He's as dominant a champion as the sport has ever seen. He's been undefeated for nine and a half years. In that time Fedor Emelianenko has beaten a who's who of MMA heavyweights, running roughshod through jiu jitsu aces (like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Babalu Sobral), Olympians( like Mark Coleman, Naoya Ogawa, and Matt Lindland), former UFC champions (hey there Andrei Arlovski, Kevin Randleman, and Tim Sylvia), and even a freak show opponent here and there (that's you Hong- Man Choi and Zuluzinho). He's won by devastating knockout, vicious ground and pound, submissions from the bottom, submissions from the back, and submissions from top control. Every way there is to twist, bend, or break a man-he's done it.
But despite this record of complete dominance, there is a blemish, a single mark in the loss column that prevents perfection. Yes, the Last Emperor, has tasted the bitter agony of defeat. The very thought seems impossible for many to process. We've seen him slammed on his head, wobbled by punches, and put on his back. He's always recovered to secure a win. Always, as predictable as the seasons, as death, as the tides. Yet, on one December evening in Osaka, Japan another man's hand was raised high. The organization was called RINGS. The man was Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. This is their story.
Story and videos after the jump.
Before there was the UFC, Pride, or even Pancrase, there was RINGS. A professional wrestling outfit run by a violent iconoclast named Akira Maeda, RINGS presented a unique style of pro wrestling. Even more so than its sister organization the UWF-I (whose main star was MMA pioneer Nobuhiko Takada), RINGS wanted to perpetuate the fiction that its wrestling matches were real. While Takada's group threw in some flashy throws and kicks, RINGS was a mat centric group. Men like Volk Han (and later Kiyoshi Tamura and Mikhail Ilioukhine) created spectacular matches that blurred the line between real and fake masterfully.
When the UFC grew from the mind of Rorion Gracie, RINGS was in trouble. It became obvious, seeing real fighting, that what the wrestlers were doing was mere pantomime. Still, Maeda's tremendous personal magnetism made it possible to sustain, to fend off the inevitable. The explosion of interest that followed Takada's decision to fight Rickson Gracie in Pride made the problem even more pressing. No holds barred fighting, as it was called at the time, had come barreling into the Japanese popular culture. RINGS needed to adapt or die.
Maeda made the decision, after mixing in the occasional real fight here and there for several years, to make a tremendous change in the way he did business. RINGS, kicking and screaming, went to all shoots, bouts that didn't have predetermined endings. At the age of 40, Maeda retired after a final match with Russian Olympic legend Aleksandr Karelin.Going forward, the promotion would be led by younger, hungrier, and more capable lions.
A new age was dawning and the need for legitimacy brought Tsuyoshi Kohsaka ("TK") into a more prominent role. Kohsaka had been an opening act for RINGS in the early 1990's before making a name for himself with the UFC as a fighter to be taken very, very seriously. Together with Frank Shamrock and Maurice Smith, TK formed "The Alliance" a training partnership that was one of the earliest attempts at serious cross training.
When Kohsaka was starting out in RINGS he was never a featured player. That all changed-in 1999, the promotion simply needed his legitimacy, needed him to help bridge the gap between the old era and the new. Splitting time between the UFC and RINGS, Kohsaka helped create a new star in Gilbert Yvel, took Rodrigo Nogueira to a draw, and soundly beat Randy Couture conqueror Iliokhine. The win left Kohsaka face to face with Iliokhine's Russian Top Team teammate, the then unknown Fedor Emelianenko.
It sounds ridiculous today, but in 2000, Kohsaka was considered a heavy favorite over the young Russian. TK had the UFC pedigree after all and had beaten Pete Williams and taken Bas Rutten to the limit in a bout to name a top contender for the UFC heavyweight championship. At the time, the strange stoppage was not at all earth shattering. Fans in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, an 8000 seat arena known mostly for its yearly sumo matches, had no idea they had witnessed history.
Seconds into the fight Kohsaka swung and missed with a right hand. As his hand sped by, his elbow clipped Emelianenko on his right eye. Just moments later, the fight is stopped. A gaping hole appears, as if from nowhere, on Fedor's stoic face. Traditionally, a fight stopped early because of an inadvertent foul would be called a no-contest. There was no winner or loser in this bout-it was simply an unfortunate incident that stopped the fight early. But this was Japan, not Nevada, and the fight was part of a multi-show tournament to crown the RINGS King of Kings Champion. The show had to go on, as did Kohsaka, who lost to Couture in the tournament's quarterfinals two months later in Tokyo.
After their aborted battle of wills, Kohsaka and Fedor saw their careers head in remarkably different directions. Fedor, of course, never lost again. For TK, the trajectory was straight down. He lost five of his next nine, falling short against meaningful competition while feasting on lesser lights. A man who once competed for the UFC title suddenly seemed like the sport had passed him by. Undersized for a heavyweight, Kohsaka never seemed to find his place in the modern era of MMA. In 2005, Fedor finally got a shot at redemption. TK was brutalized in a fight that eventually had to be stopped by the ringside doctors. Emelianenko may have avenged his only loss, but when history is written in the years to come, Kohsaka will have the last laugh. No matter the circumstances the statistics never lie-on December 22, 2000 he beat the best fighter in the world.
Fedor Emelianenko vs Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (via Mateuspancano)
Emelianenko vs Tsuyoshi Kohsaka 1/2 (via panqueh)
Emelianenko vs Tsuyoshi Kohsaka 2/2 (via panqueh)
Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and The MMA Encyclopedia (in stores this winter). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.