Fedor Emelianenko vs. Quinton Jackson headlines Bellator 237 this December 29, 2019 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
One sentence summary
David: A great fight that never happened 15 years ago gets its corpse reanimated for (y)our viewing pleasure
Phil: One of the great never-was matchups from Pride comes wandering through the mists of time, with blubber, disinterest and general decline to spare
Record: Fedor Emelianenko 38-6-1 NC | Quinton Jackson 38-13
Odds: Fedor Emelianenko -115 | Quinton Jackson -105
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: There’s been something of an awakening with the man they call ‘The Last Emperor.’ I’m not sure I’d call it his second wind, exactly. So I’ll be upfront with the hot takes. Fedor’s post-retirement career is a lot like his prime: carefully managed. What was once Gary Goodridge is now Singh Jaideep. What was once Naoya Ogawa is now Satoshi Ishii. From Big Nog to Frank Mir. Hell, even the American wrestlers have facsimiles — Matt Lindland, say hello to Chael Sonnen. Et cetera. I could keep going, actually. That would make Fabio Maldonado, Kazajuki Fujita? Or Ricardo Arona, who, like Maldonado, should have gotten the nod? Whatever the case, it’d be fun to believe that Fedor is constructing a comeback. But it’s not. He’s just constructing a nice run off political matchmaking. In his defense, this is definitely not one of them, because I can’t think of a more brutal stylistic matchup.
Phil: Since his loss to Dan Henderson back in 2011, Fedor Emelianenko has gone 7 and 2. It’s another one of those records like Shogun Rua’s UFC run, where on a pure numerical standard it looks... kind of ok? These are big man divisions, big punching divisions, so it only makes sense that Fedor would take a few losses over the course of an otherwise-successful run. Then you actually look at what those fights were like, and remember where most of the people he beat were at in their career, and suddenly it looks a lot less rosy. I guess the main thing you can say about Emelianenko is that there is still something. He’s still able to beat up on easy style matchups or guys that never would have belonged in there with him at all, but when he’s up against a warm body? Bad things happen.
David: Except for a more snug fit around the midrift, Rampage has remained a solid, tough as nails presence in the cage. He’s got some wins, some losses, mostly wins, he’s looked good, and bad, and that’s mostly it. I think the issue with Rampage is the same with Robert De Niro. Beforehand, De Niro would get a taxicab license just to play a psychopathic taxi driver. Jackson fought Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva in one night. Now De Niro is stuck saying lines like ‘Who does your taxes, H. and R. Cockblock?’ Just as Jackson is fine collecting his paycheck. There’s nothing wrong with that. Different fighters are motivated to fight for different reasons. But there are times when Jackson’s body can’t keep up with his mind’s apathy.
Phil: Like Fedor, Rampage’s recent record doesn’t look all that bad. A few wins over solid fighters, some losses which look fairly explicable, what’s not to like? Unlike Fedor, Quinton has kept a decent grip of the physical traits which powered him to a UFC belt: he’s still strong as hell, and he somehow seems to be about as durable as he ever was. The issue seems to be that Rampage was never the most enthusiastic fighter, and now he projects a visceral loathing for most aspects of the sport. He clomps moodily around the cage and defends takedowns with all the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old who has been told he has to do his chores before he can play Fortnite. “Uggh, leg kicks?! But moooooOOOooommmm!”
What’s at stake?
David: Not much. Both men’s legacies are intact. Jackson seems to have actual goals, though. Regardless of attitude, Jackson is good enough that he’s still dangerous even in his sleep. Fedor’s presence always feels like his entourage is just parading around human nostalgia.
Phil: The carnival of old person fights at Bellator never ends. On the one hand, Bareknuckle Boxing does seem like a natural fit for Rampage, but on the other hand I honestly think he likes having things to complain about in MMA.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Who is Fedor Emelianenko? Aside from just going with the easy (and correct) answer of: “a shadow of himself,” I think there’s something worth asking there. In his early MMA career, the Last Emperor was largely a ground and pounder, and top position fighter. As he evolved over time, he spent more rounds on the feet and eventually fell disastrously in love with his own power. In the time since, you kind of have to ask the question of what Fedor thinks he’s doing in there half the time. From being one of the smartest and most tactically flexible heavyweights, he’s become someone who just takes whatever fight is given to him. Against punchers, he punches, and against grapplers he wrestles. The highest fight IQ he’s shown in recent years was his gnp victory over Jaideep Singh. All of this wouldn’t be nearly as damning if Fedor still had his durability, but he decidedly does not. So essentially he makes his way as a collection of fragile, interconnected skills, with his sole remaining gifts being some surprising dynamism and finishing ability should he hurt his opponent.
