Friday, May 07, 2010

The MMA Files – Part 3: The Greatest Mixed-Martial Artist of all time is….

Chapter II: The case for (and against) “The Last Emperor.”

Two heavyweight fighters who are routinely set up benchmarks for the title of “the best of all time” in MMA, are Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko. Both camps have legitimate arguments to make, and we again return to our Ali versus Stribling comparison, in other words, we need to look beyond the official record and take a more nuanced view of the comparison.

Fedor has been fighting professionally for over ten years and possesses a record (as of this writing) of 32 wins, one loss, and one no-contest. The single loss, against an otherwise undistinguished Japanese fighter, is considered by most MMA experts to be a technicality rather than a genuine loss. (The match was declared for Fedor’s opponent after an illegal elbow strike made Fedor’s advancing to the next round of the tournament impossible). To watch his matches is to watch a coiled spring waiting to be released. Cool to the point of looking slightly stupid, Fedor launches into his attacks in a manner that looks like a controlled berserker rage. Wild, looping punches thrown from awkward lunges nearly always find a home on his opponent’s jaw. But what makes Fedor plausibly the greatest fighter is his ability to seamlessly shift from his sloppy, but effective striking game, to a dogged and precise ground assault that combines equal parts judo, BJJ, and his native sambo. (Fedor is, incidentally, a champion in both judo and sambo. Sports he competes in, in his own words, as a “hobby.”) He has taken punishment, including a brutal bloodying at the hands of his most recent opponent, Brett Rogers, but Fedor has never really been in enough danger of losing a match to make anyone consider wagering against him. He seems to have a way of making his opponents panic. It is fascinating to see seasoned veteran fighters like Andrei Arlovski become overly excited when they manage to get a punch or kick in on Fedor. It is the pugilistic equivalent of juggling a hot potato.

Over time, Fedor has picked up a smattering of MMA accolades. Notably, he was the last PRIDE world heavyweight champion, a belt he held for four years until the promotion was closed in 2007. Recently, he won the WAMMA world heavyweight belt, a non-promotion-specific championship awarded by a group attempting to create a unified sanctioning body for MMA. (A handful of second-tier promotions recognize the WAMMA belt. It is otherwise considered a bit of an embarrassment in the MMA community. Often, the title is not mentioned in the promotional materials for Fedor’s bouts. ) But detractors are quick to point out that Fedor is not a “real” world champion at this point in his career. Even within Strikeforce, the promotion he is currently contracted through, he has not faced heavyweight champion, Alistair Overeem, and nor does his management have much interest in the match-up. Fedor mangager Vadim Finkelstein argues that his man is “beyond title belts,” saying that his legacy has already been cemented.

Which brings up the more existential slander made against the big Russian: that he has won a lot of matches, but has seldom faced “real” competition.

A cursory glance at Fedor’s list of opponents works to both dispel and support this criticism. Over the years he has met an odd mixture of top talent, marginal journeymen, gatekeepers, and circus attractions. Early victories over now-legends Arona and Sobral are less interesting if one takes into account the relative inexperience of both Brazilians at that stage of their career. Success with wins over the cream of Japan’s piroresu or pro wrestling elite may support an argument that Fedor dodged legitimate martial artists while in the PRIDE and RING organizations, however it should be understood that the culture of professional wrestling in Japan demands very real, and very potent skill sets beyond acrobatic theatrics. In fact, Fedor has never been in so much danger as when he faced Kazuyuki Fujita in 2003, a veteran of New Japan Pro Wrestling. The big wrestler floored the Russian with a powerful right hook before being submitted with via a rear-naked choke.

But keeping in mind that an active, high-level MMA combatant like Fedor can realistically only fight two or three matches in a calendar year, it is difficult to defend contracts that have him fighting the likes of professional opponents like Heath Herring and Gary Goodrich. Tough as they might be, they are not the caliber of fighter who should be facing a man who is touted as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

Even harder to defend are Fedor’s excursions into “freak show” territory. Two matches in particular, a 2005 fight against 400 pound Brazilian chancer Zuluzinho that ended in less than 30 seconds with Fedor hammer-fisting his man into TKO, and 2007 match against a 7’2” Korean kickboxer (which took 2 minutes for Fedor to win) are blemishes rather than victories. Strategically, these “easy” matches seem to be scheduled as Fedor’s second match of the year, and usually come after a Spring time match against a genuinely tough opponent. In the case of Zuluzinho, the fight came after after a grueling 3 round decision victory over Mirko “CroCop,” while the Korean fiasco followed a tough first round win over Olympic wrestling medalist, Matt Lindland.

Perhaps it is like the artiste actor who alternates those small, indie films with big budget blockbusters. To be sure, Japan has made Fedor a lot of money for less than two minutes of in-ring work against side show attractions.

