SAN JOSE, Calif. — Widely recognized as one of the greatest heavyweight MMA fighters, Fedor Emelianenko realizes there is little he can do to burnish his resume.
Not even a loss to Matt Mitrione in Bellator 172 on Saturday is likely tarnish the legacy the 40-year-old Russian has crafted over a 17-year career that included a winning streak of nearly a decade.
So what is Emelianenko’s motivation as he prepares to fight in the United States for the first time in more than five years?
“First of all, the motivation is that I’m the representative of my country,” he said through an interpreter. “I represent my faith and certainly my team, my young fighters who also want to fight. I feel I’m in good shape and working with the young fighters, I understand pretty well that I’m pretty good.”
That’s a point few will debate, although the Last Emperor — Emelianenko’s long-time nickname — certainly isn’t the force he once was.
Emelianenko has won all five of his fights since ending a three-year retirement in 2015 but none of those opponents was of the caliber of Mitrione, a former UFC contender who insists he has the style and skills to beat the Russian heavyweight.
The key for Mitrione is to not get caught up in the hype surrounding Emelianenko.
“I don’t really care about the myth,” Mitrione said. “I care about what I’ve seen him do. My mobility, my length, my power . makes me a different animal.”
The three-round bout with Mitrione marks Emelianenko’s Bellator debut and is the main event on a card that also features former UFC welterweight contender Josh Koscheck.
Emelianenko (36-4) is looking to bounce back after a sub-par performance against Fabio Maldonado on June 17, 2016. The 38-year-old Mitrione (11-5) is also trying to get back on track after uneven performances in his first two Bellator bouts, both wins.
“This could come down to who lands the first (big) punch,” Bellator President Scott Coker said.
Coker was the force behind signing Emelianenko, who was also in talks with UFC. Negotiations lasted more than four months, with a 45-minute phone call between Emelianenko and Coker finally completing the deal.
Bellator also agreed to sign four fighters from Emelianenko’s team. That was key for the Russian, who is as focused on his young stable of teammates as he is on beating Mitrione.
“I hope very soon you’ll be able to see them,” Emelianenko said.
Oddsmakers have tabbed Mitrione a slight favorite. The fight will match Emelianenko’s strength, punching power and ground attack against Mitrione’s agility and footwork.
Win or lose, though, Emelianenko’s reputation isn’t likely to change.
“His legacy is cemented,” said Jerry Millen, Emelianenko’s adviser. “People that love him, love him. And the people that truly love him always will.”