via Sherdog Photo by Jeff Sherwood
Yesterday I discussed Dan Henderson's successful run through the first Rings King of Kings tournament in 1999 culminating in his win over Renato Sobral in the finals. Today, let's take a look at the Fedor Emelianenko's success in the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2004. Before jumping into discussing the tournament, you must first know that prior to the culmination at Shockwave 2004, Fedor had not yet claimed the role as "Greatest Heavyweight of All Time". His career in Pride had been impressive but it was this tournament that really placed him at the top of the division above all of his contemporaries.
The tournament would kick off at Total Elimination comprised of the best Heavyweights that Pride had on the roster. Murilo Rua would also move up in weight to represent the Chute Boxe academy. Former UFC champions Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, Mirko Filipovic, and Semmy Schilt joined Emelianenko and Nogueira in the incredibly deep field of of 16 fighters. In the opening round Fedor was matched up with Mark Coleman, who had rediscovered himself in Japan and was 7-2 in the promotion including winning the 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix. Prior to the bout the fight world was unsure how Fedor would handle a hard nosed American wrestler as his guard game was untested in competition. Coleman got the takedown and was quickly submitted by an armbar. It was an impressive win that answered a lot of questions regarding Fedor's ability to fight off his back.
The win advanced Fedor to the quarter finals to fight Kevin Randleman, Coleman's teammate, who had shocked everyone by knocking out Mirko Cro Cop. Randleman entered the fight 4-2 in Pride riding the major upset win over the always dangerous Cro Cop. This fight had the added story of the student avenging his teacher as Coleman had filled a bit of a mentor role as the leader of Hammer House. The entire fight lasts only 1:33 but it provides perhaps the most exciting and terrifying moment in MMA history when Randleman took Fedor's back and with a jumping suplex dropped Fedor on his head. Everyone was stunned at this technique until Fedor used the momentum to sweep and then submit Kevin Randleman with a kimura. This come from behind victory is still one of the greatest displays of heart in MMA and cemented Fedor as an absolute fan favorite.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his fight against Naoya Ogawa at Final Conflict 2004, though it really is difficult trying to talk this fight up. Ogawa was a Olympic Silver Medalist in Judo and wasn't exactly a terrible fighter. The issue is that his road to Final Conflict was perhaps the easiest out of all the semi-finalists. His opening fight was against K-1 kickboxer Stefan Leko who he submitted with an arm triangle choke fairly easily. He followed it up by defeating Paulo Cesar Silva, or as he's better known: "Giant Silva". It's a legitimate freak show run for Ogawa and he was over his head when facing Fedor. The fight itself was over as quickly as it started with Fedor submitting Ogawa with an armbar in under a minute, securing his place in the finals. Ogawa would fight only one more time against Hidehiko Yoshida before retiring from MMA and joining the ranks in pro wrestling full time.
Finally, the fight that every fan wanted to see. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira made his way to the finals by submitting Japanese Judoka Hirotaka Yokoi and Heath Herring and then a hard fought victory earlier in the evening against Sergei Kharitonov. Unfortunately for everyone in attendance, the bout was extremely anti-climatic. Here was the rematch between the two best heavyweights in the world to conclude the toughest Heavyweight Grand Prix and the fans were left disappointed when the two clashed heads which resulted in a cut over Emelianenko's eye. The fight was ruled a no contest and the tournament was left without crowning a champion.
Thankfully, the staff at DSE were equally disappointed in this result and set up the third and final fight between Fedor and Big Nog for Shockwave 2004 to usher in the New Year. Along with the Grand Prix title, Fedor's Heavyweight belt would also be on the line for this clash between the two Heavyweight greats. If the first fight proved that Emelianenko was the superior ground fighter, this fight would show that he was the better stand up fighter as well. He battered Big Nog on the feet and continuously used his judo to toss Nog to the mat, though he'd rarely engage on the ground. He was the better man in that first round and then utilized his takedown defense and counterpunching to cruise to a Unanimous decision. It was one of the most dominant performances in MMA history and there was no argument that Fedor was the best heavyweight in the world.
This tournament run was a major part of Fedor's eight year dominance as an undefeated fighter. It was also perhaps his toughest stretch of competition culminating in his final fight against Rodrigo Nogueira. Though he'd go on to defeat Mirko Filipovic the following year, 2004 was the best run in Fedor's legendary career. He showed that he can overcome adversity and dominate opponents by negating their entire skill set. This weekend he looks to defeat another fighter who has a right to claim he too is the "greatest fighter of all time" in Dan Henderson. It's just disappointing that it happened when both men were on their way out of the sport.