Silva, and Wanderlei Silva, among others, Emelianenko is right at the top of the list.
“He’s right at the top of the guys I feel I fought and I have beaten,” Henderson said. “So, he is up there at the top of the list as far as biggest accomplishments. And not just about the win, but it was because of who he was and I have a lot of respect for him as a fighter and how he represented the sport, and how he helped the sport grow to what it is now.”
According to Sonnen, despite some of the things UFC President, Dana White, told the media about Fedor and his “overrated legacy,” deep down he was actually quite complimentary of the long-time veteran.
“Dana has always spoken that way about him and shown him the respect,” Sonnen said. “When I was getting ready to fight Fedor, Dana sent me a text and he didn’t say, ‘You are fighting one of the best ever.’ He wrote me in very clear words, ‘You are fighting the greatest Heavyweight of all time.’”
Fast forward four years after PRIDE 33 in 2007 — the final event for the promotion — Henderson and Fedor’s paths would finally cross under the Strikeforce banner in July 2011. Henderson was 2-1 with the promotion at the time and was coming in on a two-fight win streak, while Fedor had lost his previous two against Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva, as hard as that may be to believe now.
“I did the same thing I normally do, which is to try to stalk him down and put him up against the fence, beat him up a little bit, and wear him out, especially someone as dangerous as him,” Henderson explained regarding his gameplan going into the fight.
Of course, his playbook went out the window immediately because both men came out swinging for the fences from the jump, looking for the homerun shot to call it a night early. In their first exchange, Henderson tagged Emelianenko with a huge left hook that sent the big man back-pedaling briefly.
“He came out to take my head off and so then it was me doing the same in self-defense,” Henderson explained.
After exchanging wild strikes early on, Henderson managed to get control of Fedor up against the fence and started to soften him up with shots to the body. Once they separated, the punishment Emelianenko suffered as a result of the left hook started to become visible.
Moments later, Henderson found himself on his back after “The Last Emperor” clipped him with a barrage of punches, forcing him to go on the defensive, albeit for a brief moment.
“He was rushing me and I was kind of on my heels, backing up and bent over, and he kind of caught me with a shot that slid down my face and it actually split my cheek a little bit,” Henderson explained. “It wasn’t a solid shot, but I was in defense, back-pedaling mode and then he sat me on my ass.
“I wasn’t hurt at all, really, but he did knock me down mostly because he was bum-rushing me,” he added.
Seconds later, “Hendo” had the upper hand after pulling off a slick sweep, which allowed him to swing under Fedor’s armpit and tag him with a huge uppercut that forced the mighty Russian to go limp. After eating two follow-up shots in a matter of seconds, Emelianenko managed to turn around, almost waking up from the very brief nap.
By then it was too late because referee, Herb Dean, was already pulling Henderson off and calling the fight, much to the dismay of Emelianenko, who stated after the bout he felt the stoppage was early.
“I think it was early,” Fedor said shortly after the fight. “I don’t want to say anything bad about the referee or anything, but it seems to me that it was early. I was clearly hit, but I wasn’t hit flush, directly and I could have continued but the referee chose to stop the fight.”
In hindsight, Henderson says he wished Dean would’ve either stepped in more convincingly or let the fight go on a few more seconds to erase any and all doubt.
“When it happened I did tell Herb Dean that he came in not-so-aggressive to stop it,” Henderson recalled. “If he would have come in right when he was face-planted on the canvas, it would have been different. He kind of came in and was pushing me a little bit, but I wasn’t thinking he was stopping the fight, but I wasn’t able to land my punches anymore to finish it the rest of the way.
“But I did tell him I’d rather he came in a lot harder and stopped it right then and there wouldn’t have been any question,” Henderson added. “But, by the time he came in, Fedor was already in recovery. Dean was making me miss my punches, so I would have rather him let it go five more seconds or stop it aggressively when Fedor face-planted because he was out right then. You can’t really face-plant yourself on purpose,” he added with a chuckle.
In a rather bold move, Sonnen threw his name in the hat to take part in Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2018. After defeating Quinton Jackson at Bellator 192, “American Gangster” was then paired up with Fedor at Bellator 208.
Once in the cage, there was one thing that caught the former two-time UFC Middleweight title contender off guard.
“I did not think he could be faster than me because the lighter guy is generally the faster of the two,” Sonnen explained. “I was pretty sure that I could control some of that.”
“He hit me with a missile, which is how I always describe that punch,” Sonned said. “He hit me with a missile five seconds in. And the only reason I got up is, and you have to understand that I had never been knocked down in a fight up until that moment. In 49 fights I have never been knocked down.
