'This is the happiest time for me': Inside Fedor Emelianenko's last hurrah in MMA

In the last fight of his MMA career, Fedor Emelianenko will face Ryan Bader at Bellator 290 for the heavyweight title. Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA

Mixed martial arts is not what it used to be. In its early days, the sport was widely dismissed as a cringey toughman sideshow and relegated to the outcast fringe. For years, MMA was sustained by an obsessive and faithful fan base that mined fight clips from dingy corners of the internet and watched on low-def VHS tapes.

If you knew, you knew. If you didn't know, you probably didn't care to. There was something cultish about following MMA in the 1990s and early aughts, like hitting the midnight screening of "Eraserhead" or grooving to Lee "Scratch" Perry. Or watching Fedor Emelianenko smash some big, scary dude you thought was unbeatable.

That might not make sense to those who've only recently acquired a taste for cage fighting. As MMA has evolved into a quasi-mainstream attraction over the past decade or so, by which time Fedor's spotlight had dimmed, the sport's audience has expanded as well. So it's reasonable to conclude that newer fans may not get what all the fuss is about over Saturday's Bellator 290 main event, in which Emelianenko will fight for the final time (9 p.m. ET on CBS, with prelims at 6 p.m. ET on the Bellator and Showtime YouTube channels).

This is a significant moment in MMA history, not simply because Emelianenko is challenging heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in one of the two title bouts that night in Inglewood, California. (The other pits Johnny Eblen, the undefeated middleweight champ, against Emelianenko's protege, Anatoly Tokov.) Fedor still has massive appeal, and it is not about today or anything that has happened in the last decade. It runs deep into the sport's underground past, which he ruled with an iron fist. That might seem hard to fathom for those who look at Emelianenko today and see just a quiet, balding 46-year-old with a thick physique that is not at all sculpted in granite.

Emelianenko is known to his fans as "The Last Emperor," but it would be more fitting to dub him MMA's first emperor. There are other greats on whose backs (and fists and chins) the sport was built. Some from those formative years even share Fedor's worthiness of one-name name-drops -- Royce, Tito, Vitor and Randy, to name just a few. But no one has owned the regal aura of the man from Stary Oskol, Russia.

From 2000 through 2010, he fought 33 times and lost once -- a dubious doctor's stoppage just 17 seconds into a fight in Japan that remains a painful memory for longtime MMA fans. If Emelianenko had advanced in the Rings tournament that night, his next opponent would have been Randy Couture. Missed it by that much.

But not too many highlights got away from Fedor. He fought -- and defeated -- most of the greatest heavyweights of the day. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Mark Coleman. Kevin Randleman. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. The best of the big guys lined up in front of Emelianenko, and he knocked them all down.

And in case you weren't watching back then: Throughout his fighting prime, Emelianenko never had the sculpted physique of a muscleman. Same as it ever was.

Speaking with Emelianenko on Monday, I asked him which of his 40 wins was his favorite. "First fight for the belt with Nogueira," he said in Russian through an interpreter, referring to the 2003 bout in which he won the Pride heavyweight title, ending Big Nog's 14-fight unbeaten streak. "I had to activate my fighting IQ and find keys to victory. At that time, he was the best fighter in the world."

But fight results alone don't paint a vivid picture of Emelianenko. For that, it all starts with the stoic executioner's walkout, his eerily dead-eyed stare piercing his opponent's resolve before the first punch has been winged.

And lurking behind this impassive temperament is a profoundly reflective presence. Consider Fedor's response when I probed him about the fights that didn't happen. Couture? Brock Lesnar? Which fight does he most wish he could have had during the prime of his career?

"I am very happy with the way it happened," Emelianenko said. "Whatever God gave me, I was very happy with it. You don't have to think about things that never happen. You have to live in the moment and be happy with what you have."

His answers came after long pauses, making me grateful that we were on a Zoom call. Ten seconds of silence on the phone would have had me thinking that our line had gone dead. When I asked Emelianenko about his expectations for Saturday's fight, a rematch of a 35-second Bader win from four years ago, the silence felt as lengthy as that first fight. On my screen, a stone-faced Fedor pondered ... and pondered ... and then spoke.

Bader knocks out Fedor in 35 seconds

Ryan Bader hits Fedor Emelianenko with a left hook to win the Bellator heavyweight title and the Heavyweight World Grand Prix championship.

"Everything that happened last time happened very, very quickly," he said. "It didn't go my way, for sure. Of course, I didn't get any younger [since then]. But I hope, even at 46 years old, I can give him a fight."

That humility may be refreshing in a trash-talk sport, but it doesn't feel so reassuring. MMA does not usher its aging stars out the door gently. In the last year alone, revered former UFC champs Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Frankie Edgar were brutalized in their career finales. So just in case you weren't saddened enough by Bader's two-punch KO of the legend four years ago, here comes the sequel, starring a Fedor whose reflexes are now four years less sharp.

But this is the final fight Emelianenko wanted, and he's earned the right to exit through a door of his choosing. And while longtime fans should be ready to cover their eyes at a moment's notice, wouldn't it be a sweet throwback if he were to give us a glimpse of his old destructive self? We'll never see prime Fedor again, but may he still have it in him to wreak havoc for one round?

Emelianenko has won four of his past five fights, all with first-round knockouts of faded stars such as Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and a round mound of "Rampage" Jackson. Is it possible that Bader will join that concussive club? Sure, it is. He has aged, too, over the four years since the first Fedor fight. Bader is just a few months from turning 40 and could be as faded as those other late-career Emelianenko conquests.

Should Fedor pull off the implausible this weekend, don't expect him to cancel his retirement plans. "Doesn't matter what happens Saturday -- I am going to be done," he said. "I hope that soon enough, Valentin Moldavsky is going to become heavyweight champion." Moldavsky, another of Emelianenko's proteges, challenged Bader a year ago and lost a tight decision.

For the record, Emelianenko acknowledged that even a stunning victory at Bellator 290 would not send him into retirement as the No. 1 heavyweight in the world. When I reeled off a list of names and asked who is the best heavyweight on the planet, this was the one time during our conversation when Fedor did not pause to reflect. "[Francis] Ngannou," he answered immediately, with the Russian interpreter not needed this time.

With any MMA retirement, of course, there's no guarantee it's really the end of the road. Emelianenko has been here at the exit ramp before -- back in 2012, on the night he defeated former UFC title contender Pedro Rizzo in Saint Petersburg, Russia. After getting a congratulatory handshake at ringside from President Vladimir Putin, Emelianenko announced his retirement. "My family influenced my decision," he told a Russian media outlet. "My daughters are growing without me. That's why it's time to leave."

But three years later, Emelianenko returned to fighting.

I asked him how his family reacted to that.

"I was able to talk them into it," he said with a smile (after a long pause, of course).

Will he be talking his family into another return somewhere down the road?

"No," Emelianenko said without hesitation. Then, after some reflection, he elaborated: "I'm 46 years old, and the longer I do this, my injuries from the past remind me [of that]. And my wife, from fight to fight, she says, 'Listen, you have to stop doing it, keep yourself with family.'"

When asked about his plans for the future, Emelianenko talked about coaching the pro fighters on his team and working with young Russian kids just starting their MMA training. But his eyes lit up when he returned the conversation to family.

"We now will have time together," he said. "When I don't have to be training, we go for walks. When my children were young and it was nap time, I would stay with them. Same thing at night, reading them bedtime stories. This is the happiest time for me.

"Family is first. They've been waiting for me for a very long time."