INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP)Fedor Emelianenko placed his gloves on the canvas and then cracked a warm smile while nearly a dozen mixed martial arts greats behind him led the crowd in one last ovation.
Although the Last Emperor says his career is over, his fans and fellow fighters won’t forget his greatness any time soon.
Ryan Bader stopped the storied Russian heavyweight halfway through the first round Saturday night with a relentless ground-and-pound finish at Bellator 290.
The 46-year-old Emelianenko says he is ending his 23-year MMA career with this bout, and he ceremonially laid down his gloves after the defeat in the familiar combat sports gesture by a retiring fighter.
”On the one side, I’m sad I didn’t deliver on the fight as I wanted to,” Emelianenko said through a translator. ”But on the other side, I’m so happy that all these fans and all these veteran fighters are here cheering for me.”
The much-loved Russian MMA pioneer is one of the most compelling competitors in the still-young sport’s history, and the crowd at the Forum was firmly behind a singularly talented fighter who became a perennial fan favorite.
That adoration didn’t help when Bader easily defended his heavyweight title by becoming the only fighter ever to beat Emelianenko twice.
After staggering Emelianenko with an early uppercut, Bader knocked down Emelianenko with a punch that connected with the back of his head one minute into the opening round. Bader quickly pounced on Emelianenko and never let him up, steadily hammering his guard with dozens of punches until referee Herb Dean stopped the punishment 2:30 into the round.
”It was bittersweet,” Bader said. ”I idolized him like every MMA fan and fighter coming up. He put the sport on his back. That is a legend right there.”
Emelianenko was sanguine after the loss, and the fighter long known for his emotionless virtuosity couldn’t hide his pleasure when he was joined in the cage by a large contingent of fellow MMA greats invited to the show by Bellator. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Renzo Gracie, Frank Shamrock and former opponents Mark Coleman, Quinton ”Rampage” Jackson and Chael Sonnen all gathered for the last ride.
”I’m so happy to see all of you, the fighters that are here to come and support me,” Emelianenko said. ”All of these guys understand me. We’ve almost the same age, and we’ve been to the heights. I’m happy they’re here to support me.”
Emelianenko began his MMA career in 2000 after serving in the Russian Army, and he quickly acquired a reputation as a vaunted underground talent in a sport that still felt like a countercultural phenomenon at the time.
The slightly pudgy, slightly undersized heavyweight improbably recorded a long series of spectacular knockouts and submissions while fighting for the Pride promotion in Japan. He acquired mainstream attention when he began fighting stateside in 2008 while retaining the blank-faced earnestness and violent talents that made him such a favorite.
”I’m very happy that some of the fighters who have been crowned as champions are telling me they grew up with my fights,” Emelianenko said. ”Eight or 10 years ago, people were telling me that. This is when I started to think I was becoming old.”
Emelianenko famously refused to fight for the UFC, eschewing the world’s most powerful MMA company to maintain his independence, both promotionally and financially. He retired in 2012 before returning in 2015 to steady success.
His first fight with Bader was a notable exception: Four years ago last weekend at the Forum, Bader knocked out Emelianenko with a massive left hook just 35 seconds in. Emelianenko had fought only twice since then, and just once since the start of the coronavirus pandemic – yet he still insisted on finishing his career against the 39-year-old Bader.
The bout turned out to be the mismatch that many feared, with Bader thoroughly dominating in his third title defense. Bellator CEO Scott Coker acknowledged that he tried to set up a joint farewell fight between Emelianenko and Anderson Silva, the former UFC champion who is similarly far from his prime – but the Brazilian star turned it down, electing to focus on his boxing career.
”But every time I talked to Fedor, he said, `I want to fight Ryan Bader, and I want to fight for the belt,”’ Coker said. ”It was hard to tell him … maybe he should fight somebody else. He had been on a run (of four wins in his previous five fights), and with everything he’s done for the sport, I felt like he deserved it.”
Bellator 290 marked the promotion’s debut on CBS. Both CBS and Bellator are owned by Paramount Global.
In the penultimate bout of the main card, Johnny Eblen retained his Bellator middleweight title with a dominant decision victory over Anatoly Tokov, one of Emelianenko’s proteges in Russia.
Emelianenko says he is done fighting, but not done with MMA: He plans to renew his commitment to help Tokov and other fighters who study in his camp. Coker also believes he will keep Emelianenko involved with Bellator as a brand ambassador.
”I’m going to dedicate my time to my coaching, to my team,” he said.
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