Recent Sambo defeat not fazing Fedor

The strong, silent type: Fedor Emelianenko, left, prefers to let his fists do the talking. Tom Hogan/Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions

When it comes to MMA's heavyweight ranks, Fedor Emelianenko stands alone. He is even regarded by some pundits as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter.

Throughout his MMA career, Emelianenko has made winning a habit. He has participated in 29 MMA bouts, winning 28.

The only time he has left an MMA bout without his hand raised was in December 2000. An illegal elbow delivered seconds into his bout with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka during a Rings: King of Kings Tournament opened a cut over his right eye. He was deemed unable to continue, resulting in a victory for Kohsaka.

Although that placed a loss on Emelianenko's official record, due to the circumstance, many consider him an unbeaten MMA fighter.

Emelianenko's domination in mixed martial arts has made him somewhat of a cult figure. An air of invincibility surrounds him when he walks toward the ring.

But that air of invincibility might not accompany him into the ring Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Affliction pay-per-view) in Anaheim, Calif., where he will defend his World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts title against former UFC titleholder Andrei Arlovski. For the first time in years, Emelianenko will have some doubters.

The skepticism results from a loss Emelianenko suffered in November 2008. It didn't occur in mixed martial arts -- Emelianenko remains that sport's top heavyweight -- but during a Sambo tournament.

Bulgarian Blagoi Ivanov outpointed Emelianenko 8-5 in a semifinals match at the Combat Sambo World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. Emelianenko would finish third in the event.

Although the loss occurred in Sambo, it hasn't gone unnoticed. Arlovski (14-5) believes the defeat points to Emelianenko's vulnerability, even in an MMA bout.

"He says it's not important, but c'mon, let's be serious," Arlovski said recently. "He was unbeatable, like five years, six years in Sambo. When you lose something, of course it's important. I don't think he is 100 percent sure of himself."

Emelianenko dismisses Arlovski's analysis. During a news conference Tuesday in New York, the champion assured everyone he isn't deterred by the Sambo loss.

His confidence remains extremely high, and he isn't concerned with any negative opinion uttered by Arlovski. Besides, Emelianenko knows when he enters the ring Saturday night he will be at his best, which wasn't the case in November.

He trains hard for Sambo, but it's importance doesn't compare to that of mixed martial arts. Arlovski will face a totally different Emelianenko than the one Ivanov defeated.

"To be honest with you, I don't pay any attention to anybody else's words or what they're saying; it's not even on my radar," Emelianenko told ESPN.com. "I don't pay attention to any minor setbacks I have in my life.

"I always have motivation, no matter what I do. Certainly I approach MMA, this is my career, differently than I approach Sambo.

"I may not have been ready for that particular Sambo tournament; I had other circumstances and obligations. I will be fully motivated for this fight [Saturday night]."

Emelianenko must be prepared to face an opponent whose confidence continues to rise. Arlovski believes he has the skills, especially standing, to take Emelianenko's crown.

Much of Arlovski's confidence is fueled by his famed boxing trainer, Freddie Roach. Under Roach's tutelage, Arlovski has improved every aspect of his boxing game. It is Roach's position that his fighter will exploit weaknesses in Emelianenko's standup, especially his footwork.

"His hand speed has really improved much and his selection of punches," Roach said of Arlovski, who recently signed a boxing promotional contract with Golden Boy Promotions. "The biggest progress is his footwork. He fights like a little guy. He has great movement for a heavyweight, and I think it's going to be a big factor in this fight.

"[Emelianenko's] footwork as a boxer is not that great. I know he is a good puncher coming forward, but … I think we have a huge advantage in the footwork, and we can take advantage of that."

While Emelianenko concedes Arlovski is the better boxer, he doesn't expect it will play a major role in the fight's outcome. His focus is on retaining his title, and he has many ways to ensure that goal is met.

"I know that I don't have a perfect boxing style, and I know certain flaws that I have, and I'll work on those and so it is what it is," Emelianenko said. "Andrei is very quick on his feet.

"But we are not boxing, and we are not fighting Sambo. We are fighting in MMA. The beauty of MMA is that every fighter has his own unique style and preferences. It is not a beauty contest."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.