“I love my sport and I still feel I’m at my best right now. The clock is running. I’m not getting any younger. I’m in the peak of my career and if there is a shot, there is another goal, another run, I’d better do it and do it quick, because it is time to do it now.”
His words echoed around the fighting world and let’s face it, the excitement they generated was completely understandable. Georges St-Pierre, a man widely considered to be the greatest welterweight ever to compete in MMA and arguably one of the best fighters of all time, announced his return to the world of fighting and specifically to the UFC. As far as statements go, this was pretty much hitting-it-outta-the-park.
Fedor Emilianenko’s approach to addressing his possible expedition into the shark-infested waters of the UFC, was a lot less animated, but generated just as much buzz.
“Yes,” Emelianenko mouthed stern-faced, while talking through a translator to MMA journalist and inside-scoop man Ariel Helwani. “In a word, yes. That possibility does exist.”
The Last Emperor and GSP sounding out their “I’m back” statements within a week of each other? For MMA fans across the globe, it was an early Christmas. But once the excitement dies down, one needs to examine the reality of the situation. Both men will sell pay-per-views by the bucketful no-one doubts that, but can they truly offer anything to a rapidly evolving sport? Or are they just being led astray by their own egos shouting “one last time”, therefore destined to be shattered by younger and much more agile fighters? Is this double comeback special doomed to be a car-wreck that people just want to watch unfold in front of their eyes?
In the case of Fedor Emilianenko, the signs are surely not good. Completing his contract with the Eurasia Fight Nights promotion, the Last Emperor’s fight against strong-hitter but ultimately limited bruiser Fabio Maldonado, was meant to be a show piece for the legendary Russian heavyweight. Playing in front of a home crowd in the Sibur Arena in St Petersburg, Emilianenko was supposed to dust the Brazilian within a single round and ride triumphantly towards the golden gates of the UFC. Maldonado was being led to the slaughter, in honour of Fedor. Clearly no-one told the Brazilian. Maldonado managed to drop Fedor in the first round and arguably the fight should have been stopped, but in the words of UFC head honcho Dana White “Those refs were willing to let him die before they stopped that fight”.
And for anyone that watched the bout, those words are sadly closer to the truth than they should be. The fight did indeed go on and Fedor was able to weather the storm and eventually win by a highly controversial majority decision. The Last Emperor however looked very, VERY mortal. Mortal is not a word you’d easily connect with the Russian. Scarily dead-eyed, ruthlessly efficient with his bulldozer-like attacks and with a chin made of solid stone, Fedor in his prime was a monster, a behemoth of a man who struck fear in his opponents well before he stepped inside an arena to face them. From what we saw in St Petersburg, only the chin remains.
Rusty and unable to put a fading veteran like Maldonado away, it’s depressing to think that Fedor would make little headway in a UFC heavyweight division hardly overflowing with quality. But it seems difficult to find another way of looking at it.
One could argue that in the case of Georges St-Pierre, the situation he faces could be even more devastating to his legacy.
A fighter of unparalleled fighting nous and striking/ground game selection when he was on his tiger-ish A-game, St-Pierre was a pleasure to watch inside the Octagon. A shrewd tactician that morphed his game as time started taking away his explosiveness and sinewy ability to move quicker than any opponent, St-Pierre decided to leave at just the right time, defending his belt all the way, even though many say that he should have lost his last ever match inside the UFC octagon (and thus his belt) to Johnny “Big Rig” Hendricks at UFC 167. Because let’s get something straight. Hendricks BATTERED St-Pierre. Did “Rush” edge it by playing a game of survival? The judges thought he did, but this needs to be said: Hendricks brutally punished St-Pierre.
Since then, St-Pierre has always nudged and prodded at rumors surrounding his return, but only now has he fully confirmed that he’s going to fight again. Will he target the welterweight strap? If so, he’ll quickly find that the welterweight world he once used to rule over is unrecognisable. In “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler, the division has a champion that is scarily strong and ridiculously resilient, as he proved in bone-shaking matches against both Rory McDonald and Carlos Condit. But rushing up below him, is a pool of fighters so exciting, so amazingly skilled, that former champion Hendricks has now dropped to number six status in the standings.
Men like Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, Tyron Woodley, grappling master Damien Maia or the resurgent Condit would be more than a test for “Rush” and right now, one would be hard pressed to hand the advantage to the Canadian against any of these fighters.
It’s true that time waits for no man and the fighting game can be an especially difficult lover to win back once you’ve decided to step away from it for a while.
But both Fedor and “Rush” have decided to give it one last (?) shot and at 39- and 35-years-old respectively, people expecting to see glimpses of the fighters who once dominated all comers, will probably be sorely disappointed.
Perhaps the way forward will be a series of super-fights and one-offs, much like the one that slotted perfectly in the UFC 200 card, with one time champion Brock Lesnar taking on walk-away hitter Mark Hunt. No belts on the line, no talk of championship runs, just two heavyweights standing opposite each other and a world that wants to see them throw down.
Even so, something like that doesn’t quite fit in with what we know of both Emilianenko and St-Pierre. Both men have built a near legendary legacy in the fight game and rightly so. Such legacies however have strong, brain-bending voices, voices that are calling them, promising championship belts and old glories. And for Fedor and “Rush” those sweet, siren-like calls could be leading them to their octagon doom.