David: Gotta disagree there. I do believe that Fedor showed some genuine fight IQ in the Filipovic and Nog fights. Against the former, he managed to level change enough to win both the standup and the ground exchanges. Against the latter, he made sure in their third fight to keep his offense in short bursts, preventing Nog from even starting his typical grapple-box attrition. It has all the more emphasis because these were also his biggest fights. But I’d argue that we have a much larger resume of a fighter who relied on elite athleticism, and a well-rounded toolset of skills. Fedor was never committed to the jab. His defensive grappling is suspect. And he has a tendency to spam the same attack. Fedor’s strengths have always been his nimble approach to attacking. He’s light on his feet (already an advantage at heavyweight), and cuts quickly around soft/average defenses with his heavy duty casting punches. Unlike most heavyweights, he was always able to sustain an attack; an unusual quality in most heavyweights. Fedor was a referendum on the mantra that “defense wins championships.” Fedor was offense, squared.
Phil: Why is Rampage still Rampage? Perhaps it’s just a cruel joke on the MMA world: fighters who joined the sport years after he did have entered terminal declines, raddled with injuries and unable to take a punch. Quinton remains himself, and able to glumly take a shot to the chin about as well as he ever could. Where other fighters his age would be flattened, swimming back to consciousness through the dreams of their heyday, Rampage can take the hit and stay lucid enough to complain about the followup clinch to the ref. He’s still strong as an ox, which insulates him to an extent from grappling exchanges, although his technical wrestling has deteriorated badly since the days when he was handily outworking Dan Henderson. I guess wrestling is particularly boring? Then again, maybe his comparative retention of his physical gifts is just an illustration of how much of a fighter’s prime is lost in the gym. Being lazy might simply have spared him.
David: The difference between Rampage then vs. Now is, initiation. Rampage was never a pure pressure fighter or anything like that. Despite his reputation, he was always pretty calculated. His KO of Kevin Randleman was largely the byproduct of defensively maneuvering inside the clinch. The Vochanchyn and Arona knockouts had nothing to do with Rampage swinging heaters. Even completely random fights, like Mikhail Ilyukhin at Pride 26, involved Jackson being deliberate with his offense. Before, Jackson’s wrestling was aided by his willingness to grapple. His boxing was aided by his willingness to jab moving forward. Now there’s a lot less clinch entries, and a lot less jabbing. Still, even as a shell, the surface is still hard. He’s still impenetrable on the feet. You’d need a time machine, a Brazilian killhouse, and no drug oversight by athletic commissions to have a chance. And he still packs heavy power. Which is why this fight shouldn’t be fun, but will.
Insight from past fights
David: Fedor’s defense was never good. But as he’s gotten older, it’s even more extreme. Against Antonio Silva, he tried to bridge and roll 260+ pounds of raging humanity. Dropped and hurt against Maldonado, he actually threw punches as Maldonado ground and pounded him like a hockey fight in zero gravity.
Phil: Their common opponent, Chael, gave us a strong indicator that while he’s still strong, Rampage’s defensive wrestling has gone down the toilet. It is hard to imagine Sonnen hitting a single takedown on Rampage in his prime. So there’s a reasonable approach there for Fedor, the question is simply whether he can be bothered to execute it. As degraded as Quinton’s wrestling might be, he’s still a long way from Jaideep Singh.
David: Jackson gets slower while Fedor’s skin gets thinner. Watching Free Will versus Free Won’t could be an ugly exercise.
Phil: Rampage is very fat, again. As such, I can see him getting outworked down the stretch simply because Fedor cares, and Rampage doesn’t.
David: I’ve been harping on defensive flaws that have always existed in Fedor’s game because defense is how Rampage wins. Fedor’s warming, spamming combinations won’t work on Rampage’s earmuff defense. Also, Fedor was outright deaded by Maldonado, decision or not. I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine Fedor winning, but even his top position is more about vulgar displays of power and mad scrambling than the kind of sustained pressure guys like Lawal and Sonnen were able to initiate. Rampage Jackson by KO, round 1.
Phil: Fedor has all sorts of ways he can win this fight. Even faded, he has better handspeed than Rampage. He’s the bigger, stronger, and probably faster fighter, and I’m sure he is more focused on winning this fight than Quinton is. But, his chin is gone, and if he can’t get Rampage out of there I don’t trust him not to trade with him. Rampage Jackson by TKO, round 1.