When Fedor Emelianenko steps into the cage on Saturday night against Matt Mitrione, it will be the exact location of his most famous loss. But that seems of little concern to him.
Fedor Emelianenko, the man who still has to be regarded as the most successful heavyweight fighter in MMA history, returns on Saturday night to the exact spot where he went from myth to human.
On June 26, 2010, in just his second fight with Strikeforce, Emelianenko was facing Fabricio Werdum in San Jose, Calif., at what was then the HP Pavilion and is now the SAP Center, a hotbed for MMA for more than a decade that had housed some of the most historically significant fights in history. By no means was the fight expected to be one-sided, as Werdum was among the most skilled heavyweights in the sport and had been in the ring and cage with top competition for years.
Still, few thought Werdum would win. For all real purposes, Emelianenko had gone 33 fights without a clean loss. The lone blemish on his record came nearly ten years earlier, a cut stoppage from an illegal elbow in a bout with Tsuyoshi Kosaka. By all rights that fight should have been a disqualification on Kosaka or a no contest. But it was in Japan in 2000. The sport was in its formative years, with no set rules, and decisions didn’t always make logical sense.
While no championship was at stake, many considered Emelianenko the legitimate heavyweight world champion going into that fight. He had been champion of Pride when it had the best heavyweight talent in the world since 2003. Pride may have gone out of business, but Fedor had not lost since. Even when Werdum got him in a triangle — because Emelianenko had found himself in deep trouble in so many fights, yet always managed to find his way out — it was hard to envision he could lose. Time seemingly stood still as he was in that triangle, and then he tapped out.
That shocking moment — one of the most memorable in the sport’s history — seems to have less meaning to Emelianenko (35-4-1-1) than fans.
When asked if it means something to him to come back to the same location more than six years later, he unemotionally replied through an interpreter, “Maybe not, this is how it happened due to God.”
Emelianenko headlines Saturday’s Bellator show on Spike TV against Matt Mitrione (11-5), a former college football star at Purdue who bounced around the NFL for a few years before making a name for himself with his outgoing personality as a mid-level UFC heavyweight. One year ago, he let his UFC contract expire, frustrated with the organization, and signed with Bellator, a decision he said he has never second-guessed.
“I didn’t like where UFC was headed,” Mitrione said. “I didn’t like the forced nature of things. I didn’t like the way we were manipulated.”
His deal started when he auditioned for a sport as a color commentator for Bellator’s kickboxing league, and was told that they wouldn’t hire him for that spot if he still worked for UFC.
“It’s played out well,” he said. “I’m happy at all levels, happy with the appreciation, happy with the opportunity I’ve gotten at all levels. I don’t see this as being a short-term thing. Its not a way to get back. I’ll retire with Bellator.”
Bellator president Scott Coker noted that the deal to bring Emelianenko back to the U.S. was very different from his previous one in 2009 when he was running Strikeforce. Back then it was all about negotiations with M-1 Global, which made getting on the same page very difficult. This deal had its rocky moments, but in the end it was Coker and Emelianenko who struck an agreement without third-party involvement.
“Honestly, we kind of talked about a deal, and we got some lawyers involved, and then it got kind of hung up,” said Coker. “And then I jumped on a call with Fedor and his translator, Tanya, and we hammered it out in 45 minutes.
“We had hired a lawyer in Russia to represent us. It took three or four months of back-and-forth, and once we started talking directly, 45 minutes later, we had a deal, and they inked it within a couple of days.”
“The contract is for several fights, so that’s the goal,” said Emelianenko, who said how long he remains in the sport is God’s will.
Mitrione is about four inches taller, and will probably be 20 or more pounds heavier. He’s also more athletic than most of Emelianenko’s previous foes. But none of that seems to have any effect on Emelianenko.
“At this moment, I don’t have any concerns,” he said. “We’ll see during the fight.”
But at 40 — and ever since the Werdum loss — it’s clear he’s not the same fighter he once was. Even Fedor himself admits things are different.
“I feel myself getting old,” he said. “But the training is still the same. I’m the same weight. The training is always very difficult, hard and long.”
Mitrione is 38 yet, having come to the sport in his thirties, says he doesn’t necessarily feel the encroachment of age.
“I’m really lucky, but I don’t feel differently,” he said. “I believe I’m a Highlander. I’m not the only one, but I’m one of the few. My body feels great. It feels fantastic, I also changed the way I train. I don’t spar with big gloves and I don’t take punches to the face in training. Everything is live from the neck down.”
Mitrione noted that over the years his motto has become that he’s not paid to spar and get hurt in training, he trains to make sure he gets to the fight. He’s also concerned about his brain, noting he constantly engages in things to stimulate his brain after a lifetime in football and fighting.
“I think he’s excited,” said Coker about Mitrione. “That’s a big tough kid, really athletic, he’s got a big punch. This is an even fight to me, 50/50, whoever gets there first. I think Fedor’s excited. I think you’ll see a great match on Saturday night.”
“Is it my Super Bowl?” Mitrione said, when asked how this would compare to anything else he’s done in sports. “I don’t know. I can tell you after I win. I don’t know now. I think it’s just another day right now. It’s just another competition I’m involved in.”
Mitrione said the only thing he can compare this to right now was his 2010 fight with Kimbo Slice in Montreal.
“My first real fight in the UFC, not on Ultimate Fighter, was with Kimbo,” Mitrione said. “Kimbo had a Tyson-esque aura about him back then.”
“It parallels to fighting Kimbo, the aura, the hype, the trash talk from his fans. I see a lot of parallels. As far as every other sport, a fight is it’s own animal. I don’t really see it (a comparison to a football game). The Kimbo fight was somewhat similar although obviously the level of fighter isn’t similar.”