Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Legacy of Fëdor Emelianenko

By Brad Oremland

Fëdor Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight mixed martial artist of all time. He's a strangely polarizing figure, and there are a lot of people — most notably UFC President Dana White — who are claiming otherwise on the heels of Emelianenko's loss to Dan Henderson. The record suggests differently.

Fëdor went a decade without a loss, winning 31 fights, and if some of those were against uninspiring opponents, hey, Anderson Silva defended his title against Travis Lutter, Thales Leites, and Patrick Côté. Emelianenko's résumé undoubtedly includes some can-crushing and freak shows, and his legacy is marred by his management team's decision-making, which kept him out of really tough fights in recent years, until this current losing streak. But that résumé also includes multiple victories over the man White says is the greatest heavyweight in history, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Altogether, Emelianenko has seven wins over UFC Heavyweight Champions or Interim Champions: Nogueira (twice), Mark Coleman (twice), Kevin Randleman, Tim Sylvia, and Andrei Arlovski. He also beat Ricardo Arona, Babalu Sobral, Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, and Mirko Filipovic. Emelianenko dealt Cro Cop just his third loss, when Filipovic was 16-2-2 and on a seven-fight winning streak. The previous losses were to Nogueira and Randleman, both of whom Fëdor had already beaten by that point.

White and others have dismissed the significance of Fëdor's wins over Sylvia and Arlovski, neither of whom is a credible fighter any more. That wasn't the case at the time, though. When Sylvia fought Emelianenko, the Maine-iac was 24-4, with the only losses coming to Frank Mir, Arlvoski, Randy Couture, and Nogueira. He was a svelte 265 pounds then, and only one fight removed from competing for the UFC belt. We can argue about exactly when Sylvia became a joke, but it was after the fight with Fëdor. The win obviously doesn't mean quite as much in retrospect as it did at the time, but Sylvia was then a consensus top-five heavyweight, and on paper probably the toughest fight available outside of Nogueira (whom Emelianenko had already bested twice) and maybe Randy Couture, who wasn't available for contractual reasons.

Arlovski left the UFC on a three-fight winning streak, knocked out Ben Rothwell and Roy Nelson in the IFL, and then fought Emelianenko at Affliction: Day of Reckoning. The Pit Bull may have a glass jaw now, but to downgrade him as an opponent in January of 2009 is simply revisionist history. Rather than criticizing Fëdor for crushing an inferior opponent, shouldn't his legacy be enhanced by the fact that he basically ruined the career of a talented fighter? Arlovski hasn't been the same since.

Even Mark Coleman was still a competitive fighter when he met Fëdor in 2004. Coleman then had won seven of his last eight bouts, the loss coming to Nogueira. Fëdor submitted him with an armbar in the first round. Two years later, with Coleman coming off a win over Shogun Rua, Emelianenko armbarred him again, this time in the second round.

The UFC and its president inspire fierce loyalty in many fans, who will blindly defend the brand and its heroes. Emelianenko, as an elite fighter who never set foot in a UFC cage, always represented a threat to UFC supremacy. Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos are enormously gifted young heavyweights, and one or both could dominate the division for the years (provided we forget about Alistair Overeem), but throughout most of the UFC's history, heavyweight has been the one weight class in which it fell short compared to other promotions. When the UFC's dominant heavyweights were Couture and Sylvia and Arlovski, PRIDE had Fëdor and Nogueira and Cro Cop. When the UFC was ruled by Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir and Shane Carwin, Strikeforce had Overeem and Fëdor and Josh Barnett. Emelianenko, more than any other fighter, represents the ugly truth that the UFC doesn't want to admit about its heavyweight division.

Henderson has repeatedly described his win over Emelianenko as the biggest achievement of his career. White will attribute that to inflated reputation and the difference in weight classes, but Fëdor's heavyweight dominance was so impressive largely because he's a natural light heavyweight. White has tried to diminish Fëdor by calling Henderson a middleweight, but the difference between them was only 16 pounds, and that's one weight class, not two. Henderson's win over Fëdor — a non-title fight for the Strikeforce light heavyweight champ — was meaningful because it came against a legend, one of the greatest mixed martial artists in the history of the sport.

Every great fighter has some laughable opponents on his record. Big Nog fought Bob Sapp and Pawel Nastula and Zuluzinho. Kiyoshi Tamura was a good fighter, but Nogueira outweighed him by 50 pounds. Couture fought James Toney, and he actually lost to Valentijn Overeem. Frank Mir's last three fights before winning the UFC heavyweight title were against Tank Abbott, Wes Sims, and Wes Sims. Impressive.

If Dana White wants to argue that Fëdor was overrated in recent years, when his opponents were jokes and freak shows like Hong Man Choi and Zuluzinho, or over-the-hill names way past their primes and fighting out of their weight class, that's a defensible position, and White can certainly point to the last three fights as evidence that he was right all along. But to go back and discredit the wins over Herring and Nogueira and Coleman and Cro Cop ... that's revisionist history. Fëdor is probably finished as an elite fighter now, but he won a lot of meaningful fights over legitimate opponents, and he is the greatest heavyweight mixed martial artist of all time. It's not credible to suggest otherwise.

