Reporters reflect on the legacy and impact of Fedor Emelianenko

Fedor Emelianenko will walk out for his 47th professional MMA fight on Saturday in Moscow. Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Editor's note: This story was originally published in October 2021.

There was a time when an appearance by Fedor Emelianenko was as big as it got in mixed martial arts. From mid-2000, when the Russian first competed as a pro, through the end of 2009, Emelianenko fought 33 times and lost only once, by a dubious doctor's stoppage. During one stretch, mostly in the vaunted Pride Fighting Championships, he was unbeaten in 28 bouts while taking on many of the best heavyweights of the day.

Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. Kevin Randleman. Mark Coleman (twice). Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (three times). Andrei Arlovski. Tim Sylvia. All but "Cro Cop" were former UFC heavyweight champions, and Emelianenko mowed down every one of them. Many fans and pundits -- mostly old-time followers who've seen a whole lot of MMA -- hold up Fedor as the heavyweight GOAT.

But now? Emelianenko is 45 years old and in recent years has not looked like a legend for the ages. He's looked like an aged legend.

Still, he's Fedor.

On Saturday, Emelianeko (39-6, 1 NC) faces Timothy Johnson (15-7) in the main event of Bellator 269. If the mere presence of Fedor does not add sufficient luster, the setting should help make it feel special. The fight card is being held in Moscow. The Russian fans will get a rare peek at their legendary countryman, born in Ukraine but the pride of Stary Oskol, a few hundred miles south of Moscow, since he was 2 years old.

This will be the sixth Bellator MMA fight for Emelianenko. After his glorious run in Pride, he bounced among various promotions before retiring in 2012 on a night in Russia when he knocked out three-time UFC title challenger Pedro Rizzo. Three and a half years later, Emelianenko returned to fighting. And by 2017 he was in Bellator, working for his old friend Scott Coker, who'd been his promoter with Strikeforce.

It's been a wild run in Bellator for Emelianenko. All five of his fights have ended in first-round knockouts. He was finished by Matt Mitrione and Ryan Bader, the latter in 35 seconds in a Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix final in 2019. Fedor was the last man standing in fights against Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and, most recently, Quinton Jackson.

Emelianenko's knockout of "Rampage" Jackson took place at Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo, which years earlier had been the setting for both men's biggest moments in Pride. This was no coincidence. The December 2019 fight was billed as the start of a Fedor retirement tour. The idea was for him to compete one last time in three locales of personal significance: Japan, Russia and the United States.

Nearly two years later, is the retirement tour still a thing? There has been no indication that Emelianenko will lay down his gloves in the center of the cage following Saturday's fight, but enough time has passed for us to wonder whether Fedor will keep going.

Either way, now is as good a time as any to remember the moments that have defined the career of the man known as "The Last Emperor." ESPN MMA writers Marc Raimondi, Carlos Contreras Legaspi and Jeff Wagenheim recount their memories of the great Fedor.

Raimondi: Finally, validation for Fedor

By the time Pride FC was sold to the UFC in 2007, there was already revisionist history being written in the West about Emelianenko and his accomplishments. Sure, Emelianenko was a top heavyweight, some UFC fans were saying, but look at some of those names on his résumé. Hong Man Choi? Zuluzinho? Yuji Nagata? Some were questioning just how great Emelianenko was despite his having gone undefeated for nearly a decade.

It really took Emelianenko's short run with Affliction to make him undeniable as a great, at least in the eyes of many Western fans. (Even now, there is a segment of UFC fans who don't give Emelianenko enough respect.) At the Affliction event in July 2008 in Anaheim, California, Emelianenko blasted Sylvia and choked him out in 28 seconds. Even UFC president Dana White, famously a Fedor detractor, couldn't help but be impressed, saying that Sylvia, one of his company's former heavyweight champions, was a "real guy."

