This weekend's Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson show has one of the most monumental fights in Mixed Martial Arts' short history on its docket. Period. End of story. However, the hangover of Fedor's last two defeats within the cage walls has somewhat stymied his fans in terms of the normal fever-pitch intensity that accompanies Emelianenko when he competes. This is probably due to the hesitation from most of "The Last Emperor's" fans to get their hopes up- though he has one of the most staunch and devout fanbases within the realm of MMA, that fanbase recognizes that Fedor's days of miraculous come-from-behind wins to preserve his undefeated streak came to a definitive end. The loss to Werdum could be labeled "getting caught," but the second straight loss to Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva was a clear-cut domination. Fedor was his trademark self, but had no answer for Silva's watertight top control and positioning (not to mention how outsized the Russian was in the cage). However, Saturday's matchup is potentially the perfect remedy to the Fedor dilemma (especially for the UFC) because he will be given the chance to get back on the winning track against someone with a name, a belt, historical significance to the sport, and no size advantage.
If Tito Ortiz's recent victory has made anything apparent, it is that MMA pundits, fans, and media all have been too quick to usher a fighter to his retirement. In Fedor's case, it is deflating to see the lack of support for the warrior that has put on theatric battles throughout his decade-long history in the sport, especially considering that he has never once been cleanly knocked out. Why do some see it fit to say "he has nothing to gain, why doesn't he just retire"? Fedor seems like a focused and intellectual individual- would he not recognize if he had nothing left to give to or gain in the sport?
While Emelianenko is supposedly on the back nine of his career, Dan Henderson is in the opposite position- his recent duo of knockouts has amounted to something of a resurgence after being written off after his decision loss to Jake Shields. I wrote a short time ago about the significance of Dan Henderson's matchup with Rafael Cavalcante and how much Henderson's career had to gain by beating "Feijao" at the time. Tim Burke of Bloody Elbow had a very interesting reply to the article:
I think that adds to his legacy, but I'm not sure what else Dan can do to cement his place. Sure the title is nice, but I think he'll be judged by the opponents he beats at this stage of his career more than the belts he holds. If he wins and defends against Mousasi or Lawal, I think that would be a big boost to his ranking all-time. Just beating Feijao, then dropping the title to someone? I don't think it makes much difference. And if he loses this to Feijao, people will just say he's old and done ala Fedor.
Tim makes a very good point that Dan's legacy hinged not only on that fight itself, but also on how he would continue should he win. If he were next matched up against Gegard Mousasi or Muhammed Lawal, Henderson's relevance to the 205 pound division would certainly be in the forefront. However, as a multi-divisional AND multi-promotional champion, Dan now has a new task- move up to heavyweight, and take on the legend. Fedor is a handful for any heavyweight in the sport, nevermind an undersized light heavyweight; yet again, Dan is taking the challenge without mention of weight or adverse circumstance.
What impact does this fight have on Fedor Emelianenko's legacy? For starters, he IS on a losing streak, albeit against top ranked fighters. No one will remember if Fedor fades to oblivion (like Ali) after his incredible streak- but people WILL remember if he rebounds from two setbacks, especially if his reemergence is against a current title holder, and an opponent of Henderson's caliber. Fraser Coffeen puts it poignantly:
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.
While the reputation has faded, the history will remain in the annals of MMA- Fedor will go down as the first force of nature our sport had seen, and inarguably the first pound for pound great in mixed martial arts. However, there is still a chance that he can rebound from these recent setbacks against Henderson, and in doing so either retire on a high note or use the victory as a springboard to light heavyweight or into the UFC's heavyweight division.
M-1 Global and the UFC have had a rough road of negotiation since Affliction's demise, so there is no doubt that a loss in this fight would effectively spell the end of the Russian's relationship with Zuffa, and ergo his career with major promotions. If Fedor wins, the picture is the complete opposite. He has renewed life in the sport, especially in Dana White's version of parsel-tongue: money talks. The bottom line is what Dana operates around, so I would expect that should Emelianenko beat Henderson Zuffa would take the initiative to capitalize on the situation and at least get Fedor on pay-per-view one time (pure speculation).
Zuffa's bottom line is not Fedor's legacy, however. Emelianenko would be proving those detractors wrong that would offer his diminished level of competition in the last few years as an argument against his legend. He would be injecting the proverbial needle into his career, and doing so against someone who is firmly cemented on the all time pound for pound lists.
As for Henderson? Earlier I mentioned Dan's willingness to compete in multiple weight classes throughout his career, and I think that this fact goes a long way in contributing to his legacy. He has always stressed that technique outplays size, and that he has never felt at a strength disadvantage while competing- I feel that this combined with sustained success against the best fighters in the world moves him towards the top of the all time pound-for-pound list. Yes, you can say that a Jose Aldo, or Dominick Cruz, or even a Frankie Edgar is above Dan; let's continue that argument in 4 years, IF they are still defeating top prospects or decapitating world-class fighters at an age north of 35.
So whose legacy has the most to gain? Taking everything into consideration, I'm going to say Dan Henderson. While I think that Fedor has a chance to get back on track, his career has already seen its summit. He will never achieve the levels of success he once had. However, the same is not true for Henderson. A victory over Fedor would be the best of his career (or probably tied with the knockout of Wanderlei Silva) and would propel his legacy to a legendary status.
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