Compounding the matter is Fedor’s inability to reach agreement with the UFC to fight under its banner. Years of negotiations have thus far resulted in little more than hard feelings and tense words from all parties. The sticking point seems to be Fedor’s demand that his own promotional group, M-1 Global, be given equal standing alongside the UFC. UFC president Dana White has rightly refused this demand which eventually led upstart promotion, Strikeforce, to make their own offer. The resulting contract has Fedor’s matches as joint promotions between Strikeforce and M-1 Global. Thus far, Fedor has only fought a single bout with Strikeforce, a modestly successful prime-time main event on CBS against impressive developing talent, Brett Rogers. Since then, the two promotions have stalled in talks over (wait for it!) promotional exposure for M-1 Global. M-1 complains that their M-1 logo was not sufficiently promoted alongside the Strikeforce banner. The stall has meant that not only is Fedor’s next Strikeforce match not against the promotion’s nominal world champion (Overeem) but that he may be fighting anyone soon.

(Quick update: A match between Fedor and submission specialist Fabricio Werdum, is scheduled for June of this year. Incidentally, Werdum holds a victory over Fedor’s brother Aleksandr.)

All this looks to Fedor’s critics as a simple matter of a fighter with an inflated winning streak dodging legitimate challengers in two promotions. However, such an argument fails to take into account the fact that Fedor has fought, and soundly beaten many of the best of the middle-generation heavyweights in their prime. Keep in mind that during the early to mid 2000s, the UFC did not possess a very deep or very stable heavyweight division. Thus, a comparatively small heavyweight like Randy Couture, and a lumbering, one-trick journeyman like Tim Silvia could actually dominate the division for years. Heavyweight fighters went to where the money was circa 2000 to 2006, and that was the PRIDE organization. While it is easy to cherry-pick the Zuluzinho and Hong Man Choi matches for anti-Fedor derision, the majority of his contests have been against elite fighters like Kevin Randleman, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (three times!), Mark Coleman,and CroCop. Fedor defeated these legendary fighters – who, with the exception of CroCop, have all been UFC champions - soundly and in a variety of ways. In the case of Randleman, Fedor survived a devastating suplex to submit the NCAA champion with a kimura, a short encounter that has become an internet sensation. Since these matches, these opponents have collectively struggled to maintain competitive legitimacy (especially CroCop) while Fedor has continued to develop as a fighter. While his recent match-ups have lacked the ethos of his PRIDE days, tarring him as a “dodger” is simply not justifiable.

The real crisis is the loss of opportunities that come with the long lags between negotiations. With the exception of the matches with Nogueira and CroCop, Fedor has not yet really satisfied the “dream match” fantasies of MMA fans. When Zuffa purchased PRIDE in 2007, there were fabulous claims being made about the box office potential of Chuck Liddell/Fedor match. Fedor could come down in weight to meet Liddell (of they could do a catchweight scenario), or indeed any of the great light heavyweights in that stacked division in the UFC. But the match-up that had been touted as the dream-of-dreams was, undoubtedly, Randy Couture versus Fedor. As recently as 2008, Fedor, after his quick dispatch of Tim Sylvia for the inaugural WAMMA belt, said that he desired to fight Couture.

Though only in his early 30s, Fedor has taken on a lot of damage in his ten years as a professional fighter. MMA is not a sport that rewards long careers. Unlike boxing, American football, and other hard contact sports, MMA distributes the pain and injury over a wider canvas. So, unlike a boxer who has begun to slur his speech due to a ten year career of having his cranium as a target, the mixed martial artist can endure longer, but with the potential for carrying more long-term damage to more places on his body. Joints and soft-tissues could subject the seasoned fighter to daily tortures while he is, ostensibly, still “healthy” enough to fight. As extraordinary a fighter as Fedor might be, his in-ring strategy has usually included taking bumps from his opponents on the way towards (seemingly) inevitable victory. Broken hands, lacerations, cracked ribs, hyper-extended ligaments, and contused kidneys and liver are just a few of the items on Fedor’s resume of woe. ( Is it any wonder, then that Fedor has striven to end his matches as quickly as possible? Indeed, a third of Fedor’s 33 matches have ended in the first round, many within the first two minutes.) Fedor is a great fighter, but he is not immortal. His body is still made of meat, bone and muscle. Eventually the wear will catch up to him and he simply will not be able to compete at an elite level. It is a fact of life in all combat sports, and one which may not be immediately obvious to a successful fighter who has fought only six rounds in five years. The clock is ticking on his ever meeting the top-level heavyweight fighters of this generation of mixed martial artists. If a move isn’t made within the next twenty-four months, how can he possibly secure a true claim to be “the greatest?”

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