August 2011 UFC Rankings

The rankings below are exclusively for the UFC, so you won't see names like Shinya Aoki or Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza on these lists.

Heavyweight (206-265 lbs)

1. Cain Velasquez
2. Junior Dos Santos
3. Brock Lesnar
4. Shane Carwin
5. Frank Mir
6. Brendan Schaub
7. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
8. Roy Nelson
9. Matt Mitrione
10. Mike Russow

Make it Happen: Lesnar vs. winner of Schaub/Nogueira

Lesnar's health permitting, of course. Otherwise, I guess Carwin or Mir could fill the gap.

Thank You, UFC, For: Mitrione vs. Cheick Kongo

A no-brainer after their recent wins on the same card. I also like the Dave Herman vs. Russow matchup. Neither fight is official yet, but both are expected to take place this October.

Light Heavyweight (186-205)

1. Jon Jones
2. Maurício "Shogun" Rua
3. Lyoto Machida
4. Rashad Evans
5. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
6. Forrest Griffin
7. Phil Davis
8. Vladimir Matyushenko
9. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
10. Alexander Gustafsson

Make it Happen: winner of Rua/Griffin vs. Dan Henderson

I know, Hendo isn't under contract to the UFC. They need to sign him if they want to prove they have the best light heavyweight in the world. If he loses at 205, give Dan a fight at middleweight (Vitor Belfort!) and then see what he can do against Anderson Silva.

Thank You, UFC, For: Evans vs. winner of Jones/Rampage

Man, did Rashad look good against Tito Ortiz. I don't think he can handle Bones Jones, but he's earned the opportunity.

Middleweight (171-185)

1. Anderson Silva
2. Yushin Okami
3. Chael Sonnen
4. Brian Stann
5. Michael Bisping
6. Vitor Belfort
7. Mark Muñoz
8. Demian Maia
9. Jason "Mayhem" Miller
10. Chris Leben

Make it Happen: Belfort vs. winner of Maia/Jorge Santiago

Or Dan Henderson.

Thank You, UFC, For: Stann vs. Sonnen

Sonnen's unabashed racism towards Brazilians has gotten really stale, and it's nice to see him fighting an opponent he can't blindly disrespect. Plus, this is a great test for Stann and should produce a top contender at 185.

Welterweight (156-170)

1. Georges St-Pierre
2. Nick Diaz
3. Jon Fitch
4. Jake Shields
5. B.J. Penn
6. Carlos Condit
7. Diego Sanchez
8. Martin Kampmann
9. Rick Story
10. Rory MacDonald

Josh Koscheck is not listed, but that's because he reportedly is moving to middleweight, not because I hate him.

Make it Happen: Fitch vs. Story

Story had all the momentum in the world after his win over Thiago Alves. He stepped in to meet Nate Marquardt on short notice, but ended up fighting Charlie Brenneman on even shorter notice, and losing all that momentum. Honestly, I would expect Fitch to tear him apart, but I thought the same about Alves. This is Story's chance to prove that when he has time to prepare for his opponent, he can hang with any welterweight in the world.

Thank You, UFC, For: St-Pierre vs. Diaz

This was the only fight left for GSP at 170. Condit may be ready, and Jon Fitch is pretty close to earning a second shot at the champ, but as soon as Zuffa acquired Strikeforce, this simply had to happen. Also, thank you for Penn vs. Condit and Sanchez vs. Matt Hughes. This weight class consistently has the best match-making in the UFC.

Lightweight (146-155)

1. Frankie Edgar
2. Gray Maynard
3. Jim Miller
4. Ben Henderson
5. Melvin Guillard
6. Anthony Pettis
7. Clay Guida
8. Donald Cerrone
9. Dennis Siver
10. Sam Stout

Sean Sherk will return to this list if he ever gets a fight on his calendar.

Make it Happen: Guida vs. Sherk

Because Guida needs an opponent and Sherk needs to stop eating nachos all day.

Thank You, UFC, For: Miller vs. Henderson

Please, please give Miller a title shot if he wins. Unless you give it to Gilbert Melendez. That's okay, too.

Featherweight (136-145)

1. Jose Aldo
2. Mark Hominick
3. Kenny Florian
4. Chad Mendes
5. Hatsu Hioki
6. Dustin Poirier
7. Diego Nunes
8. Mike Brown
9. Erik Koch
10. Tyson Griffin

Make it Happen: Easier matchups for TUF winners

Jonathan Brookins' first post-TUF fight will be against Koch, which isn't exactly easing the kid in. Other show winners have also had surprisingly tough paths out of the gate recently. I'm not saying you feed these kids a bunch of cans, but asking guys like Brookins and Nam Phan to face the likes of Koch and Brown seems a bit cruel.

