Mixed martial arts has certainly come a long way, hasn’t it?
I still recall when the only way to catch UFC events in Australia was to hire out old VHS tapes and delayed DVDs at the local video store.
Forget about live coverage – live results meant waiting until after the event was over to check them online in writing. A grainy video upload was a blessing at best.
Since then the sport has exploded into the mainstream in Australia and across the globe.
It was the fairy tale story of The Ultimate Fighter reality show that got MMA’s momentum going.
Heck, the U.S. based UFC has even hosted events on our shores. Not bad for a young sport.
And since it is such a young sport, the question of which fighter is the greatest of all time (GOAT for short) oftentimes amounts to little more than a heated pub argument.
Sure, we could trace it back to the Ancient Olympics and the Gracie challenge fights but we’re really only talking about the last 30 years since the first UFC event took place.
Besides, there are different weight divisions and “pound-for-pound” is subjective.
Still, it’s fun to argue.
So who is the GOAT?
For me, it’s the guy who dominated his division undefeated for nearly a decade – his only “loss” prior to that was via a cut from an illegal elbow.
The guy who trained diligently outside of the media spotlight in the cold Russian countryside. The guy whose blank expression in the ring and quiet persona outside of it made you wonder if he was a science experiment.
The guy that never stepped foot in a UFC cage.
I am of course talking about Fedor Emelianenko. “The Last Emperor” dominated the heavyweight division in a time when many of the best fighters were plying their trade in Japan under the auspices of the PRIDE promotion.
Fedor was widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter of his era, beating the best heavyweights the sport had to offer.
He proved that looks can be deceiving. At a mere 6-foot and a doughy 230lbs, he hardly seemed like the best hand-to-hand combatant on the planet. And yet he beat a lot of larger, well-built fighters.
His style was odd yet effective: he mixed a strong judo and sambo background with a striking style that consisted mostly of wide hooks and a few kicks.
He didn’t throw straight punches often and didn’t train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Yet he out-struck Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and beat Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera while sitting in the latter’s guard.
He wasn’t great at any one facet of the sport – he was simply very good at all of them. It was this threat of versatility that kept opponents guessing and allowed him to beat them at their own game.
While it’s easy to say that Fedor’s competition hasn’t/wouldn’t fare well in today’s heavyweight climate because of the sport’s continued evolution, this isn’t exactly a fair comparison.
To analyse an athlete’s legacy, you have to consider what they accomplished in their era with the competition available to them. In this regard, Fedor excels. In all, he defeated 5 UFC champions and 3 PRIDE champions.
Another factor to consider is how they fared when faced with adversity, for it is during these times that their true mettle is shown.
Fedor was on wobbly legs courtesy of a Kazuyuki Fujita right hand and was dropped on his head by a mid-air suplex from Kevin Randleman.
When all seemed lost, Fedor came back in both instances to submit his opponent.
Quiet and soft-spoken, Fedor inadvertently created a mystique that surrounded him his entire career.
He trained in snowy Russia away from cameras with low-tech equipment that would have made Rocky Balboa proud. He walked into fights with the same blank look you have when you get a haircut.
It often seemed like he simply appeared for fights, beat his opponent and was gone again.
His difficult and eventual failed negotiations with the UFC and later losses will count against his legacy.
Many say that he avoided the best competition by not moving to the UFC and that the losses proved he was overrated.
I would argue that it’s hard to judge someone on they-should-have’s and what-could-have-been’s.
Again, all we have to base it on is what they did against whom. As for the losses, even the best have their falls from grace. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre aren’t undefeated, are they?
Some may call it rose-tinted nostalgia, but I feel it may be a bit difficult for newer fans to appreciate the dominance and mystique that Fedor possessed in his prime or the true calibre of his opposition.
I can understand, given that his best days were during the video rental era and that we’ve watched these fighters age and decline over the years.
But until someone exceeds his accomplishments, Fedor Emelianenko will always get my vote as the greatest MMA fighter of all time.