In most sports, when one of the greatest of all time decides it’s almost time to hang up the sneakers or gloves or whatever the correct analogy is, every appearance that athlete has left feels like a major event. We just saw this with Kobe Bryant walking away from the NBA and Peyton Manning riding into the sunset following his final NFL game. Whether it’s been officially announced or it’s just speculation, fans are smart enough to realize when the end is near.
When that day finally comes, it’s almost inevitable that fans make sure to properly celebrate the final few performances from one of their heroes while the opportunity is still there. And they should. These athletes put their bodies through hell and back in order to entertain the fans (and make a little money in the process), and if you’ve reached all-time great status in your respective field, then it only makes sense for the fans to lay out the red carpet for your final few performances.
Unless, of course, you’re an MMA fighter.
Maybe it’s because the sport is barely 20 years old and many of even the earliest of legends are still either competing or attempting to compete at the highest level, but for some reason the MMA community doesn’t feel the need to cater to fighters reaching the last portions of their career the way that other sports have done. Due to how quickly MMA fighters see their abilities decline once they’ve started to pass their prime, it’s almost never a surprise when a former champion or legend of the sport decides to call it quits. Guys like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva became living legends for their ability to both take and dish out punishment, but the end of the road approaches quickly once a brawler’s chin starts to decay.
Much like how Bryant and Manning struggled through some uncharacteristic performances over their final games, MMA fighters start to suffer in the same way. Yet instead of remembering how good they used to be, the win-now mentality of fight fans allows them to go from viewing someone as a championship-level fighter to considering them to be a washed-up has-been in the blink of an eye.
As evidenced by Fedor Emelianenko, you can win 30 fights in a row and be considered a god amongst men in this sport, but drop three straight and all of the sudden your bandwagon is empty and it’s become impossible to make fans care again.
Emelianenko is an interesting case. Before his small losing streak started in 2010, he had one of the most passionate and outspoken groups of fans MMA has ever seen. While the most casual of fans were focused on Brock Lesnar and the UFC’s heavyweight division in the late 2000s, there was still a huge and very vocal part of the audience that made sure Fedor never relinquished his hold as the best fighter in the sport despite not competing on the big stage. But once he dropped three in a row and declined to sign with the UFC after Strikeforce folded, a three-fight winning streak to then supposedly close out his career wasn’t enough to really get fans back on board. To top it off, even a return to the cage this past December was met with lackluster anticipation, despite it having been three years since anyone had seen the greatest heavyweight of all time compete.
Admittedly, Emelianenko’s competition hasn’t exactly been top notch since he started competing overseas again. However, the lack of fan interest has almost been bothersome during his last few outings. No, this isn’t the Emelianenko that went toe-to-toe with Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, but the fact that fans can’t be bothered to watch one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport compete a few more times is mind-blowing. Throw in that any one of these fights could be Fedor’s last and it becomes even more surreal.
Emelianenko is set to return to the cage next month against UFC veteran Fabio Maldonado on a Fight Nights Global card in Russia, and it seems unlikely that fans are going to care about this bout any more than they cared about Fedor’s last outing. There are plenty of reasons they should, though. For one, Maldonado is one of the most entertaining brawlers in recent MMA history and is almost guaranteed to give Emelianenko a fun fight. The bout is also airing on UFC Fight Pass. Many fight fans already have a Fight Pass subscription, and it’s cheap enough at $10 a month that those who do not can easily justify dropping the cash just for the opportunity to watch this event.
The biggest reason any fight fan worth their salt should be all in on this card is simply because Emelianenko is competing. Fight fans have let their heroes fade to black with little fanfare too many times now. This shouldn’t be the case when the fighter is Fedor.