Fedor's quiet retirement cements legendary MMA status
"This is the way the world ends . . . Not with a bang, but a whimper." — T.S. Eliot
Far away from the spotlight of MMA's highest stage, Fedor Emelianenko walked away from the sport he once dominated on Thursday with a resounding victory over a former champion in Russia. Pedro Rizzo may not have been the highest profile opponent available, as he was years removed from being a top tier fighter, but he was a big name and one of the best fighters available for someone with Fedor's pedigree to face as a final opponent. In a year span that will see a number of icons walk away from the sport, from Brock Lesnar to Tito Ortiz, Fedor's will be the least seen.
Ortiz, a future Hall of Famer, has an upcoming fight against the one man against whom he never could gain a decisive victory in Forrest Griffin. He'll be rightfully immortalized as one of the first superstars of the sport and leaves behind a legacy as champion none have matched so far.
Lesnar would go out at the hands of Alistair Overeem, perhaps the sport's next great superstar in the heavyweight division, refusing to settle for being a middle of the road fighter when he once was the very best. Both departures feel appropriate; Tito gets one more crack at a man with whom he has had his closest fights with and Lesnar departs knowing he just didn't have it anymore. Neither chose to stick around significantly longer than they should have, either, and the two will have done so in high profile manners once Ortiz's final fight concludes.
Fedor, on the other hand, destroyed an opponent who had a name, but whose reputation had long since fallen to that of a journeyman fighter. It was a vintage performance from the former Pride stalwart, leveling Rizzo early and finishing him in brutal fashion. He did it on a Thursday afternoon under a promotional banner tinged with mixed emotions from fight fans in front of his native fans in Russia. And his reasons were as noble as the man himself.
"I think it is time I quit," Emelianenko was quoted as saying by Russian news site Ria Novosti. "My family influenced my decision. My daughters are growing without me. That's why it's time to leave."
The one thing you could have never argued about Fedor was his decency as a human being. In a fight game where heroes seem to fall to Earth with ease, their faults revealed for the world to see, Fedor was a man of faith who based his decisions around what he felt was best for his family. While fight fans may have wanted him in the UFC, there is something respectable about a fighter who forged his own path.
He'll always be the one we could never fully gauge in the latter half of his career; his sporadic appearances and sometimes questionable choices in opponents detracting, in the eyes of many, from what was a brilliant first half. Based on his work in Pride, he could be labeled the best heavyweight of his time. One could argue about the people who managed his career, but as a human being there was always something to him that people could relate to.
He wasn't known for any of the things many fight fans detest, and he was a consummate professional with respect to how he fought. All he did was show up and fight — and, outside of a three-bout stretch that resulted in his departure from fighting on American soil, he usually won. One more time, in front of a friendly audience, "The Last Emperor" resumed his throne and made short work of a challenger. It was a nice way to end a career, a note few get to go out on, and he did so without regrets.
The only regrets come from us fans. We wanted to see what he could do against Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Lesnar, Randy Couture, et al, in the UFC cage. We wanted him to be in the Octagon, in the proving ground of MMA, but never got it. But those are our regrets, not his. As fans we wanted him in the UFC, but a fan's priorities are never a fighter's priorities. Somehow it feels oddly appropriate as he wraps up his career that he never stepped into the Octagon. His career was always on his terms, nothing more and nothing less.
After he announced he was retiring the audience implored him to stay around longer. As a fan you felt what they felt; Fedor was someone we took for granted for a long time. He'd always win, and no matter what adversity was presented he'd find a way out of it. He was never a creation of the Zuffa marketing machine; it always felt like he belonged to the fans more than any singular promotion. Many fighters claim to be the people's champion, but he truly was for a time; letting go of him as an elite fighter is something some fans weren't willing to do and the Rizzo fight provided a basis of closure.
He looked like the most badass man on the planet again. We got a glimpse of what was special one more time, if only for nostalgia purposes.
It's akin to reliving a first date after many years of wedded bliss; we didn't have to break out a DVD or go to YouTube to see the man dominate again. We watched on a website feed, it wasn't a standard PPV or a card for mainstream fans who weren't there with him back in the Pride days. It felt special because, for one last time, we got to see the Fedor we remembered, leaving on his own terms. With Russian President Vladimir Putin cheering him on and his family there to celebrate one more chance in the ring, Fedor's retirement was exactly how he wanted it, and that's exactly how we ought to remember his career. He left in the same manner in which he fought: No regrets and full speed ahead.