Fedor Emelianenko is no doubt on the Mount Rushmore of MMA fighters. He did not lose a bout between 2001 and 2010, including a long run as the top heavyweight in Pride Fighting Championships, and dominated in nearly every other promotion he's competed in.
Emelianenko, now 41, will take on former UFC champion Frank Mir in the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix on Saturday night in Chicago. Looking back on his career, is he the greatest mixed martial artist ever?
We asked our panel -- ESPN MMA reporter Brett Okamoto, SportsCenter host Phil Murphy, and digital contributors Jeff Wagenheim and Eric Tamiso -- for their takes.
Brett Okamoto: This is going to sound really odd, and I'm not just playing it safe with this answer -- I honestly feel you can argue both sides of this. I can make an argument that Fedor Emelianenko is the greatest fighter of all time. Just as easily, I can make an argument that he's been overrated.
That's just the result of the MMA landscape during Emelianenko's prime. There were two legitimate promotions in existence, and he didn't bounce between them. He went nearly 10 years without a loss, between 2001 and 2010, and fought some of the most memorable names in the sport. But there were several key names he never fought, and although he probably wasn't in his prime when it happened, the three-fight skid to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson shouldn't be ignored.
I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle on this one. Emelianenko is a revered figure in this sport, and a major piece of its history. Is he the greatest fighter of all time? I would say no. But he's in the conversation.
Jeff Wagenheim: It feels paradoxical to characterize an athlete as "from another era" when he's still active in this one. But that's Fedor (no "Emelianenko" necessary, thank you). When he steps into the cage on Saturday night against Frank Mir -- what is this, 2004? -- he won't simply be a 41-year-old who's descending the other side of the mountain; he'll be a fading figure who's always existed in that shadowy otherness.
Fedor is a mythic sports hero a la The Bambino, so think about this statistic for a moment: In 1920, Babe Ruth hit 54 homers, which did not merely lead the American League but were more than any other team slugged that season. And as with Ruth, you can't just go numbers vs. numbers when weighing "The Last Emperor" against the heavyweights of today. Emelianenko's 28-fight unbeaten streak, a decadelong run in which he dispatched four ex-UFC champs, is the stuff of legend.
But while Fedor did always seem ahead of his time in his well-roundedness, MMA and its athletes have evolved beyond his starry reach. Even on his best day, would the burly Russian defeat Stipe Miocic, the reigning UFC champ, who has the inside track on heavyweight GOAT? Could he keep pace with Cain Velasquez? I wouldn't bet on Emelianenko against either. But I'm placing Fedor firmly in the top five, maybe top three.
Phil Murphy: Fedor's mystique is like Michael Jordan's. Any fighter who enters the "greatest of all time" conversation, especially a heavyweight, is immediately put to the Fedor litmus test.
And it's completely warranted. Fedor went unbeaten for nearly a decade in the most volatile division in the sport, with first-round finishes over former UFC champions Andrei Arlovski, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman and Tim Sylvia. In Pride alone, Fedor went 14-0 (1 NC), with 11 finishes.
It wasn't just his résumé. Fedor had an aura. His slow walk to the ring created palpable buzz. His chilling middle-distant stare was more reminiscent of someone waiting for a bus than someone waiting to fist-fight a trained combatant. Fedor's highlight reel is equal parts heavy ground-and-pound, slick submissions and explosive straight right hands on the feet.
Time has upheld his legacy, but it hasn't embellished it. It's allowed us to recall his greatness at his peak.
Comparing mixed martial artists across both weight classes and eras is apples-to-oranges. In terms of heavyweight fighters, Fedor's career probably most analogous to Jerry Rice. We know who the best wide receiver ever is; the better debate is over who's second.
Eric Tamiso: I find it hard to believe that the best ever hasn't defeated someone in the top 10 of his weight class in nearly a decade. Fedor's last big win was against Brett Rogers in 2009, or if you didn't buy the Rogers hype, Andrei Arlovski earlier that year.
Yes, the mystique and legend of Fedor was cultivated in Japan, and it sure was special. For the first decade of his career, the GOAT argument could be made. He had some magical moments inside the PRIDE ring, his fight with Mirko Cro Cop in 2005 is one my personal favorites. Fedor even beat a man more than a foot taller than him, Hong-man Choi, via amrbar under the Yarennoka! banner. The image of Fedor hanging onto a 7-footer is something forever ingrained in my memory.
For how good the first half of his stellar career was, losing three consecutive bouts to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson remove him from the "best ever" conversation. Tack on the "win" over Fabio Maldonado and getting KO'd by Matt Mitrione, and there you go. Was he the best of the PRIDE era? Most likely, but that time is gone. PRIDE has been defunct over 11 years now. MMA is a continually evolving sport and the GOAT is someone who probably just got dropped off by their parents for their first jiu-jitsu class.