LOS ANGELES — Fedor Emelianenko competes at Bellator 214 on Saturday at The Forum, which is all the reason one needs to tune in … right?
That’s kind of the sales pitch on “The Last Emperor” at this point in his career. Emelianenko, who will fight Ryan Bader in the finals of Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix, is MMA royalty. He has that mystique about him.
And if you’re a fan of MMA, when it’s time for Emelianenko to compete, you pay your respects to the heavyweight GOAT and you tune in. You care.
I will admit, however, that caring about Emelianenko’s fights has sometimes been difficult over the last three years.
Emelianenko announced his retirement from MMA in 2012, only to return to competition in 2015. He’s done quite well since — compiling a record of 4-1 — but it hasn’t always been clear why he’s still around.
And Emelianenko, for his part, offers no help on that. He is the same stoic individual ahead of every fight. There is no doubt an audience would relate to him more if it knew he was competing because he had an undying love of the sport, or because he wanted the chance to fight one last specific opponent, or because he feels capturing a title would cement his legacy … but with Emelianenko, you never really know.
At times during fight week, it has almost seemed like he’d rather be anywhere else.
“This is not a passion. This is a necessity,” said Emelianenko, when asked this week if he still feels a passion for martial arts. “This is to come and stand for the honor of your country.”
Viewership of Emelianenko’s last two fights suggest others may be asking for more reason to watch, too. His 2018 bouts against Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen drew above average numbers on Paramount Network, but neither was a major success.
None of this is to suggest Emelianenko, 42, should retire (competitively, he looks fine), or to suggest he is no longer worth tuning in for. His return has made for kind of a unique viewing experience, though. Every Emelianenko fight feels … the same. An opponent offers his respect. Emelianenko says virtually nothing in the days (or months) leading up to the fight. A calm, almost disinterested-looking man walks to the cage under a blinding set of pyrotechnics. A fight occurs. Everyone goes home.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but Emelianenko was so great over the course of his career that he set the bar very high. Watching him compete felt historic and special. During this chapter of his career, his appearances have lost some of that.
Bellator president Scott Coker deserves credit, however, for crafting the situation Emelianenko goes into this weekend. Saturday’s matchup against Bader (26-5) interests me more than any other Emelianenko fight since he came out of retirement.
Bellator smartly arranged the tournament bracket so Emelianenko could face a historical opponent in Mir, a brilliant promoter in Sonnen and now a legitimate light heavyweight champion, in his prime, in Bader. It’s a fight Emelianenko should probably lose — but there would be something truly satisfying about the “MMA royalty” finding a way to win this one. It would be his most impressive recent victory.
It’s always a privilege to watch Emelianenko compete, even when the stakes are very unclear. Fortunately, for the first time in years, we’ll get to see him compete for clear stakes on Saturday.