When Michael Jordan first retired from professional basketball in 1993, he was a three-time NBA champion and a three-time league MVP. He returned a year and a half later to lead the Chicago Bulls to a second three-peat, and that's when he became a legend, indisputably regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time.
What helped define "His Airness," though, were his legendary rivalries with the Detroit Pistons, the New York Knicks and individual players like Dominique Wilkins.
The same can be said for other athletes considered the greatest in their particular sports: Wayne Gretzky had the Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens, Michael Schumacher had Damon Hill and Mika Häkkinen, and Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier and Ken Norton to drive them on to memorable performances.
In mixed martial arts, top-ranked heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko is perhaps the closest a fighter can come to the greatest-of-all-time label. Yet the Russian, 27-1, is denied that status by some critics, who point to the fact that he has not fought top competition recently.
Fans and experts alike should not forget, however, what earned "The Last Emperor" his aura of invincibility in the first place. Emelianenko wasn't considered the best fighter on the planet by chance. Between 2002 and 2006, he cleaned out the deepest heavyweight division in the history of the sport.
While his battles against Japanese wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita, former UFC champions Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, and Croatian kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic have provided plenty of material for highlight reels, it is his three-part feud with Brazilian Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira that is the foundation of Emelianenko's claim to be the greatest of all time.
If it weren't for Emelianenko, Nogueira, the UFC's current heavyweight champion, could probably lay claim to being the greatest MMA fighter of all time. He was the first Brazilian heavyweight not only good on the ground but also on the feet. Even though "Minotauro" never possessed the "pure" jiu-jitsu skills of, say, Fabricio Werdum, experts agree that there has never been a fighter who used his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills in an MMA environment as well as Nogueira.
Combining his jiu-jitsu training with club-fighter-caliber boxing skills, solid wrestling prowess and an unbelievable ability to take punches, the pupil of Carlson Gracie black belt Ricardo de la Riva posed an insoluble riddle for all his opponents in the first three and a half years of his career.
After submitting gatekeeper Gary Goodridge in his Pride debut and taking the championship from a reinvigorated Mark Coleman in only his second appearance for the promotion, Nogueira had emerged as the man to beat in the late summer of 2001.
He served more BJJ lessons to up-and-coming Texan Heath Herring, freakish 400-pound former NFL offensive lineman Bob Sapp and eventual K-1 kingpin Semmy Schilt. Nogueira's reputation swelled. At the rate he was going, he was expected to keep the heavyweight crown for another three to four years, if not longer.
Enter Fedor Emelianenko.
Despite amassing an impressive 9-1 record in Rings -- a star-studded promotion that was the No. 1 league in Japan before Pride -- and defeating Schilt and Herring in his first two bouts for Pride, the stocky Russian had flown under the radar with most fans. Sure, he had displayed strong wrestling and solid ground-and-pound, but was he going to pose any serious threat to Nogueira? Hardly.
The predictions were wrong.
In what was considered a big upset at the time, Fedor took down Nogueira at will and pounded on him for the entire 20 minutes of their fight. What was even more impressive, though, was the fact that he completely shut down the Brazilian's highly dangerous submission game. It appeared the antidote for Minotauro's poison had been found.
The pair met again 15 months later in the finals of the 2004 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix. In an unfortunate turn of events, they butted heads and the championship bout ended in an anticlimactic no contest. They met again on New Year's Eve 2004, and in their third and final battle, Fedor proved that he was the better man by again dominating the current UFC champion.
The second win over Nogueira, sandwiched by victories over Olympic judo silver medalist Naoya Ogawa as well as a revenge fight against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka -- the only man to defeat the Russian (albeit by a cut) -- propelled Emelianenko to the status of the No. 1 "gaijin" (foreign) ace in Japan.
A year earlier, Emelianenko had already thrown the switch businesswise by terminating his long-standing affiliation with Russian Top Team and joining the Red Devil Sport Club. With the help of his new manager, Vadim Finkelstein, he attained the financial status of fellow stars Wanderlei Silva and Nogueira and earned many times the money he had previously made with RTT.
Through his spectacular fights in Pride, Emelianenko not only became a star in Japan but also in Korea and parts of Europe, including Russia and France.
Now, against former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia at Saturday's Affliction debut event, he will try to win over fans stateside as well as reclaim his throne as the pound-for-pound greatest fighter in the sport.
Tim Leidecker is a contributor to Sherdog.com.