The Last Emperor’s Retirement: Remembering the Career of Fedor Emelianenko
Written by Andres Salazar
February 5th marked the end of the career of one of the most important athletes in martial arts history. Fighting in the main event of Bellator 290, known by the nickname of “the last emperor”, Russia’s Fedor Emelianenko tested himself, unsuccessfully, one more time for the heavyweight championship. At an MMA record of forty wins and seven losses (Sherdog, 2023), the fighter put his gloves on the canvas floor, signaling the end of his lengthy and prestigious run as a professional combat sports athlete, as well as the very end of the days of early MMA pioneers fighting. As he gave his final speech in the cage, he was joined by various pioneers of the sport, who paved the way for MMA’s modern popularity (Martin, 2023).
The retirement of Emelianenko has sparked intense reflection and feelings of nostalgia. For many MMA fans, watching him fight against the world’s top martial artists has been a regular event since the late 90s. However, for many younger fans, he may not seem like anything special. MMA journalists and other athletes have gone on record saying that Emelianenko is one of the best fighters of all time. The problem is that although he was an incredibly important figure in the sport and was actively competing at the highest level for decades, he never fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (Heck, 2023), which made it easy for people to overlook, or unintentionally pass over his career. A closer analysis of his career reveals that Fedor, “the last emperor” Emelianenko lived up to all the praise he received. With the end of his career now in the books, looking back at his lengthy and legendary career is a good way to remind ourselves of what made him such an important person in modern martial arts history.
The modern sport of mixed martial arts saw its semi-mainstream debut in 1993 with the first event from the UFC. From this, pioneers of the new combat sport came onto the scene, such as Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Dan Severn (Fowlkes, 2018). This, however, was mostly in North America. Over in Europe and in Asia, MMA was beginning through organizations and events such as Pride Fighting Championship, Pancrase, and Rings. It was in these organizations that MMA began to grow in the eastern world (Wilcox, 2008). Among the sport pioneers on this side of the planet were fighters like Fedor Emelianenko. Making his debut in 2000, he fought mostly under the banner of Pride Fighting Championship until its closure in 2007. Though he never made his way into the UFC roster, he fought under organizations like Strikeforce and Affliction MMA, where he was still proving that he could fight against the top of the food chain.
One of the biggest reasons why Emelianenko is so highly regarded is that his record reveals a list of wins against some of the best fighters in history. Since early in his career, the Russian legend fought against other pioneers of the sport, such as Ricardo and Tsuyoshi Kosaka. However, when fighting in Pride, he put himself to the test against NCAA Division I tournament wrestling winner Kevin Randleman, Olympian and UFC champion Mark Coleman. He defeated former commando of the Croatian special forces’ anti-terrorism unit and world champion kickboxer, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic (Sherdog, 2023). This is only a small sample of the list of titans that Emelianenko defeated, often with ease. From the mid-2000s, he went consistently through a murderer’s row of world champions from different sports, Olympians, hall-of-fame athletes, and up-and-coming fighters, without much difficulty. What was perhaps even more shocking was that he did not fit the stereotypical image of a shredded and lean fighter. Instead, he fought the best of the best with the classic definition of a “dad bod.” The contrast between his seemingly mundane body type and his dominant performances demonstrated that in combat sports like MMA, technique and strategy are the biggest forces behind victories, rather than sheer muscle mass and physical strength.
Later in his career, Emelianenko took steps outside the cage. Now that his athletic prime was past him and he had built a name for himself as one of the biggest fighters in the sport, he started to focus on the next generation of fighters. Starting his own training camp known as Fedor Team, he has become one of the best-known coaches in eastern Europe for MMA and combat sambo. His team has produced many elite fighters, including Vadim Nemkov, the current champion of Bellator’s light heavyweight division (Myers, 2021). Whereas many fighters struggle to transition to new careers after hanging up the gloves, Fedor Emelianenko has become a mentor for many young fighters looking to make a name for themselves in the same way.
While older fans of MMA would have no issues recognizing him or understanding why he is such an important figure in the sport, younger fans might not see it the same way. Naturally, as Emelianenko grew older, he fought less dominantly and lost on occasion. The recent images of this supposed “titan” of the sport losing have somewhat clouded his legacy. With that being said, his influence in the sport’s early days has stood the test of time, with many of his early fights being helpful for the growth of MMA in Europe and Asia. Even now, after his retirement at Bellator 290, he continues to be an integral part of the sport’s highest level with his new role as coach. There’s a common saying in the world of mixed martial arts: father time is undefeated. Though Emelianenko began to slow down until his eventual retirement, the end of an era always signals the next. “The last emperor” has now moved on, leaving behind a legacy and now helping others find their own path.
“Fedor Emelianenko – The Last Emperor. Fight History – Pro.“ (2023). Sherdog. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://www.sherdog.com/fighter/Fedor-Emelianenko-1500.
Fowlkes, B. (2018). Today in MMA History: UFC 1 marks the start of something new. MMAJunkie. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://mmajunkie.usatoday.com/2018/11/ufc-1-today-in-mma-history.
Heck, M. (2023). Fedor Emelianenko has no regrets not fighting for UFC, recalls only meeting with Dana White. MMAFighting. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://www.mmafighting.com/2023/2/1/23581718/fedor-emeilianenko-has-no-regrets-not-fighting-for-ufc-recalls-only-meeting-with-dana-white.
Martin, D. (2023). Fedor Emelianenko suffers first-round loss to Ryan Bader in retirement fight in Bellator 290 main event. MMAFighting. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://www.mmafighting.com/2023/2/4/23586267/fedor-emelianenko-suffers-first-round-loss-to-ryan-bader-in-retirement-fight-bellator-290-main-event.
Myers, M. (2021). Fedor Emelianenko talked on his decision to found Fedor Team. Harcord. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://harcord.com/news/fedor-emelianenko-talked-on-his-decision-to-found-fedor-team. Wilcox, N. (2008). MMA History XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto. BloodyElbow. Retrieved February 17, 2023 from https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2008/2/18/152316/041.