Six months later, also in Affliction, Emelianenko stopped Arlovski with an enormous right hand in 3:14. Arlovski, whom Sherdog had ranked as the No. 2 heavyweight in the world at the time, had a five-fight winning streak and was also a former UFC heavyweight champion. "The Pitbull" looked great early in the first round against Emelianenko and seemed to be on the verge of tuning him up. Nope. Arlovski went for a jumping knee and Emelianenko absolutely crushed him with a right hand, turning his lights out.

The poise, the timing, the technique, the explosiveness. That was Emelianenko in a nutshell. And beating Arlovski also gave the Russian legend bragging rights -- he beat just about all of the best heavyweights of his generation. For me and other fans who watched Pride (I was very much just a fan back then), there was a certain sense of validation that Fedor was who we said he was.

Legaspi: The GOAT, according to Cain Velasquez

Being a fan of MMA in Mexico 17 years ago wasn't easy. There were no legal ways to watch live events. If you were lucky, you could buy UFC or Pride DVDs while on a trip, or maybe get them by catalogue delivery six to eight weeks after their release.

I started covering MMA in 2010, when Cain Velasquez became the UFC heavyweight champion. Because he is Mexican-American, that is the moment when the sport became a thing in Latin America. As I followed Velasquez, I heard him answer the same question dozens of times: His heavyweight GOAT was Fedor without a doubt, and Velasquez expected to fight him at some point in order to prove himself to be the best.

Because of Velasquez's praise for Emelianenko, I got hooked on watching "The Last Emperor." I watched his Pride days almost a decade after those fights happened, on tape. My favorite ones occurred between 2004 and 2006, when Fedor beat arguably the best class of heavyweights in the history of the division. He went on an amazing streak.

I can't say I have a favorite specific Fedor memory. It was just a general love for how he fought -- the violence, the pace on his striking for a small heavyweight, the power on his ground-and-pound and the smooth transitions on the ground to armbars or kimuras. These are things that make his prime years feel special even today, with the heavyweight division now showcasing the amazing power of Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane's impressive standup technique.

Velasquez vs. Fedor was a dream fight, and maybe it's a good thing that it stayed like that. It would have been hard for a fight to live up to the expectations of a matchup between those two in their prime.

Wagenheim: The aura of a cult superhero

Throughout his decade-long run of greatness, Fedor was a hazy, mythical figure for me. That's because practically every performance during his 28-fight unbeaten streak happened in Japan, mostly in Pride FC. Back then, it was challenging enough for a fan in the United States to keep up with the way-out-on-the-sports-fringe UFC, much less a fight card halfway around the world. When I did manage to catch a Fedor fight, it was either on a perpetually buffering middle-of-the-night stream or on a DVD or even VHS tape rented at the video store in my neighborhood many months after the bout took place.

Despite all of this, and perhaps in some ways because of how difficult he was to follow, Fedor had the aura of a cult superhero. So when the opportunity finally came to see the man perform in person, I could not pass it up. It was 2011, and by then Emelianenko was in Strikeforce, set to compete in a Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament. The setting was the Meadowlands in New Jersey, which held personal significance for me as a longtime Giants season ticket holder. I had experienced many glorious sports moments in these swamps, and seeing Fedor at the arena right across the parking lot from the football stadium was going to add one more big one.

Less than seven months earlier, Emelianenko's unbeaten run had come to a shocking end when Fabricio Werdum submitted him in barely a minute. Fedor had just got caught. That was the prevailing narrative, anyway. And the continuation of that Fedor-centric narrative posited that he now was returning to reclaim his supremacy among heavyweights. His opponent, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, was in for a beating. Or so we thought.

It was a beatdown, all right, but Fedor was on the receiving end. Silva was a more than 5-to-1 betting underdog, but the more telling number came at the weigh-in: "Bigfoot" was the bigger man by 34 pounds. And on fight night the brawny Brazilian used every ounce of that advantage to trap Emelianenko underneath him for a ground-and-pound battering that by the end of Round 2 left Fedor's right eye puffy, purplish and fully closed. The fight was waved off. In that inconceivable instant, the crowd of 11,287 at Izod Center (now Meadowlands Arena) went from boisterous to stunned silence. The great Fedor hadn't been caught this time. He and his aura had been smashed.