When the time comes that your difficulties outside of the ring overshadow what you’ve done inside of it, some course correction is probably in order. But it might be too late for Fedor Emelianenko.
When Emelianenko became a free agent in 2009, the best money and quality of opposition was in the UFC. For reasons that might have a lot to do with the obtuse strategy of his management and a little to do with the abrasive negotiating approach of Dana White, Emelianenko headed for Strikeforce instead. He fought once and will fight again Saturday, occasionally taking time out to tell media that retirement is looking more and more attractive.
If Emelianenko were wrapping up a UFC stint now, that talk would probably be universally respected. Because he’s busied himself with Brett Rogers and Hong Man Choi, the reaction has been divisive. Half the fans think he’s accomplished it all; half think he’s bailing out through the kitchen, unenthused at the idea of having to fight huge wrestlers populating White’s business.
No fighter can ever walk through every single valuable contender in his era. Even Anderson Silva, so close to cleaning out the UFC’s middleweight division, might one day be historically criticized for never having faced Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza or Yushin Okami. But Emelianenko walking now would be akin to Silva dodging Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, and Nate Marquardt. Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez aren’t just placeholders: they’re real, relevant challenges that are going to be very curious omissions from Emelianenko’s record.
Emelianenko could be argued as being from a different era. He made his debut in 1999, nearly a decade before the UFC’s current heavyweight crop started competing. And while it may be traditional for aging fighters to sacrifice themselves in a torch-passing beating, Emelianenko may not want to be party to it. Considering that most fighters have to be sedated and dragged from the ring, it would be an incredibly mature -- and possibly influential -- move.
But Lesnar beating Emelianenko does not make him the more accomplished fighter. (Already 32, Lesnar isn’t likely to have a career as ambitious.) What’s relevant is that Emelianenko took on the best the sport had to offer while he could. 10 or 20 years from now, no one is going to remember White barking or promotional politics. All they’re going to understand is that Emelianenko was in good health at a time Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin were eating fighters alive. And he didn’t do anything about it.