Fedor Emelianenko played the game his way in a sport that crucifies outliers, and the Russian lasted longer than anyone could have imagined.
A monumental career supported like a house overlooking a bluff on W-shaped stilts crashed into the sea Thursday, undermined, it seems, by the corrosive effects of losing. Though it's not Zuffa's contracted place to do so, it makes sense that Emelianenko's "release" from Strikeforce came from the mouth of UFC president Dana White. One imagines the only thing more satisfying to White than signing Emelianenko, which he so desperately dreamed of doing just a couple years ago, was offering the heavyweight a verbal pink slip.
And so he did. That's not the story, though.
No, Emelianenko's fall from grace -- and, to be fair, I'm not sure it's appropriate to so label the Russian's decline -- was easy to see coming.
Winning was all he had.
So important to his place in the sport was the notion of victory, that his promoter and manager, M-1, played the man up as invincible. This was the strongest -- and perhaps only -- negotiating point. And, in the end, it will be held against him when people choose to evaluate his accomplishments in MMA.
Really, it was hype and, in terms White may appreciate, smoke and mirrors. The air cleared, and veiled mirrored reflections were lifted when Emelianenko tapped out to Fabricio Werdum. In place of a Superman who told us time and again he was not: A pudgy, small, and tactically inferior heavyweight, not so unlike Mike Tyson at the end, emerged.
Where will Emelianenko go? What will he do?
If Zuffa wants no part of the Fedor business, even on the cheap under-renegotiated terms, which will assuredly happen if he remains fighting on Showtime -- the premium network, which is locked into a contract with Emelianenko, declined to offer any statement on his status -- what's next?
These are the things people wonder now.
M-1 cannot support Emelianenko's fee directly. That's why it always required a partner (some may cynically say "parasite"). Maybe there's money to be made in one-off performances in Russia or Japan. Then again, Emelianenko doesn't need the cash. He's a modest man who came from nothing. His is a familiar story for successful fighters. Where there was nothing in the bank, there is plenty; motivation and hunger replaced by contentment and a full fridge.
Business will take care of itself. Either Emelianenko turns into Mirko Filipovic, gets to fight for Zuffa, under terms he cannot dictate, lacking leverage, perceived or otherwise, and cashes in with the UFC on what's left of his marketability. Or he continues to live as a frontiersman, striking out on his own, attempting to find paydays in a way few mixed martial artists have or will be able to.
In fighting terms, Emelianenko may be an old man. In the real world, the 34-year-old is hitting his stride. Which brings us to a third option. Walk away. Leave the politics of MMA and the rigors of fighting behind. Focus on family and religion and living in an unimpressive mining town. These are the things he seems to cherish, anyhow.
Is this not the best option?
Emelianenko has nothing to prove. Insinuating the Russian was never any good is not only a disservice to him. It's a lie. If you think Emelianenko sucks, as it seems so many do, then you're suggesting the same of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Yes, you are. And that's ridiculous.
Legends of MMA do not need to end up like Wanderlei Silva or Chuck Liddell, their brains battered for our amusement. Not in any sane world, at least. To see Emelianenko reduced to this would be beyond sad. I don't think it will happen. I'd like to think, nay, hope, it's over.
Fedor Emelianenko is one of the greats, whether his end is befitting of that status or not.