Last chance for The Last Emperor? Fedor Emelianenko takes on Ryan Bader for Bellator crown
Bellator will crown their first heavyweight champion in more than two years later this month when Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko faces the promotion's light heavyweight champion, Ryan Bader, in the finals of an 8-man Grand Prix.
Bellator, the undisputed number two promotion in mixed martial arts, has been without a heavyweight champion since Russian Vitaly Minakov vacated the title in 2016 having not defended it for more than two years. Now Emelianenko wants to ensure that the organization's flagship title comes back to his homeland after he faces Bader in the finals of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix on January 26. And, keeping in mind Fedor's age and the stage of his career, this is most certainly his last chance to win a championship belt.
Each fighter has won two successive bouts to get to this point in the tournament. Fedor was successful against both Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen while Bader, who has competed at light heavyweight for the vast majority of his career, earned his place in the finals by virtue of wins against 'King' Mo Lawal and Matt Mitrione - himself a former conqueror of Emelianenko - to set up the blockbuster bout with the MMA legend.
While Fedor's status as the sport's premier heavyweight has dulled slightly in recent years, the 42-year-old is still widely regarded as the best big man to ever put on a pair of 4oz gloves. His 10-year unbeaten spell, mostly under the banner of the now defunct PRIDE organization, is thought of as perhaps the most prolonged spell of dominance ever by a mixed martial artist.
Three successive defeats, beginning in 2010 against Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson looked as though they may have signaled the beginning of the end. Since then, though, his career ledger has picked up and shows just one defeat, the aforementioned loss to Mitrione.
Bader, meanwhile, will be looking to add heavyweight gold to the Bellator light heavyweight championship he already won from Phil Davis in 2017, and perhaps worryingly for Fedor will be the fact that he eased past Matt Mitrione in the tournament semi-finals to do so.
The Nevada native became one of the most high profile fighters to swap the UFC for Bellator during President Scott Coker's recent recruitment drive, which also saw them secure the services of the likes of Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi. But if Bader can overcome Emelianenko to win the Grand Prix, it will prove that the decision to make the career switch was a good one.
KEYS TO VICTORY
For 'The Last Emperor' the keys to victory are simple: just do what you have always done. While he is well-versed in every aspect of the game and can really shine on the ground, in recent years he has tended to keep his fights on the feet, looking for a quick and accurate strike on his opponent's chin in the fight's early stages. One flush connection is often more than enough to send any opponent to the canvas, where it very much becomes a case of 'pick your poison' for the opponent en route to a TKO or a submission win. Fedor meanwhile should try to avoid being pushed to the cage and be cautious of Bader's takedowns. Although on the ground he is known for an uncanny ability to pull an arm-bar submission out of practically any position.
As for Bader, his performances thus far in the tournament have showcased his ability as a fighter. In his first round match-up, 'King Mo' Lawal couldn't last more than 15 seconds with him and in the next round he outworked a much larger opponent in Matt Mitrione throughout three rounds.
Bader's first target in the fight will be to avoid Fedor's early onslaught. Five of Emelianenko's most recent wins have all come in the first round, after which he can slow down considerably. The Russian's June 2016 bout with Fabio Maldonado could be used as a blueprint with which to expose Fedor's weaknesses as, once Maldonado was able to extricate himself from early danger, he was able to take advantage of a tiring Emelianenko.
An NCAA All-American Division 1 wrestler, Bader will be confident in grappling exchanges but it is the transitions he will have to be watchful of, as this is where his opponent can be so dangerous.
The American has power in his hands, too, but isn't particularly known for his striking prowess, even if Emelianenko's chin has started showing signs of weakness in recent fights. He would be wise to be efficient in striking exchanges and to push Fedor to the cage at every opportunity and tire him out before attempting to pull away on points as the fight reaches its latter stages.
Bellator's first heavyweight title fight since 2014 is not only the last chance for Fedor to put a cherry on top of his outstanding career, it might also be one of the last opportunities for the fight fans to see 'The Last Emperor' at his best motivation, competing against a very solid opposition.