Born into a working-class family in Rubeshnoe Lugansk, Russia, in 1976, MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko established himself as a man of intelligence when he graduated with honors from college in 1994. But alongside his penchant for academic achievement lived a spirit of competition. After serving two years in the Russian army, he let that side of himself surface, winning a national judo tournament and the European Sambo Championship in 1997. Five years later, he placed first at the World Sambo Championship.
Grappling wasn’t the only facet of the combat arts at which, Fedor Emelianenko excelled. His punching ability grew hand in hand with his ground skills. One reason for his rapid development was his reliance on old-school training methods, such as standing out in the cold and hitting truck tires with a sledgehammer. Further assistance came from little brother Aleksander Emelianenko—who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 275 pounds.
Fedor Emelianenko Enters the MMA Forum
While many a sport grappler would be content to remain in that realm and be the big frog in the small pond, Fedor Emelianenko wanted to test himself further by plunging into the MMA arena. On August 16, 2000, he made his MMA debut in Russia, dispatching his opponent with a choke. His next bout, also in his home country and less than a month after the first, saw him crush his adversary with an onslaught of punches.
The lure of Japan—the world’s biggest market for MMA—led Fedor Emelianenko to make that country his professional haven. His first RINGS fight was against Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter Ricardo Arona. Arona was undefeated at the time and had just beaten Russian leg-lock specialist Andrei Kopylov and American submission master Jeremy Horn. Fedor Emelianenko wasn’t intimidated, however, and he wound up handing Ricardo Arona his first loss (unanimous decision).
A subsequent Fedor Emelianenko appearance in RINGS ended with a decision victory over the highly regarded Renato “Babalu” Sobral, leading the Russian to eventually win the RINGS World Title Series tournament in 2001.
Fedor: MMA’s New Emperor
Fedor Emelianenko was now a champion MMA fighter, but it wasn’t until he stepped into the PRIDE ring that he sent notice around the world that there was a new sheriff in town. His first match was a tall order in more ways than one. Opponent Semmy Schilt stood 6 feet 11 inches tall and possessed an undefeated record in PRIDE (all victories by knockout). Fedor Emelianenko knew that because he was giving away almost a foot in height, he’d have to devise a sound game plan to avoid becoming another victim. When the bell sounded, Semmy Schilt was tough, but Fedor Emelianenko was unstoppable with his takedowns. He kept the Dutchman on his back and punished him with punches from the guard. The judges voted in favor of Fedor Emelianenko.
Things didn’t get any easier after that bout. Fedor Emelianenko’s next opponent was Heath Herring. Since the American moved to Holland to train under muay Thai wizard Cor Hemmers, he’d become a force to be reckoned in the MMA arena. Despite two decision losses in PRIDE, Heath Herring had managed to stop Mark Kerr, Enson Inoue and Tom Erikson, and he decisioned Igor Vovchanchyn. In the ring, Fedor Emelianenko’s took matters into his own hands. Few had seen such a display of the ground-and-pound style. The Russian shifted position often and blasted Herring with every move. The Yank was reduced to the status of a punching bag. He didn’t make it to the second round.
Now it was time for what many have called the MMA equivalent of Frazier vs. Ali. Within the PRIDE organization, it involved heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko’s. Rodrigo Nogueira had ruled supreme since leaving RINGS in 2001. He submitted virtually everyone he faced, including Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Schilt, Dan Henderson, Bob Sapp and Inoue. On March 16, 2003, the two clashed. Did Emelianenko heed the lesson the Brazilian had taught the world—to stay out of his guard? No. Instead, he jumped into the fire and spent most of the match in Rodrigo Nogueira’s guard. While there, the Russian defended against triangle-choke and armbar attempts as he unloaded a string of punches. At one point, he hit Rodrigo Nogueira so hard most people thought it was over, but the BJJ fighter endured—only to lose the decision. Fedor Emelianenko was now at the top of the MMA world.
Fedor Emelianenko Defends his MMA Title
He ended up facing Rodrigo Nogueira two more times. The first rematch occurred on August 15, 2004, in the last fight of the PRIDE Final Conflict tournament. Rodrigo Nogueira went into the match deserving of the opportunity, having defeated Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Herring, Ricco Rodriguez and Sergie Kharitonov. But Fedor Emelianenko hadn’t rested on his laurels during that time, either. After training like a madman, he bested Coleman, Goodridge, Kazuyuki Fujita and Kevin Randleman.
The rematch started just like the first one ended: Fedor Emelianenko was on top and in Rodrigo Nogueira’s guard, trying to punch while dodging submission attempts. But because of an accidental head butt that resulted in a gash over the Russian’s eye, the action was halted and the match ruled a no contest.
PRIDE quickly scheduled the third go-around for December 31, 2004. On the line was not only the Final Conflict tournament belt but also Fedor Emelianenko’s individual heavyweight-championship title. When the match commenced, it was immediately apparent that Fedor Emelianenko was using a different approach. He danced around and threw punches from the outside. The two rarely went to the ground, with Fedor Emelianenko’s quickness proving too much for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter. It was a unanimous decision in favor of the Russian.
Over the years, Fedor Emelianenko has proved his ability to size up his opponents’ weaknesses, force them out of their comfort zone and make them fight his fight. And because he has world-class takedowns, submissions techniques and strikes, he can make adjustments on the fly and serve up a completely different fight than the one his opponent was expecting. A thinking man’s fighter, he never engages in public displays of emotion. He shows his opposition nothing but respect.
For having triumphed in the traditiona sambo and judo and for having transformed himself into perhaps the most feared MMA fighter in the world, Black Belt is honored to name Fedor Emelianenko, who is still undefeated in PRIDE, its 2004 NHB Fighter of the Year.