The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Death of A Story

Here’s the thing about Fedor Emelianenko: he is at the least one of the greatest fighters in MMA history, probably the greatest; and if that were all he was, tonight would be a sad occasion- the first sign of fall off of a true legend, like when Ali’s reflexes finally began to go or Jordan couldn’t get to the rack anymore. I would not be laughing and celebrating this result tonight; I’d be melancholy the way I was when Lewis beat Holyfield. But that’s not all that Fedor was. Over the second half of his career, half by accident and half by the design of his management he and his winning streak became a symbol of many things, and so part of what we’ve seen tonight is the breaking of that symbol. Ultimately, and with due respect to Fabricio Werdum, that is going to matter far more than a single fight result.

The MMA internet is a strange place. Because the sport is still so new and so close to its wilderness years a greater percentage of fans are hardcores than of almost any other sport, and a greater percentage of those hardcores participate online. When your sport has been legally banned in many places and has been at best an underground thing for years, it’s hard to find anyplace else to share your appreciation for it with like-minded people. But that has also bred a certain insularity, a tendency towards groupthink; and has been pointed out many times over by many people the relation of these fans towards Zuffa- the company which pulled MMA in North America out of the doldrums and re-popularized it- has been something like the reaction of hardcore fans to a band which suddenly makes it big. There’s the hostility to new fans, the attachment to the idea that it was all somehow better in the past when fewer people were interested, the fear of change and some vaguely-defined “selling out.” Fedor has been a symbol to these fans: the last of the PRIDE superstars, the guy who was the best of the best when the best weren’t with Zuffa, the one guy out of that list who never fought in the UFC.

People hate Zuffa. In many cases there’s good reason for this as they have been accused with justice of treating some fighters shabbily, there’s a legitimate argument that their pay standards are too low, they have a public face of the company who’s regarded as amazingly overbearing and obnoxious by a significant portion of the fanbase, and they represent a particular atmospheric and promotional take on the sport- disciplined but somewhat meat-headed testosterone- which bothers many people, particularly those who were weaned on BJJ culture and the Japanese-style atmosphere of traditional martial arts and PRIDE. Some of this is ludicrous of course- the silliness surrounding the Matt Lindland situation is an obvious example- but there’s more than enough truth in it to provide air to the fires of sentiment. Fedor, and more specifically the management which has controlled his career and conducted a PR guerrilla war with Zuffa in recent years, has become a symbol for these people- the apparently incorruptible man who wants to do things his way, a different way, a way outside of Zuffa and Dana White’s dominance. Quiet where Dana is brash, foreign where Dana is quintessentially American, a fighter where the face of UFC is a promoter, Fedor has been the perfectly opposed symbol for those hoping that first PRIDE, then Affliction, then Strikeforce would be the ones to tear down Zuffa’s dominance for good.

MMA is a new sport, ever-changing, ever-developing. It’s not like boxing where the consensus best fighter in history fought half a century ago and no one has fundamentally improved on what he was able to do in the intervening span of time. With each flood of new athletes into the sport the threshold of innate athleticism required to be world-class has gone up and a new style has come to define the sport. First it was BJJ vs. anyone who showed up, then wrestling was added to the mix, then more-skilled striking counteracted the wrestling, and so on in turn up until the current era where the big topic is whether high-level wrestling is going to destroy the sport with boring top-control fights. Some people love to see great wrestling in MMA and for them, Brock Lesnar is the purest expression of that style. He’s their symbol. He’s also become the symbol of the unavoidable march of athletic improvement in a sport which used to have the absolute dregs of the athlete pool participating. Brock is bigger than those who came before, quicker at that weight than those who came before, he was among the best in the nation at what he did for a base before breaking into MMA and the men to beat him will have to be that much bigger and stronger and quicker and more skilled to compete with him. Fedor in turn had become the opposing symbol: a short, dumpy, undersized man with no wrestling background who was seemingly able to compete with and beat the best in the world using only those skills which dominated the sport before the influx of American-style wrestling excellence. He was the hope that great wrestling could eventually be turned back before it achieved total dominance of the sport, and that MMA fighters- so long closer in both appearance, ability and lifestyle to their fans than, say, NFL players or NBA players- were not destined to end up as hyper-specialized world-class athletes on a different plain from their audience. A fan of a certain mindset could look at Fedor and think: man, that guy’s just like me, but he’s kicking ass! No fan does that with Brock Lesnar. Ever.

