It's hard to find the perfect fight for an athlete trying to bounce back from consecutive losses. When that fighter is Fedor Emelianenko, the best heavyweight in the history of his fledgling sport, the merely difficult ventures into the realm of the impossible.
Fedor Emelianenko is a living legend. He can't fight Chad Griggs or another prospect to get himself back on track. It isn't worthy of his time, status, or legacy. But he can't fight for a championship either. He does first need to reestablish his place in the pecking order. And, by the way, most of Strikeforce's top heavyweights, the men perfect for an Emelianenko matchup, are locked up in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. Are you starting to see the conundrum facing Fedor's management team at M-1 Global, Strikeforce, and Showtime as they looked towards Emelianenko's next fight?
Enter Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Dan Henderson.
"With many fighters already engaged in the Grand Prix tournament, Dan Henderson was an excellent candidate for this fight," M-1 Director of Operations Evgeni Kogan said. "He is a former PRIDE Champion and Strikeforce Champion; he's a great fighter, regarded as being among the world's top ten best fighters for the last decade. In our opinion, there was no better candidate for this fight."
An additional wrinkle reared its head in the midst of negotiations. Strikeforce, the leading MMA promotion on Showtime, was sold to Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Emelianenko and M-1 had already been through two contentious rounds of negotiating with UFC President Dana White as he navigated the tricky waters of the post Pride MMA universe. Many expected the history between the two men would cause friction. Instead, Fedor's team says, it was a non issue.
"There really is no difference since we negotiate with Showtime as opposed to Zuffa," M-1 President Vadim Finkelstein said. "We accepted the bout with Henderson immediately after we received the offer and there were no particular difficulties or problems during the negotiation at all."
It is a matchup that struck a chord with many long time fight fans. Both men devastated opponents throughout the 2000's in the gone, but not forgotten Pride promotion in Japan. Henderson, at one point both the 185 and 205 pound champion, wasn't afraid to step up in class to fight the big boys. He took on the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira twice, splitting a pair of matches, and is as fearless as they come. It's a bout that even the normally stoic Emelianenko can't help but get excited for.
"Dan is a very strong and dangerous fighter. As I have done before with all opponents, I'm preparing for the battle with him very seriously so I can be prepared for what skills he brings into the cage," Fedor said. "He is a good fighter and is explosive. He uses good striking to attack and looks continue the fight on the ground. He has great speed which his rivals do not expect."
It's a complete shift in attitude for the Russian star who suggested after his last bout with Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva that he was contemplating retirement. Instead, the former champion has rededicated himself to the sport and his time is discussing a career that can continue for several more years, not just for a handful of fights.
"Fedor is young - he's only 34 and he can still keep fighting, growing and developing for many years," Finkelstein said. "For us it is not about making money. It is about Fedor's return, his victory and reclaiming his position as the number one heavyweight fighter in the world."
"I did speak of retiring and it was said in haste," Fedor admits. "Two mistakes in a row can not be coincidence. I do not want to allow a third, which is why I thought about departing from the sport. But then I discussed the situation with my coaches and spiritual father when I got home. After this I was absolutely sure that it is not the time for retirement and I must continue to fight. Now I'm training and preparing for the next battle with Dan Henderson."
Training for Henderson has taken Emelianenko out of his comfort zone. He's sought expert guidance from former K-1 champion Ernesto Hoost in the heart of the kickboxing world and when he enters the cage in Chicago this July, he intends to be ready for Henderson's strong right hand.
"I've drawn conclusions on what areas of my training need work and what to pay attention to in training and in battle," Emelianenko said. "This time I have trained in Holland, in Russia and again at the training camp in Holland. I work with people who are the best in their disciplines and are focused on preparing me for the battle with Dan Henderson...Training for a fight is never easy regardless of the opponent. I train and prepare for every contest the same so I can compete to the best of my abilities."
The fight will take place in the suburbs of Chicago, home of many Russian immigrants and a city that embraced Fedor as one of their own when he fought Brett Rogers there in November, 2009. Emelianenko and his team are happy with the choice and ready to prove he's still a factor on the MMA scene.
"I am glad that I will soon be fighting and am taking it seriously as I always have. I always like and appreciate the support for the fans; I am very grateful to everyone who supports me," Fedor said. When asked about meeting a fellow legend in the cage, his response was typically humble. "I've never considered myself as a legend - just a simple man with heart. I'm looking forward to competing against Dan Henderson."