When you look over the card for this weekend's Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson show, an interesting theme begins to emerge. A number of the names on this card - men like Robbie Lawler and "JZ" Gesias Cavalcante - are fighters who find themselves at a crossroads in their career. These are fighters who have reached high points in their MMA journey, but now find themselves in danger of becoming irrelevant. Due to a variety of factors, this theme is particularly timely at this point in Strikeforce history.
Once viewed as the little regional promotion with the power to some day challenge the UFC, Strikeforce was elevated to the national level when they inherited much of EliteXC's position, including deals with Showtime and CBS. But with that rise came many more challenges. The company struggled to keep their top names engaged and active, while also having difficulty building up much new talent. The end result is the situation they find themselves in today, where a number of their potential draws are near the end of the line, hoping to hold on.
Of all the fighters under the Strikeforce banner, perhaps no one better embodies this idea than Saturday's night's main eventer, The Last Emperor, Fedor Emelianenko.
The legend of Fedor looms large over this card, and indeed over the entire MMA landscape. Not since the early days of the Gracies has a fighter developed such a mythic reputation as that once held by Fedor, the undefeated, unstoppable, emotionless Russian destroyer. But the key word in that sentence is once. Because that reputation is no more.
During the Pride days, Fedor reigned supreme, meeting the top non-UFC Heavyweights of the day and vanquishing them with apparent ease. Mirko Cro Cop, Minotauro Nogueira, Mark Coleman and so many more stepped up to the plate, and all fell without even appearing to hurt Fedor. Then, in 2007, Pride, like Strikeforce, was purchased by Zuffa, and the doors closed. Not long after, people began complaining about Fedor, arguing that he hadn't faced much top competition, that his record was artificially inflated by sub-par opposition. Wins in 2008 and 2009 over Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, both considered top 5 heavyweights at the time, did nothing to quiet this opposition to the Fedor legend, nor did a defeat of Brett Rogers that saw Fedor in trouble for maybe the 3rd time in his 10 year career.
Then, in 2010, Fabricio Werdum seemed to justify every complaint of Fedor with his 1 minute submission of the former champion, giving Fedor his first true taste of defeat in MMA competition. Some fans were shocked, some were vindicated, but all wanted to know what would come next for Fedor. The answer was in many ways even more shocking than the Werdum loss. Against Werdum, Fedor made a critical lapse in judgement, allowing himself to be caught in the guard of a submission master and paying the price. But in 2011, against Antonio Silva, Fedor was simply beaten up, mercilessly, for 10 minutes. Bigfoot Silva used his size and power to pummel Fedor until the doctors had seen enough. Werdum may have been the man to end the undefeated streak, but Silva was the man to truly shatter the Fedor mythology.
Now, Fedor finds himself at that proverbial crossroads. Overwhelmed by Silva's size, he has decided to move down to a smaller opponent, facing Dan Henderson, the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion and another true legend of the sport, at a catchwight of 220 pounds.
What would a third straight loss mean to the career of Emelianenko? At one point, there was talk that it would mean retirement. Fedor has since tried to quiet that talk, but after 10 hard years of professional fighting, there is no denying this possibility. If he doesn't retire, what other options does he have? Stay in Strikeforce until it is absorbed by the UFC, toiling in the supremely stacked Light Heavyweight division? Move into the sort of legends circuit of the UFC, facing men like Rich Franklin and Tito Ortiz? And the most important question - would Dana White, a long time vocal critic of Fedor and his business dealings, have any interest in keeping him around after 3 straight losses?
Earlier this year, Fedor signed a 4 fight contract with Strikeforce. The Henderson fight represents the 2nd on that contract, meaning Fedor should have at least two more fights guaranteed. But not many details about the contract have been made public, and Fedor's management is notorious for strongly negotiating contract terms. It's unclear if another loss would allow Strikeforce to release Fedor from his contract, or if those four fights are guaranteed.
If Fedor does lose, and Zuffa doesn't choose to have him around, with their power in North America, and MMA in Japan struggling to stay afloat, there are not many worldwide options for a name like Fedor to command the kind of price tag he wants. Certainly he could compete for M-1, and maybe that is indeed where he would end up, but it would be a serious step down in visibility for a man once considered to be the very best in the sport.
For Fedor then, Saturday's main event may hold the key to his future in the sport. On one side - a loss and possible retirement or removal from the marquee promotions in MMA. On the other side - victory and another shot at one of the sport's best.
And for us, the fans? It could be the last chance to see one of the sport's true legends compete. That's a moment not to be missed.