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LOS ANGELES—Fedor Emelianenko carries a legacy that is unmatched in the history of MMA.
The 46-year-old Russian legend, who went unbeaten for a decade between 2000 and 2010, is best known as PRIDE's final heavyweight champion, taking the belt from a future UFC Hall of Famer in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira before defending it in a rematch, and then in subsequent bouts with fellow MMA legends Mirko Cro Cop and Mark Hunt.
During that span, it was Japan's PRIDE that was the dominant brand in MMA, not the UFC, and Emelianenko was one of the organization's biggest stars, taking out a who's who list of talent along the way, including the likes of Mark Coleman, Kazuyuki Fujita, Gary Goodridge, Heath Herring, Kevin Randleman and Semmy Schilt, among others.
Eventually, scandal behind the scenes of the promotion saw PRIDE lose lucrative broadcast deals, leading to the sale of the company to the UFC. That move was one of several factors that helped propel the UFC into the vast juggernaut it remains today.
While many of PRIDE's top stars came to the UFC following the sale, Emelianenko did not, preferring instead to take starring roles in a number of global organizations such as Affliction, Strikeforce, Rizin and Bellator. There were rumored octagon clashes with Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar along the way, but Emelianenko never did come to terms with UFC officials.
Emelianenko's appeal to casual MMA fans may have increased had he agreed to compete for the UFC, but hardcore fans of the sport were more than aware of his accomplishments, and the stoic slugger remained revered by his peers for both his incredible fighting skills, as well as his respectful manner.
On Saturday, Emelianenko will compete for one final time when he headlines Bellator 290, which airs live on CBS (9 p.m. ET) from The Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
While he was offered a number of potential opponents for his farewell fight, Emelianenko (40-6 MMA, 4-2 BMMA) insisted on the toughest challenge available and will face reigning heavyweight champion Ryan Bader (30-7 MMA, 8-2 BMMA) in the night's main event.
Bellator president Scott Coker marveled at Emelianenko's accomplishments ahead of the contest.
"When I think about this fight and what it means and the historical significance of this event, it's really a special moment for myself, personally, to see Fedor," Coker said at Wednesday's pre-fight press conference. "I mean, he was fighting in PRIDE. He was fighting in different organizations before we started working together, but since I want to say 2008, 2009, I think we've done probably eight, nine, 10 fights together, maybe more. To see this career over all those years—and I just recently went back and watched him fighting Mirko, went back and watched him fighting Kevin Randleman, him fighting Nogueira. I watched him fight Andrei Arlovski. I mean, the 10-year run of undefeated fights where he was fighting the baddest people on the planet—because at that time Japan had the best fighters in the world—it's very impressive."
Adding to the challenge for Emelianenko in his final appearance, the contest is actually a rematch of 2019 clash that Bader won in just 35 seconds when a lead left hook and a devastating right hand ended the contest in unexpectedly quick fashion.
Bader claimed the Bellator heavyweight title that night and has maintained control of it ever since, but leading into Saturday's card, very little of the pre-fight banter has centered on his lengthy run but rather the end of Emelianenko's illustrious career.
Bader insists he doesn't mind any perceived snub.
"He deserves it," Bader told MMA Underground. "He's a legend in sport, and I respect that man, what he's done for the sport, and he's a good human being, you know?
"Yeah, don't get it wrong. I know walking in there that I'd be doing the same if I'm watching Fedor's last fight. I'm cheering for him. I like to do that. I like to see these legends go out on top. We've seen a couple of them retire in this last month, and make no mistake, I know people are going to be rooting for him, but on the flip side, I have a job to do, and my job is to go out there, spoil that party, and go out there and do what I came here to do: retain that belt, win that fight, and move on and hope for the best – and there'll be respect there no matter what."
Emelianenko has an opportunity to claim the Bellator heavyweight title in his final appearance, but it will certainly be a tall order. He's currently a +260 underdog at SISportsbook.com, giving him an implied probability of winning at just under 28 percent, but in the grand scheme of things, the result hardly matters in terms of Emelianenko's legacy.
MMA legends Josh Barnett, Coleman, Couture, Renzo Gracie, Royce Gracie, Dan Henderson, Matt Hughes, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Chuck Liddell, Frank Shamrock and Chael Sonnen are just a few of the sport's luminaries who have committed to attending Saturday's event to witness the end of an absolutely incredible career.
Emelianenko's reputation is already secure, and he has simple ideas of how he wants the sport to think of him once his fighting days are done.
"First of all, I want to be remembered as an Orthodox Christian," Emelianenko said through an interpreter. "Second of all, I want to be remembered, especially for my fans, as an athlete who gained his popularity, his fanbase, based on the fighting skills, not based on the trash-talk or all the nasty stuff that's going around right now. That's how I want to be remembered."