There’s so much more that’s been heaped on Fedor in the last few years. Media members with a grudge against Dana White have used Fedor as a stick to beat him with on pound-for-pound discussions; MMA fans who don’t want to admit that anything can be learned from boxing’s problems have used his apparent success as an argument for the boxing model of the fight business (fighter and manager/promoter negotiating directly with a network) over the Zuffa model; fans who want to believe that nothing can be learned from other sports- particularly boxing- have used his apparent ongoing success as a club to beat away common-sense observations that 33 year olds often have begun losing their athletic edge, everyone loses eventually, and that how a fighter performs can often tell you as much as whether he wins or loses; new fans who want to prove to older fans that they’re not just fly-by-nighters, that they deserve to be in the club, have adulation for Fedor as their ticket in; there’s a hundred more examples. Fedor has become a perfect blank Other, a fighter who through his own blandness and silence and his management’s machinations has developed into a screen onto which a whole collection of people project their own desires. So long as he kept winning, everyone who had a stake in him representing something could point to him as an argument or a demonstration or an exemplar. Almost everyone in the sport bought into this, ironically including Dana White: his constant quest to sign Fedor in recent years hasn’t been about drawing power (UFC has plenty of stars) or killing Strikeforce (Fedor leaving wouldn’t do that, nor will his loss tonight); neither of those reasons explain his being willing to pay far, far over the odds for a man who would have walked into UFC on day 1 as the highest paid fighter under contract. It’s been because White has known what a symbol Fedor had become to so many people, and in doing so he’d become a symbol to White as well: the one guy he still had to get, the last uncontrolled bit of a sport which he regards as his by right of conquest. To UFC, just as much to everyone else, Fedor’s value was in the myth he represented.

All of that is what died tonight with Fedor’s winning streak. If he’s not unconquerable and instead just really good, if he’s a man who can beat the best but also lose fairly easily by submission to a guy who was cut from UFC not so long ago and who went life-and-death with Giant Silva more recently, then his value as a symbol is broken. Now, at last, he is to everyone else what he seemingly always was to himself: a somewhat undersized heavyweight with plain tastes and a quiet personality whose first love is sambo, nothing special to his look, a great fighter but not an unbeatable one- a guy who’s fun to watch but not a man able to fill out the mass of expectations and needs woven around him. Just a fighter. There is no shame in this, none at all, and I have no doubt that for the man himself this is enough; but little of what has gone on around Fedor Emelianenko in recent years has been about him.

There are going to be people who do not accept this, who for one reason or another need to keep the legend alive. There will be in the coming weeks and months an effort to say that for all time and all places Fedor has to be the greatest fighter of all time regardless of what happens after, no matter how many wins Anderson Silva and GSP run off and no matter how many great fighters they beat. The cliche runs: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. That’s what they’re going to try to do to keep the symbol alive, to draw attention away from the man and back to the stories they’ve created around him. For a small and shrinking number of people that effort will probably never end, but don’t fool yourself: the game is up as of tonight. Time will march on; better fighters than Fedor will come along as the sport evolves and Zuffa as the industry leader is not going to lift one finger to aid the mythmaking of the people they regard as- and are regarded as by- enemies. Fedor’s negotiating leverage is over and he’s rapidly arcing towards the end of his career. If he ends up in UFC now it’ll be as just another guy, an interesting new matchup and nothing more. Just a fighter, at last.

The era of myths and legends in MMA is just about over now; the era of sports and athletes has finally dawned for good and for ill. Tonight in the eyes of many the universally recognized heavyweight championship of the world was contested between a Brazilian BJJ player and a Russian sambo fighter outside of Zuffa auspices; a week from tonight the universally recognized heavyweight championship of the world will be contested between two big, athletic, American wrestlers at UFC 116. A changing of the guard doesn’t get much plainer. The last word is, fittingly, Fedor’s:

“It happens so that I was made an idol. Everybody loses. That happens. I’m an ordinary human being as all of us are.”

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June 27, 2010 - Posted by | MMA

2 Comments »

  1. FYI: I don’t want to clutter the original post any more than it is already, but stuff like this is the kind of storytelling to which I’m referring:

    http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2010/6/27/1539607/everyone-in-mma-including-dana

    Comment by theshipbesinking | June 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. I agree totally. I also think this was a perfect result. Now we can go back to ranking fighters based on in-the-cage performance rather than Legend. Sure, there will still be sites and trolls that will continue with legacy, but I am confident that some normalcy will come to the heavyweight division now that we can look at the winner of Brock-Carwin as THE MAN.

    BTW, I know Sean is away, but come on over for the fight. We’ll be here.

    Comment by Tony M | June 28, 2010 | Reply


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