The Last Emperor’s Last Stand

AXS TV/Inside MMA correspondent Ron Kruck traveled more than 5,000 miles to be part of Fedor Emelianenko’s last fight in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Fedor Emelianenko has always been an enigma.

On fight night, he was an emotionless cyborg, possessing a cold stare that could rival any great Russian Czar…but outside of the ring, he was just an ordinary guy with a warm and welcoming smile. Over the course of his career, his physique resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy more than it did an elite MMA fighter, however, his unorthodox training and striking style produced indisputable results-finishing opponents in 26 of his 34 victories and pulling off a historical run that saw the Russian icon go nearly a decade without suffering a defeat.

His business and career choices could be viewed as puzzling for those on the outside, as he elected to fight in organizations such as PRIDE and Strikeforce, instead of following almost every other PRIDE titleholder to the Holy Land of MMA…the UFC. And like any good mystery, there will always be questions surrounding the Last Emperor and his legacy in the sport. His decision not to fight in the famed Octagon has prompted heated debates among fans that will last a lifetime. Would he have dominated mixed martial art’s heavyweight division for so long if he spent his career fighting in the UFC? Is he the best heavyweight of all time, or is he a product of promotions with a weaker talent pool and favorable match-ups?

We will never know the answer to those questions, as Fedor Emelianenko decided to hang up his gloves after knocking out veteran Pedro Rizzo in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 21. I had the honor of calling the fight alongside former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver.

WARNING SIGNS

After improving to 31-1-1 with a second-round TKO of Brett Rogers in 2009, the Fedor mystique and hype machine was at an all-time high. Seven months later, his aura of invincibility would come crashing down. Over the course of the next 13 months, Emelianenko lost three bouts at the hands of Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva, and Dan Henderson. The result was his release from Zuffa-owned Strikeforce, proving that no one goes undefeated in MMA, and you are only as good as your last fight.

Emelianenko began to hint that retirement was on his mind and closer than anyone wanted to believe. As he walked past me in the bowels of the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after Bigfoot Silva eliminated him from the Strikeforce 2011 Heavyweight Grand Prix, bloodied and beaten, he looked old and tired, like a man who’d had enough of the unforgiving fight game.

Then again, any mere mortal would be on a stretcher and off to the hospital if they were on the business end of the beatdown Silva unleashed that night.

That was the last time I thought I would ever see Fedor fight. Fortunately for MMA fans, Fedor, and more importantly, his management team at M-1 Global, forged ahead, and he returned to the ring four more times after the Silva loss. Unlike aging fighters such as Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz, who ended their careers with dreadful losing streaks, Fedor rebounded admirably, earning victories over Jeff Monson, Satoshi Ishii, and Pedro Rizzo to finish his career with an outstanding 34-4-1 record.

Although those three fighters are nowhere near the top heavyweights in the sport, Fedor did what he had been doing almost his entire career-defeating the man they put in front of him. He also beat some of the sport’s best during their prime, including Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovi, Mark Coleman, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Kevin Randleman.

The day before the Rizzo fight, I caught up with Fedor before his press conference, and I was taken aback by how open and relaxed he was. Having gotten to know him fairly well after covering his free agency tour in 2007 for Inside MMA and his fight against South Korean kickboxer Hong-Man Choi on New Year’s Eve in Japan later that same year, I couldn’t remember another time he was so at ease.

When I told him I would be calling his fight, he smiled and responded, “Good.” There was the vote of confidence I was looking for.

I knew I was on his home turf and not in the U.S. anymore when the press conference began and questions and answers were only spoken in Russian. Even with my limited knowledge of the Russian language, I realized when a local reporter asked Fedor if this would be his final fight, as it created a stir among fans in attendance. Fedor just smiled.

“It’s not a fact that I will retire on June 21,” Fedor told the media, according to my translator. “We’ll see after the fight.” In typical Fedor fashion, no one knew for sure on fight night if this would be The Last Emperor’s last fight.

QUIET EXIT

Covering a Fedor Emelianenko fight for my first time in his home country of Russia, there was a noticeably different feeling inside the arena than when he fought in Japan or the United States. Russian fight fans are very similar to Japanese fans, as they would become extremely quiet at times during a fight to silently observe the action in the ring. But that would change dramatically any time a picture of the Russian icon would flash across the video screen—the sold-out crowd inside The Ice Palace in St. Petersburg would erupt with applause.

Trying to do some investigative journalism amid calling the undercard, I asked several M-1 Global employees if they thought this was going to be Fedor’s final fight, but they were all tight-lipped. There were signs, however, that began to make it feel like this was going to be Fedor’s finale, including the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the presence of Fedor’s wife and daughters sitting ringside. Then there was the unforgettable career retrospective video that was played on the JumboTron inside the arena. If this wasn’t the end…it sure felt like it.

Less than two minutes later, as Pedro Rizzo was laid-out on the canvas after Fedor unleashed a brutal stand-up attack, Fedor was congratulated and met in the ring by his brother Alexander, his wife and kids, and, of course, Putin.

Fedor addressed the crowd: “Thank God, this is OUR victory. Thank you President Putin for your support of the sport in Russia.”

That’s it? No dramatic farewell? No elaborate celebration complete with confetti and streamers falling from the arena roof? No memorable speech?

I guess he’s not finished after all, I thought. Wrong again.

It wasn’t until I went backstage following the show, and he said to me in English, “I will do interview with you,” that I knew something was up. Fedor was never a big fan of interviews to begin with and was king of the one-word answers, so when he went out of his way to say he would do an interview, I was extremely surprised.

After a quick press conference for the Russian media-and although I’m not 100 percent sure, I don’t think anyone asked him if he was retiring—he came over to me. After breaking down the Rizzo fight, I asked him if he had made up his mind about fighting again. He quietly told me…

“It’s my time, thank God, but it’s my time, I’m retiring.”

I nearly dropped my microphone, not because the news was so shocking-Fedor had been hinting at retirement for years now—but because he had chosen to confirm he was walking away from the sport during an interview with me, instead of addressing his hometown fans at the Ice Palace.

When I followed up with the question about why he felt this was the right time to walk away, he said, “I’ve got daughters, and they’re growing up without me. This is very, very difficult for me. Family is always first place for me, so this is the time. People will accept my decision. They’ve got to understand that it’s my decision, and I’ve got to go. You shouldn’t be disappointed that I’m leaving. Life is going on. I want to thank everyone who has supported me. Eventually, the time to go was coming. My time has come.”

After intriguing the MMA world for more than 12 years, 35-year-old Fedor Emelianenko decided to exit the sport without much fanfare and in underwhelming fashion. Now that I think back about it, it makes perfect sense. The unassuming fighter from Stary Oskol, Russia, preferred to call it quits in front of a handful of reporters and then disappear.

Or has he? Many Russian pundits believe that this is only a temporary decision, and he could return when M-1 Global holds its 15-year anniversary show at the end of the year.

However, it seemed like a weight had been lifted off the Russian’s shoulders with this announcement, and he acted like he had been contemplating this decision for a long time. Of course, that didn’t stop me from asking him what might convince him to come out of retirement.

“What would it take for you to come back? Maybe a rematch with Fabricio Werdum or perhaps if they could make a fight happen with Brock Lesnar?” I asked.

“I’m not promising, but anything is possible,” Fedor said.

Spoken like a true enigma.

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