In late 2015, it was announced that heavyweight legend and GOAT-contender Fedor Emelianenko planned to emerge from a short-lived retirement, and return to competition. Not surprisingly, this news sent the MMA world into a frenzy. When it was announced that Fedor was in talks with the UFC, our collective excitement came to a boiling point.
As we now know, however, Fedor did not sign with the UFC. He didn’t join Bellator’s respectable heavyweight roster either. He didn’t even land in World Series of Fighting or One Championship. Instead, the Russian’s comeback would take him to the ring of a brand-spanking-new Japanese promotion helmed by former Pride boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara: Rizin Fighting Federation.
A strange twist, but perhaps all was not lost.
Though the heavyweight division is often maligned for its lack of depth, there are plenty of decent heavyweights on the free agent list. All Rizin had to do was find a capable UFC exile or competent journeyman to welcome Fedor back into the fold—surely not a difficult task. Instead, however, after weeks and weeks of rumors and anticipation, it was announced that Fedor’s comeback fight would see him take on a largely unknown kickboxing export named Jaideep Singh, whose MMA record stood at a paltry 2-0. And not surprisingly, Fedor blew through this irrefutable squash match to a first round TKO.
While this long-anticipated comeback was altogether anticlimactic, however, Fedor’s legions of dedicated fans did their best to maintain their optimism. Some were even able to rationalize Rizin’s choosing Singh as Fedor’s comeback opponent. The heavyweight legend hadn’t fought in years. He was rusty. He needed a tune-up fight and that’s what he got. Surely, he’d get a real test in his next bout.
Unfortunately, these rationalizations now look like little more than wishful thinking, as Fedor’s next opponent has been announced, and the news isn’t great. His next fight will go down on June 17 in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he’ll tangle with Brazilian UFC-outcast, Fabio Maldonado.
Of course, Maldonado is no slouch. During his time as a UFC fighter, he scored some nice wins over names like James McSweeney, Joey Beltran, Gian Villante, and Hans Stringer. His UFC career also saw him emerge as a fan-favorite as he engaged in memorable wars with the likes of Kyle Kingsbury, Glover Teixeira, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, and others. This rundown of his UFC accomplishments, however, quickly reminds that Maldonado is a light heavyweight—and a small one at that.
At just 6’1, and with a physique that probably won’t be earning him a spot on the cover of Men’s Health, he has never been one of the 205-pound division’s most physical players. And while Maldonado has made a trip north to heavyweight in the past, taking on the surging Stipe Miocic back in 2014, we all remember how that went. The notoriously durable Brazilian lasted just 35 seconds before he had his batteries removed by a bigger, stronger man. Yet, he’s now been paired with Fedor who, though far from a big heavyweight, will still be the bigger, stronger man on the canvas in St. Petersburg.
Fedor’s advantages extend far beyond his physical tools. Even a quick glance reveals that the Russian is a nightmare matchup for Maldonado.
While Maldonado is known for his boxing and high-volume body shots, he’s not known for his one-punch knockout power, and so his planting a fight-ending punch on Fedor’s chin seems unlikely. Fedor, meanwhile, packs a serious wallop, and seems more than capable of landing a fight-ender on Maldonado. Furthermore, Maldonado’s ground game has always been his most glaring weakness. He’s been out-grappled multiple times, and has only won two of his 31 fights by submission—both by guillotine. Fedor, on the other hand, is a decorated sambo and judo player who has ended many a night on the mat—some via submission, others with his ring-shaking ground-and-pound.
So, while Maldonado is no slouch, and will always deserve our respect for his lionheartedness, it is truly hard to imagine how he could possibly defeat Fedor Emelianenko. Despite his strengths, the Brazilian looks like a tailor-made opponent for the aging Russian.
That sort of takes the fun out of things, doesn’t it?
Besides, it’s not like there weren’t other choices for Fedor out there. Bellator’s Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, who blew through Rizin’s inaugural heavyweight tournament, has been chomping at the bit for a “moneyweight” bout with the Russian great. New Bellator signee Wanderlei Silva has also said he’d be up for the challenge. Any number of other Bellator heavies—Cheick Kongo, Matt Mitrione, Bobby Lashley, et cetera—could probably also have been convinced to take the trip to Russia. Even outside the Bellator/Rizin bubble, there are plenty of options. Hot-and-cold former UFC fighter Shawn Jordan is currently a free agent. Burly heavyweight Konstantin Erokhin, reviled as he may be for his recent snoozer with Gabriel Gonzaga, is also on the market. Decorated wrestler Jared Rosholt was also recently released from the UFC, and would surely jump at the chance to fight a great like Fedor. Yes, the fight game is crawling with willing and available heavyweights, any number of which would have made better choices than an inconsistent light heavyweight like Maldonado.
Granted, it’s easy to understand Rizin’s reluctance to pair Fedor with a truly dangerous opponent. He is their cash cow; the wind that is keeping them afloat. He is also getting older, and is far more fragile than he once was. But this is Fedor Emelianenko we’re talking about. The Last Emperor. The greatest heavyweight of all time. Yes, he’s getting older. No, he can no longer take punishment like he used to. But to spoon-feed a fighter of his caliber is ridiculous, and doing so for much longer is almost certain to deflate the already waning interest of the fans.
So, it’s back to hoping for Fedor fans. Back to hoping that after his bout with Maldonado, he’ll be given a legitimate test for the first time since his days in the Strikeforce cage. Until then, all we can do is do our best to enjoy Rizin’s bizarre style of matchmaking, and take solace in the fact that any Fedor fight is better than no Fedor fight at all.
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