How Will Fedor Emelianenko Be Remembered?

Fedor after Silva loss

Photo by Esther Lin/Showtime Sports

Russian heavyweight’s place in history remains undetermined

A fighter’s legacy isn’t just defined by what they do in the ring or cage.

As much as these athletes should be judged solely on their accomplishments — the titles they won, the opposition they beat — their public perception factors into the equation as well.

Take a guy like Randy Couture. “The Natural” retired — permanently this time — following his loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 129. He’s the embodiment of how the memories fight fans have of a competitor play a part in the way they are remembered.

His greatest successes live as folk tales, stories of the late bloomer and perpetual underdog who always came through in the big moments will be passed on from generation to generation. Beating Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title will remain in the pantheon of all-time outstanding performances.

But that’s not the complete picture of Couture’s career. It’s just the high water points and everyone looks pretty good when you’re only looking at the highlight reel of their career.

When you step back, set your admiration for “Captain America” aside and look at things objectively, Couture ends up with a tremendous legacy for someone who finished his career 19-11 and didn’t win a meaningful fight over the final four years of his career.

Don’t get me wrong — Couture is an icon in this sport and his accomplishments are beyond impressive; I doubt if anyone will ever again boast six different UFC title reigns. That said, he also lost titles four times and loss title fights twice more. At the end of the day, Couture only had three successful title defenses in his career.

I offer up these thoughts on Couture because while there is no question about how he will be remembered in the history pages of this sport, the same cannot be said of Fedor Emelianenko.

The Russian heavyweight’s place amongst the all-time greats is a hotly debated topic; his recent lack of success only adding fuel to the fiery arguments that have been raging for quite some time.

Despite a far superior record and the fact that he never lost the Pride heavyweight title, Emelianenko doesn’t garner the same universal admiration and recognition as Couture. Though some hold him in higher regard than the UFC Hall of Fame inductee, others place far south of Couture in the overall standings, leading me to ask the titular question of this piece.

Unlike a fighter like Couture where most people universally agree upon his standing, there are numerous variables that come into play when trying to determine how Emelianenko will be remembered.

Where he competed, the level of competition he faced, and how to balance his tremendous success previous to last spring with his recent defeats all must be considered, and opinions on each of those elements vary from person to person.

Personally, Fedor cemented his legacy in my books a long time ago; the outcome of Saturday night’s meeting with Dan Henderson won’t change where he sits on my list of all-time greats.

For me, Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight in the history of this sport and one of the very best fighters to grace the canvas. His initial loss to Tyuyoshi Kohsaka registers as a no contest to me, which means Emelianenko was 31-0-0-2 heading into his fight with Fabricio Werdum.

This is the point where some people usually chime in arguing that he wasn’t fighting in the UFC and talk about the level of competition he faced. My counter to those objections remains the same: if Emelianenko’s dominance isn’t all that impressive, why has no one else come close to duplicating it at any level?

If he accomplished the feat through a combination of facing sub-standard opposition in lesser organizations, how come we’ve never seen a fighter tear up the regional circuit in the same way? Why hasn’t anyone gone 31-0 with a pair of no contests in King of the Cage? There’s no need to answer those questions, especially since the argument that Emelianenko built his record facing second-rate talent is a farce.

Admittedly, wins over Zuluzinho and Hong Man Choi clearly pad the Russian icon’s resume, but there is no way to devalue his victories over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Mirko Cro Cop. While his three most recent wins get downgraded when looked at now through revisionist lenses, Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were top 10 heavyweights when Emelianenko destroyed them; Brett Rogers was top 15.

Those that say he’s shown his true place in the pantheon with his recent losses to Werdum and Antonio Silva infrequently apply the same standard to guys like Couture or Chuck Liddell. Their early successes are not diminished by their later failures, but Emelianenko is not often given the same leeway.

While the way I will remember Emelianenko is etched in stone, never to be changed, not everyone shares my opinions and feelings about “The Last Emperor.”

He’s not a universally accepted member of the Best All-Time Club with Couture and Royce Gracie or future fixtures Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre. Some people would vehemently argue against his inclusion.

His resume is as impressive as anyone in the history of the sport, yet it’s still not enough. That’s because when a fighter hangs up their gloves for good, it’s not just their accomplishments that determine their legacy.

Perception plays a major part, and that’s why it’s so hard to predict how Emelianenko will be remembered when once he decides to walk away.