LOS ANGELES >> Fedor Emelianenko became a near-mythical martial arts figure two decades ago at the grey dawn of the social media age, so his earliest exploits had a tantalizing touch of mystery.
His vicious knockouts and submissions weren’t broadcast worldwide or posted on YouTube and Twitter for immediate viewing. They had to be excavated from the internet’s dark recesses, or watched on grainy VHS tapes and sketchy DVDs by devotees of a sketchy sport called mixed martial arts.
Bellator CEO Scott Coker was working for a kickboxing promotion in Japan when he first heard about the slightly pudgy, slightly undersized former Russian soldier who destroyed almost every man he touched.
“I’m like, ‘Hmm, how good is this guy, really?’” Coker said. “So then I started watching his fights, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ He was the guy with the piercing eyes that could look right through you, that lived in Russia, and they called him the Sharpshooter at that time. So you started watching him, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this guy is really good. He’s amazing.’”
The unassuming heavyweight with the lupine stare became a combat sports legend while forging a unique path through the MMA jungle. The fighter known as The Last Emperor famously never agreed to fight for the UFC, instead taking on seemingly everyone outside the dominant American promotion, but always on his own terms.
Now 46 and weary of the training grind, Emelianenko said he is retiring after he fights Ryan Bader tonight. Their bout for the Bellator heavyweight title will be the final trip to the cage for the trailblazing fighter who drew untold millions of fans to an upstart sport at his competitive peak.
“My family has been waiting for me way too long,” Emelianenko said through an interpreter. “My mom asked me to stop. She is always worried. But it’s mostly my age. … I’ll be very happy to finish it. I’m not sad at all. It’s time.”
Bader, Bellator’s 39-year-old heavyweight champ, has always been impressed by his humble opponent’s virtuosity. Emelianenko’s success fed into a beloved corner of martial arts mythology, stoking the dream that anyone can be a champion if they worked hard and learned the proper skills.
“He’s a legend of the sport, and he’s a good human being,” Bader said. “He deserves it. I know people are going to be rooting for him (tonight), and I understand it. We all want to see legends go out on top.”
This 23-year journey that began in the pre-social media shadows will end on the brightest stage: Bellator will make its debut on CBS with Emelianenko’s final bout, which also will be shown around the world from the historic Forum in Inglewood, California.
Emelianenko insisted his final fight should be against Bader, who famously wrecked Fedor with a two-punch combination knockout only 35 seconds into their first meeting, which was four years ago last weekend at the Forum. Emelianenko admits he isn’t sure what will happen when he is tested one last time, but he wants to find out.
“The pressure that I used to be able to handle, I can’t handle that anymore,” he said. “If you want to compete at the highest level with the younger fighters, you have to be 100%.”
Emelianenko’s candid admission about pressure is remarkable, since nothing in this world has ever seemed to intimidate him.
He fought largely in Japan for the late Pride promotion during the first seven years of his MMA career, building his legend with a series of vicious wins. He has fought regularly in the U.S. for Coker in the Strikeforce and Bellator promotions since 2009, but he remained a revered, mysterious figure by training and living in his hometown, 300 miles south of Moscow — and also by retiring from 2012 to 2015.
Emelianenko insists he is done with competition with this retirement, even while acknowledging he will have other opportunities. Most notably, he has thought about joining the ranks of mixed martial artists who take up boxing for big paychecks.
“I did think about it, if I can do it as they do or not,” he said with a grin. “I had those kinds of thoughts. But I want to be done with it completely.”
Emelianenko would have loved to stage his farewell bout in Moscow — perhaps even in Red Square, as Coker once dreamed — but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made it impossible. While his exploits will live online for decades, Emelianenko said it’s time to devote himself to his family, his MMA team and his responsibilities in the larger Russian MMA infrastructure.
“We spend so much time outside of our families because of sport,” Emelianenko said. “Sometimes you just call it quits and that’s it, especially when you have young kids and they’re waiting for you.”
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