The Pride Fighting Championship was founded in 1997, a month shy of four years after the UFC opened for business. The newcomer organization, based in Japan, quickly overtook the UFC in popularity. The UFC was banned on cable television at the time and it was illegal in many U.S. states. Pride had the Japanese flair to it along with a series of great fighters.
Two of the men who helped make it what it became are retiring within two weeks of each other.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who became one of the biggest names in the sport in 2005 when he went 5-0 and won Pride’s middleweight grand prix, retired following a loss to Ihor Potieria at UFC 283 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He went out with a 27-14-1 record, won the UFC light heavyweight title and had the Pride grand prix tournament win.
On Saturday in the main event of Bellator 290 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, Fedor Emelianenko will compete in his final bout when he rematches Ryan Bader for the championship, ending a career that began on May 21, 2000.
While Rua’s greatest success came in Pride — he was 4-1 before joining the organization, 12-1 in Pride and then 11-12-1 in the UFC — Emelianenko’s success spanned promotions. Emelianenko was 10-1 before joining Pride, 16-0 with a no-contest in Pride and then 14-5 after Pride was purchased by the UFC.
Emelianenko never fought in the UFC which, around 2006 became the world’s leading MMA promotion, so he missed a lot of the great fighters like Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez, Stipe Miocic, Daniel Cormier, Francis Ngannou, Junior dos Santos and others. Though he was scheduled to fight Josh Barnett several times, those two didn’t meet, either.
But he was the face of the era when MMA began to hit the mainstream and grow in popularity. The respect he’s engendered from his peers will be evident on Saturday when fighters such as Frank Shamrock, Renzo Gracie, Royce Gracie, Couture, Coleman, Chael Sonnen, Barnett and Matt Hughes, among others, will enter the cage after the bout to participate in a ceremony honoring his career.
Emelianenko was the biggest star of the biggest MMA promotion of his prime. And as he heads into retirement with a 40-6 record with a no contest that includes 16 wins by knockout and 15 via submission, it’s fair to try to determine his place in MMA history.
Asked if he believed Emelianenko deserved to be considered one of the Top 5 or Top 10 MMA heavyweights of all time, Cormier, a UFC Hall of Famer and ex-heavyweight champion, said, “He is for sure. Not the GOAT, though.”
Bellator president Scott Coker, who has become a close friend of Emelianenko, started as a fan. He said he believes Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight ever because of his varied skill set and his longevity.
“I lived that era and I watched that era, and I know there are a lot of great fighters but if you look at his overall body of work compared to other athletes, it’s unmatched,” Coker said. “He’s still doing it. He’s still knocking people out [at 46 years old]. He’s still super fast. Has that diminished a bit? Yeah, but he’s at that point where he’s finally going to retire. … He had all the tools. He could submit, he could wrestle, he could fight and he had great stand-up.”
Coker promoted a lot of kickboxing and K1 earlier in his career at a time when Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic was considered one of the game’s elite strikers.
Coker said he was shocked by the way Emelianenko dealt with Filipovic’s striking.
“Mirko was one of the greatest strikers in the history of striking fighting in K1 all those years and doing kickboxing all those years,” Coker said. “He made his transition to MMA and he fought Fedor. That was a big, big fight and I didn’t get to watch it live [in person] but I was up until 2 in the morning watching on TV. Fedor out-struck Mirko Cro Cop. He pressed him and pushed him and out-hustled him. That made me a believer seeing this guy could strike with the world’s best knowing everything else he could do.”
The quality of athletes is vastly better now than it was from the 2003-09 span when Emelianenko was at his peak. Emelianenko was 19-0 with a no-contest in that period and had two wins wins each over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mark Coleman, and victories over Pedro Rizzo, Kevin Randleman, Filipovic, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski.
Emelianenko was 7-1 against men who held UFC titles. He beat Nogueira and Coleman twice each and had other wins over Sylvia, Arlovski, and Randleman. He lost to Fabricio Werdum in a 2010 match in Strikeforce, ending a 27-bout winning streak that extended more than 10 years.
Nogueira, Coleman and Randleman are all members of the UFC Hall of Fame.
The best, and most dominant heavyweight in history some believe is Velasquez, who knocked out Brock Lesnar to win the UFC heavyweight title on Oct. 23, 2010, at UFC 121 in Anaheim, California. Velasquez was supremely well-rounded, but he suffered injuries and didn’t have nearly the prime that Emelianenko had. Velasquez retired with a 14-3 MMA record and a 4-2 record in UFC title fights.
Stipe Miocic often garners that kind of recognition, but he, too, hasn’t had the lengthy run like Emelianenko. Miocic is 20-4 with two wins over Cormier, a win over Ngannou, Werdum, dos Santos, Alistair Overeem and Arlovski. Miocic is 6-2 in UFC heavyweight title fights.
Emelianenko has fought far longer than most. He’s gone 4-2 after turning 40, but was 36-4 before turning 40.
He’s done enough to be in whatever Hall of Fame there is for MMA, and he clearly ranks among the best to have ever done it. It’s not like 2005 is some ancient time, either.
Win or lose on Saturday in his finale against Bader, one thing is certain: Fedor Emelianenko is a fighter for the ages.