“So, as I am falling to the canvas, I am doing the math in my head and realize that this will be the fastest knockout in MMA history, so you got to make it through this moment,” Sonnen added.
“People always say the punch that hurts the most is the one you don’t see coming and, I guess so because I have seen every punch coming my way except that one. It was so fast, his hands were down and I was the one stalking him.”
The fight ended via first round knockout in favor of Emelianenko (watch highlights).
It wasn’t until after his pro football career ended that Mitrione tried out for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and ultimately parlayed his run into a seven-year career before jumping to Bellator, where he was eventually matched up with Emelianenko at Bellator NYC in 2017.
Early in the fight, both men went for a punch simultaneously, with Fedor throwing a right hand and Mitrione a left. Both connected and both men went crashing to the canvas in the ultra-rare double knockdown.
But, it was “Meathead’s” strike that landed a bit more flush.
“I wasn’t dazed, but it was surprising because it happened so fast,” Mitrione explained. “And it wasn’t his power that got me, it was his speed and how incredibly fast he hit me and I couldn’t prepare for it.”
Almost immediately, both looked to get up, but Mitrione was just a tad bit quicker and clipped the former PRIDE FC champion with a few follow-up shots to put an end to the fight just 74 seconds in. While he was more than happy with the win, “Meathead” admits he would have liked the fight to go on a bit longer.
“In every way possible, yes, I do wish it went a bit longer,” he explained. “But, I don’t get paid by the punches so I’ll take the knockout punch. But overall, absolutely, I would have loved to test my mettle against Fedor.”
In 2019, Fedor took on Ryan Bader for the vacant Heavyweight crown in the finale of the Grand Prix. But, the fight was over as quickly as it began after “Darth” dropped “The Last Emperor” with a solid shot, and then finished him off with some nasty follow-up blows 35 seconds into round one.
Since then, Fedor has scored back-to-back first round knockout wins over Rampage Jackson and Timothy Johnson, which led him to receive a rematch against Bader. Should Fedor prevail this weekend, it perhaps leaves the promotion with no other choice but to possibly put on another Grand Prix.
Of course, Bader has no plans on giving up his title, and Mitrione — who fought both men — doesn’t think he will.
“It’s strange that they would give Fedor a wrestler to finish his career, and it’s for the title so it doesn’t make any sense at all,” Mitrione said. “If Bader wins then they will have to do another Grand Prix and it might take a few years to work that out.
“I don’t think Bader knocks him out standing up, but I think Bader gets it done on the ground,” Mitrione predicted. “Bader has a great shot. Back in the day, Fedor was a killer, and a great wrestler, he is great in Sambo. Fedor is a gangster, but I see Bader at the top of his game and is an extremely good wrestler, he will take Fedor down and his ground and pound is going to come in heavy and elbows will open him up. It’s tough to do that against a gangster like Fedor, but I see it happening.”
According to Sonnen, the championship rematch is all bout revenge more so than trying to ride off into the sunset with a title.
“We did not get here by Ryan Bader asking for this one,” Sonnen said. “We got here by Scott Coker suggesting this one. We got here by Fedor pleading, politicking and navigating, This is the one he wants back.”
One of the biggest knocks on Emelianeko’s career is that he never competed inside the UFC’s Octagon, despite some attempts from Dana White to get him on board. It’s because of that very reason that many feel Emelianenko’s G.O.A.T. status is questionable.
Henderson, though, says it’s hard to argue against his former stablemate because when it comes to championship runs in either UFC or PRIDE, Fedor held a title the longest in the division.
“Heavyweight’s kind of turn over the championship a lot quicker than most divisions, just because they hit harder, are more dangerous, and get knockouts easier,” he explained. “He held that Pride belt longer than probably any other Heavyweight did whether it was UFC or PRIDE, so he held it the longest.
As far as White’s feelings towards Fedor, they aren’t exactly a secret. He has stated time and again that he tried to get Fedor in UFC, but even his best big-money offers weren’t good enough for the Russian and his former management team.
“I really don’t hate Fedor,” White said in a 2012 interview. “His management made the biggest f—k-up in the history of all sports. We flew down there and tried to make Brock Lesnar vs. Fedor and it was for big … big money.
“They f—kin’ laughed at it and I told them, and he’ll lie if you ask him this, I told him and he knows I f—kin’ told him — not Fedor, Vadummy — I told Vadummy, ‘You’re one punch away from being worth zero,’” White continued. “He didn’t take it. They thought they were too cool and too slick and too f—kin’ funny. Like I said, they’re not laughing now.”
In 2020, White reiterated that one of his biggest regrets as UFC president was not being able to lock down a fight contract with Emelianenko.