Thank You, UFC, For: Aldo vs. Florian

I don't understand why some people would rather see Aldo fight Mendes than KenFlo. Florian has proven he's a competitive fighter at any weight class. Mendes has proven he's a pretty good wrestler, and he has got to be the most boring "fighter" in the UFC. Except for maybe Jake Shiel ... zzz.

Bantamweight (126-135)

1. Dominick Cruz
2. Urijah Faber
3. Joseph Benavidez
4. Brian Bowles
5. Miguel Torres
6. Demetrious Johnson
7. Eddie Wineland
8. Scott Jorgensen
9. Brad Pickett
10. Takeya Mizugaki

Make it Happen: Torres vs. winner of Benavidez/Wineland

Actually, my real Make It Happen is Cruz vs. Bowles, but Cruz vs. Johnson is already on the schedule. Mighty Mouse's style is similar to Cruz's and could give the champ problems — it might actually be a more interesting fight — but Johnson's decision win over Torres in May was a robbery, an abomination by judges who don't understand grappling. Johnson is for real, but he hasn't earned a title bid yet.

Torres looked great against Mighty Mouse, like the old Miguel Torres, and a win over someone like Benavidez would put him right back into the title picture.

Thank You, UFC, For: Kid Yamamoto vs. Damacio Page

A pair of former top-10 bantamweights trying to rebound from losses. This bout is expected to take place at UFC 135 in Denver. The matchup should create fireworks, and the winner is back in the mix at bantamweight.

UFC 134

UFC Live: Hardy vs. Lytle is next week, and it features a hugely important lightweight tilt between Jim Miller and Benson Henderson (why do the non-PPV cards always have the wrong headliner?), but let's be honest, you're already getting jacked for the UFC's return to Brazil. Anderson Silva finally faces Yushin Okami, Shogun Rua rematches Forrest Griffin, and a legend meets an up-and-comer when Big Nog takes on Brendan Schaub.

Heaven knows I would never condone gambling, but looking at the early odds, I see the most intriguing prospect being Okami (+350). Do I think he's likely to win? No. Do I think he has better than a 1-in-4½ chance? Yes. Silva hasn't really impressed me since his last fight with Rich Franklin. If he doesn't catch you in the first round with something ridiculous (like a back-pedaling jab or a Steven Seagal-inspired front kick to the face), things go south really quickly. Okami won't be easy to finish, and his style is similar to that of Chael Sonnen, who dominated Silva for 4½ rounds before getting caught in a triangle.

Silva is 36½ years old; he stopped getting better a long time ago. Dana White talks about Fëdor's weak list of opponents. How about Silva's résumé since he subbed Dan Henderson in early 2008? James Irvin, Patrick Côté, Thales Leites, Forrest Griffin, Demian Maia, Chael Sonnen, and Vitor Belfort. Irvin, Côté, and Leites were jokes. Maia was a less than inspiring contender, and Sonnen's reputation is based mostly on what he did against Silva. Griffin and Belfort got caught, and Silva deserves credit for that, but when was the last time he looked good after the first round?

I'm not saying you bet the farm on Okami, because he's probably going to lose. But some small action could yield a big return: bet $20 on Thunder, and a win would turn that into $90.

Very unofficial Sports Central parlay: Okami + Rua + Schaub. Again, keep the action small, but if this somehow hits, a $20 bet would win you about $170.

If you're looking to the future, UFC 136 is a seriously stacked card. If you buy one fight card in 2011, this is the one. It's set for two title fights, Sonnen vs. Stann, Maia vs. Jorge Santiago, Anthony Pettis, Melvin Guillard, and Russow vs. Herman, among others. That's a lot of important fights for one event.

Five Quick Hits

* Charles Oliveira (-150) is listed as a favorite over Donald Cerrone (+130). Oliveira is hugely promising, but those odds look backwards to me. Hypothetical parlay: Miller + Cerrone + C.B. Dollaway + Joseph Benavidez. A $20 bet would pay out over $100.

* Did two judges score the first round of Mike Brown vs. Nam Phan as 10-9? That was a massacre, a textbook 10-8 round. Incompetent judges continue to be the biggest problem in mixed martial arts.

* Zuffa cutting all its Golden Glory fighters except (for now) Sergei Kharitonov? Not cool, especially in the case of Marloes Coenen, who is a great fighter and a terrific representative for the sport.

* Zuffa's explanation for the cuts? Not believable. Why sign John Olav Einemo in May if you know you can't deal with his management? And why cut him nearly two months after his only bout in the UFC, which earned Fight of the Night? And why keep Kharitonov if you know you can't deal with his management? (Because you don't think Chad Griggs can stop Barnett, who Dana White hates even more than Overeem.)

* Zuffa is giving its competitors the fuel to build up their promotions. A match between Overeem and Emelianenko would draw more viewers than the Velasquez/Dos Santos UFC Heavyweight title fight, and fighters like Nate Marquardt and Coenen can draw fans to other promotions. In particular, Bellator should keep a close eye on Zuffa's attitude toward women's MMA. With both Coenen and Cris Cyborg available, the promotion could establish itself as the best in the world for women's MMA.

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