As Fedor Emelianenko struggled to escape the clutches of Antonio Silva last night during the opening round of the Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix, I found myself thinking about his nickname, "The Last Emporer".
My mind went to the list of great fighters who fought under the Pride banner. A list that Emelianenko is at the front of, his accomplishments over the course of the promotions lifespan unrivaled. A list that is also now a who's who of fighters who are either no longer in the sport or are more often than not finding themselves used as punching bags and grappling dummies for young and hungry newcomers.
Big Nog and Wanderlei Silva find themselves as gatekeepers in their respective divisions, a term that was once unthinkable to ascribe to either man. Dan Henderson, once a two division champion is on the eve of his second attempt to win a title in a second tier promotion. Cro Cop fights only for the money now, his once feared left high kick now only shows up in a highlight package used to prop up his largely irrelevant bouts. And now Emelianenko, the standard bearer of the era has fallen and many have anointed this the final chapter in the greatest era this young sport has known.
Yet the famous phrase "Pride Never Die" lives on in two men who remain at the highest level of the sport, two men whose careers have meandered in the time since Pride folded but who have won the fights they needed to win to keep themselves at the top. One a current champion, the other a legitimate title contender in the most talent filled division in the sport.
They are Shogun Rua and Rampage Jackson.
Shogun Rua entered the UFC at 26, two years removed from capturing the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. He had lost just once in his Pride career, when he broke his arm during the first minute of a bout against Mark Coleman. After losing his UFC debut to Forrest Griffin he avenged his loss to Coleman, put Chuck Liddell on the fast track to retirement and split two fights with the poster child for the new era of MMA, Lyoto Machida. And many think that he won both those fights.
He is known for his spectacular offensive game, yet his ability to avoid punishment is very underrated. He has never been stopped due to strikes and it is hard for anyone to recall a fight in which he was hurt badly by his opponent. At 29 years of age he has amazingly just entered his prime. Three knee surgeries have some questioning his long-term viability but it's my opinion that the brain is more important in fighting than the body and a fighter with his smarts should be able to adjust to any physical shortcomings he may now have.
As for Quinton Jackson, his career since Pride has been as rocky as his days in the organization. For every big fight he wins, he seems to lose another. He entered the UFC with victories over Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson, first to become the UFC Light Heavyweight champion, then unifying the belts of both promotions. He followed that by losing an uninspired contest with Forrest Griffin and he made headlines for being involved in a hit and run incident just weeks after the bout. His career seemed like it was on the verge of decline, but Rampage avenged his two losses to Wanderlei Silva with a crushing knockout of Silva in December of 2008 and jumped right back into the title picture with a win over Keith Jardine. True to form though he took two steps forward and one step back as he took time off to make a movie before losing a number one contender match against Rashad Evans in a much hyped fight less than one year ago.
Following his most recent bout, a closely contested victory over Lyoto Machida, Rampage is once again at the front of the line for the title. He was even given a chance to battle Shogun in March at UFC 128 but he turned it down due to the short notice. Jackson will instead battle it out with Matt Hamil, a very winnable fight for him that should leave him next in line.
The man who will take his place is Jon Jones, already anointed the next big thing, an incredible young talent who has dominated every opponent he has faced in the cage. Jones is a 2-1 favorite going into the fight, a somewhat incredible line considering the amazing career that Shogun has had while being at the top of the sport for many years. Maybe it isn't a surprise that Shogun finds himself as an afterthought though. He has rarely been given his proper due, as evidenced by the widespread declaration that the fall of Emelianenko goes hand in hand with the fall of Pride.
For this fan, in the ashes of these many great fighters two men remain, still carrying the torch of a great era. Pride Never Die indeed.