“The only fight that I wanted to make that was never made was Brock Lesnar vs. Fedor Emelianenko,” he said. “We were going to do it at Texas Stadium. But, I couldn’t get a deal done with Fedor, so it never happened.”
A few years later, White chimed on Fedor continuing to fight at his age … and it wasn’t exactly nice.
“Should I not see him as overrated because he knocked out Tim Johnson?” White qipped. “I don’t think one way or another about it.
“I saw last week or a couple of weeks ago where Fedor said, you know, ‘This guy’s all about money,’” he added. “First of all, I don’t even know Fedor. Fedor doesn’t know me. We met one time. His statement was I was all about money? He should have been more about money when we made you that offer wherever the f—k we were, whatever island that was we were on. And you wouldn’t still be fighting at 45 years old.”
So, while it would have been nice to see Fedor inside the Octagon, Sonnen says it wasn’t necessary to complete his career.
“I don’t think he was questioned in that manner, but had he been over there and gotten more wins, that would have been wonderful,” Sonnen explained. “The more wins the better, but in his very unique situation, I don’t think anyone is going to put an asterisk next to that. He was the best in the world and those guys that had those championships will be the first to tell you that.”
Fight fans never got to see Fedor compete against some of UFC’s best such as Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez, but he did eventually earn first round stoppage wins over two former UFC champions (Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski) under the short-lived Affliction banner.
As far as Henderson is concerned, the fact that Emelianenko never fought inside the UFC cage won’t affect his legacy.
“I don’t think it hurt it at all,” Henderson said. “Back when he was the PRIDE champion I think the world’s best were fighting there and he was at the top. There was a debate as to who had the better fighters between PRIDE and UFC. Look at ‘Big Nog,’ he came in and won the UFC belt.”
Sonnen, meanwhile, argues legacy is a tough thing to define.
“Legacy is always a tough one and it gets very misguided in the short term,” Sonnen said. “That night, that week that month and it is over before you know it and we only remember the good stuff. I look at in wrestling with the guys I looked up to, who won Worlds, Olympic championships, they stuck in there too long.
“They hung out and turned into guys at tournaments who would just get beat,” he continued. “But, I don’t remember that. I remember the Worlds, the Olympics, so legacy can be really funny one. I don’t think they are going to talk about Fedor’s losses when he is gone. They are going to miss him and talk about the highs, so I do not think it will affect his legacy if he doesn’t go out with a win and wins the championship on Feb. 4.”
For those who think Emelianenko hung around a bit too long and possibly tarnished his legacy, Sonnen seems to disagree. On the contrary, he appreciates that Fedor is still competing at a high level and has the rare chance to go out on top as a champion.
“I got to tell you that I don’t like when people talk about the way people go out,” Sonnen said. “He can’t win here. Let me give you another example. Khabib called it a day at 29-0. So, many people are upset because of how much he left on the table, how much juice was left there if he wanted to keep on squeezing and you just don’t know.
“You have to make a choice: Am I going to leave something on the table or leave too late?” Sonnen continued. “There is no in-between. You have a guy like Fedor who won the world, made the money, made the relationships, formed his team and got the respect, and did everything he could.
“But, he had one thing that most other guys didn’t have, that Khabib didn’t have, that most all guys before him we started to second-guess, he had a love for the sport, the passion to compete, and the will and desire to continue on and not turn the page,” he concluded.
So, as Emelianenko prepares for his final fight in a rematch against Bader in a few days, Henderson, Sonnen and Mitrione offered some parting words for the greatest Heavyweight of all time.
“He could have quit at 27 years old, but there are some guys who just love the sport and they want to stay on the field and are willing to take the lumps in exchange for not leaving any memories, any hopes, accomplishments,” Sonnen said. “I think that’s an honorable thing and it shouldn’t be questioned that he stayed in there too long. We are fortunate to have him and that’s really how I feel about him, I really do.”
To hear Mitrione tell it, Emelianenko will go down as the best Heavyweight in the sport who competed in the hardest era of the sport.
“You have to go be eras,” Mitrione explained. “I think Fedor is the greatest Heavyweight of the Japanese MMA era, which I think was the most gangster era in MMA.”
Henderson — who perhaps knows Emelianenko more than any of the three men — says win, lose or draw, no one can (or should) take anything away from the “Last Emperor’s” laundry list of accomplishments in the hurt business regardless of the outcome of his farewell fight.
“Whether he goes out with a win or a loss, we can’t erase what he has done in the sport,” Henderson said.
Bellator 290 goes down this Saturday night (Feb. 4, 2023) inside Kia Forum in Los Angeles, California. For complete live streaming results click here.