Fedor Emelianenko was hungry.
It was Thursday afternoon and Emelianenko, the consensus greatest heavyweight mixed martial arts fighter ever, had half an hour to find lunch before the final prefight news conference of his career down the street from LAX. He walked through the hotel lobby with his interpreter and an associate wearing a hoodie and a blue pair of Asics. His face was plastered on walls, but nobody recognized him.
MMA has erupted in the United States over the last decade, on the shoulders of Emelianenko and other pioneers, but Emelianenko isn’t a household name around these parts.
His career peak came more than a decade ago. He became a superstar fighting in Japan when the first round was 10 minutes long and the sport was considered too gruesome for the American mainstream. He once went 27 fights without a loss over nearly a decade. He pummeled the world’s best until he was unequivocally the best — and ultimately the best never to fight in the UFC.
On Saturday, the 46-year-old Russian will fight for the final time, challenging Ryan Bader for the Bellator heavyweight title at the Kia Forum on American network television (CBS).
“I wanted to finish my career fighting the champion,” the stoic Emelianenko said through his interpreter.
It’s a rematch three years after Bader caught Emelianenko with a left hook to win the title in 35 seconds. This time, there will be the added layer of Emelianenko’s impending retirement. Bellator president Scott Coker said MMA “dignitaries” will attend to honor Emelianenko. Bader is the American on his home turf. He isn’t expecting the usual treatment.
“I know people will be rooting for him,” Bader said. “My job is to spoil that party.”
Emelianenko retired once before, after a win in 2012, but returned three years later. This time, he emphasized it’s for good. No more competitive fights. No money-grabbing exhibition bouts. Nearly 23 years after his debut and 16 years after he realized his prime was over, this is the end. Even Tom Brady, 45, called it quits before Emelianenko.
“My family has been waiting for me for way too long,” Emelianenko said.
His family almost had to wait a little longer. Emelianenko arrived at the airport in Moscow last week without a visa. He said a friend had to fly to Armenia to pick up his visa and back to Moscow to give it to him at his terminal before boarding the flight. Had it been a few days later, according to Emelianenko, the fight would’ve been canceled.
The travel challenge hints at the subject Emelianenko declined to address Thursday: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting political climate between his home country and the country hosting his last fight.
Emelianenko has publicly supported Russia President Vladimir Putin over the years. His younger brother reportedly volunteered to serve in the Russian military. In November, Emelianenko argued Russian athletes were being held as “hostages of socio-political problems between states” after they were temporarily banned by some sporting bodies around the world.
He’ll be celebrated — far from banned — Saturday on what Coker described as a “monumental” night for his company.
The UFC remains undoubtedly the top MMA organization in the world, but Bellator sits comfortably in the No. 2 spot. Recent cracks in the UFC’s foundation — heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou left the UFC (or was released, depending on whom you ask) citing unfair one-sided power dynamics — and the television deal with CBS have Coker believing Bellator could eat into the market share.
“This is the best fight roster we’ve ever had,” Coker said.
Emelianenko is, by far, the most accomplished of the group. In his prime, he was an athletic marvel and tactically advanced compared with his peers. He was light and limber for a heavyweight. He went 26-0 with a no contest from April 2001 until June 2010. He won by submission, he won by knockout.
He beat tall fighters, stocky fighters, strikers, and jiu-jitsu specialists. The summit, he believes, was defeating Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera in March 2003 in the first of their three fights.
“There was a time when I didn’t feel any opponents,” Emelianenko said. “I was just going through them. I didn’t feel them at all.”
“It was easier then,” he added with a chuckle.
Emelianenko didn’t fight in the UFC, but there were multiple negotiations with UFC president Dana White starting in 2007 when Emelianenko’s contract with Pride expired. One of the attempts included White flying to see Emelianenko on a private island.
A deal was never made. Instead, Emelianenko bounced from organization to organization as the UFC rose to unimaginable heights. Emelianenko didn’t seem too impressed. He dismissed today’s prevalent style of fighting as too defensive and condemned the constant trash talking permeating the sport.
“As a fighter,” Emelianenko said, “I want to be remembered as the fighter that earned my fans by fighting skills, not by talking trash.”
Those skills were first developed through judo and sambo before watching VHS tapes of MMA tournaments in the late 1990s and realizing he could compete with the best. That was more than two decades ago. He’s ready for the end.
“Thank God,” Emelianenko said, “it’s happening for the last time.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.