Fedor Emelianenko bows out to Bader in Russian star’s final fight
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Fedor Emelianenko placed his gloves on the canvas, then flashed a warm smile as nearly a dozen big names in mixed martial arts behind him led the crowd in a final ovation.
Although the Last Emperor says his career is over, his fans and fellow fighters won’t soon forget his greatness.
Ryan Bader stopped the legendary Russian heavyweight midway through the first round on Saturday night with a relentless finish on the ground and the pound at Bellator 290.
Emelianenko, 46, says he’s ending his 23-year MMA career with this fight, and he ceremonially put down his gloves after the loss in the familiar combat sports gesture by a retired fighter .
“On the one hand, I’m sad that I didn’t fight the fight the way I wanted,” Emelianenko said through an interpreter. “But on the other side, I’m so happy that all these fans and all these veteran fighters are here to cheer me on.”
The much-loved Russian MMA pioneer is one of the most compelling competitors in the sport’s still-young history, and the crowd at the Forum was firmly behind a singularly talented fighter who has become a lifelong fan favorite.
That adoration didn’t help when Bader easily defended his heavyweight title by becoming the only fighter to defeat Emelianenko twice.
After stunning Emelianenko with an early uppercut, Bader knocked Emelianenko down with a punch that landed in the back of his head a minute into the first round. Bader quickly jumped on Emelianenko and never let go, steadily pounding his guard with dozens of punches until referee Herb Dean stopped the penalty after 2:30 of play.
“It was bittersweet,” Bader said. “I idolized him like all MMA fans and fighters to come. He put the sport on his back. It’s a legend there.
Emelianenko was upbeat after the loss, and the fighter long known for his emotionless virtuosity couldn’t hide his delight when he was joined in the cage by a large contingent of other MMA big names invited to the show by Bellator. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Renzo Gracie, Frank Shamrock and former contenders Mark Coleman, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Chael Sonnen all came together for the final race.
“I’m so happy to see all of you fighters who are here to support me,” Emelianenko said. “All these guys understand me. We’re almost the same age, and we’ve reached the heights. I’m glad they’re here to support me.
Emelianenko began his MMA career in 2000 after serving in the Russian military, and he quickly gained a reputation as a vaunted underground talent in a sport that still felt like a countercultural phenomenon at the time.
The slightly chubby and slightly undersized heavyweight has improbably recorded a long string of spectacular knockouts and submissions while battling for the Pride promotion in Japan. He came to mainstream attention when he started fighting in the United States in 2008 while maintaining the seriousness and violent skills that made him a favourite.
“I’m very happy that some of the fighters who have been crowned champions tell me that they grew up with my fights,” Emelianenko said. “Eight or ten years ago, people told me that. That’s when I started to think I was getting old.
Emelianenko refused to fight for the UFC, avoiding the most powerful MMA company in the world to maintain his independence, both promotionally and financially. He retired in 2012 before returning in 2015 with consistent success.
His first fight with Bader was a notable exception: four years ago last weekend at the Forum, Bader knocked out Emelianenko with a massive left hook just 35 seconds away. Emelianenko had only fought twice since, and only once since the start of the coronavirus. pandemic – but he still insisted on ending his career against Bader, 39.
The fight turned out to be the mismatch many feared, with Bader dominating from the bottom up in his third title defense. Bellator CEO Scott Coker has admitted he tried to arrange a joint farewell fight between Emelianenko and Anderson Silva, the former UFC champion who is also far from his prime – but the Brazilian star turned him down, choosing to focus on his boxing career.
“But every time I talked to Fedor he said, ‘I want to fight Ryan Bader and I want to fight for the belt,'” Coker said. “It was hard to tell him… maybe he should fight someone else. He’d been on a run (from four wins in his previous five fights), and with everything he’s done for the sport, I felt like he deserved it.
Bellator 290 marked the promotion’s debut on CBS. CBS and Bellator are both owned by Paramount Global.
In the penultimate main card bout, Johnny Eblen retained his Bellator middleweight title with a dominant decision victory over Anatoly Tokov, one of Emelianenko’s proteges in Russia.
Emelianenko says he’s done fighting, but not done with MMA: He plans to renew his commitment to help Tokov and other fighters who study at his camp. Coker also believes he will keep Emelianenko involved with Bellator as a brand ambassador.
“I will dedicate my time to my training, to my team,” he said.
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